Counterfeit watches – the business that keeps on ticking

It’s often said the best things come in the smallest packages. Take a luxury watch, for example: it comes in the tiniest box and, with its many mechanical pieces and fine craftsmanship, is likely to carry a high price tag. There are, however, some watches that do not come in any packaging whatsoever, and certainly do not embody the work of some of Switzerland’s best-known watchmaking brands.

The online trade in counterfeit watches is larger than many of us realize. It is estimated that 15–30% of people searching for watches online are looking for counterfeits [1], and you don’t have to look very hard to find a site selling such products. A simple Google search will return a range of e-commerce sites selling watches from a variety of luxury brands, including Rolex, Breitling and many others. Online marketplaces have for some time now been one of the outlets that counterfeiters have used to distribute their stock, and Alibaba recently made a bold move by proceeding with legal action against two sellers whom it claimed were selling fake Swarovski watches on its B2C site Taobao. After providing details to the Shenzhen Luohu District police, this culminated in a raid that led to the confiscation of 125 fake Swarovski watches worth almost 2 million yuan [2]. The online hotspots for the trade in counterfeits goes far beyond rogue e-commerce sites and online marketplaces, however. Social media platforms such as Facebook contain various groups where shoppers can find replica watches from any brand they desire. From there, buyers can message sellers by SMS or WhatsApp to arrange a transaction.

The combination of these different channels helps facilitate a global trade in fake watches, with the estimated number of global seizures in 2016 totaling 1 million units [3]. Of course, many of the most heavily counterfeited watch brands carry hefty price tags, which translates into the global value of replica watches being substantial – in 2015, a single seizure by US authorities of 11,165 counterfeit units totaled an MSRP value of $2,791,250 [4]. In both the United States and European Union, watches and jewelry are now among the most commonly identified counterfeit products at national borders, as highlighted in the following graph from The Economist [5] :

Counterfeit watches blog 

Not surprisingly, China remains the global epicenter for seizures in fake watches – although Turkey, Dubai and Russia are also significant hotspots, with unit seizures totaling 130,000, 70,000 and 9,000 respectively in these three countries [6] .

More recently, it’s not just traditional watches that have been targeted by counterfeiters. Following the growth of smart watches such as the Apple Watch and the Samsung Galaxy Gear, these have also made their way onto the counterfeiters’ radar. With smart watches, the replication goes beyond just the tangible materials of the watch, and imitates the device’s operating system and user experience too.

Buying a fake watch carries more risks than just the failure to keep accurate time; they can pose a risk to our health and safety as well. The materials used in counterfeit watches can potentially be dangerous due to the inclusion of harmful materials that can be allergenic and sometimes even toxic [7] .

As the brands of luxury watchmakers continue to grow, unfortunately so does the volume of counterfeit product manufactured and distributed. The business in counterfeit watches has remained persistent over many years, and with new opportunities to sell replica products regularly arising, it doesn’t look like the market for fake watches is going to stop ticking anytime soon.