Insight The Strange Allure of Becoming a Counterfeit Watch Importer

I get a lot of unsolicited messages via Instagram about watch-related opportunities, typically in broken English, typically so ridiculous that I just block the account. This morning, however, I received the following message, which I want to consider in the broader picture of watch counterfeiting.

1:1 products are replicas, or counterfeits. These items are entirely illegal, and if you get caught selling such things you can get in some real trouble with the law. And yet, it goes on all the time here in the USA, sometimes quite publicly. However, until this morning I had never thought about how easy it might be to import some fake watches to The Land of Stars & Stripes.

This, of course, presumes that the account on Instagram is the real deal – or perhaps I should say “the real fake deal.” Regardless, it can’t be all that hard to import fake watches and start selling them, because nearly 6% of luxury watches sold each year are counterfeits. Crank that number against the output of Switzerland alone, and we’re looking at about 1.8million fake Swiss watches per year.

Pre-Gentrification Canal Street, NYC

I’ve often told the story of buying my fake Rolex Submariner 1680 for $40 in cash back by the dumpster behind the Starbucks on Canal street in NYC. Before Canal Street (and Chinatown generally) became gentrified and largely white, Canal buzzed with counterfeit sales and the strange covert behavior of such exchanges. You could buy a Gucci or Louis Vuitton bag for around $25, and you could buy watches galore for as little as $15.

Canal Street before gentricfication.

You had to dig in for access to the fake Rolexes, however. You’d let the person know that you knew that they had them (even if you didn’t know), flash some crisp $20s, and in my case start saying “eh? yeah? cash? I can go across the street if you prefer,” and usually that would get the dude to go inside, come out with a box, and pull you around the corner to some secluded spot were you’d pick out your model and haggle over the price.

My fake 1680 Sub was $40 in covert cash. Still runs great after 11 years.

A friend who brought a group of teenagers to NYC around 2010 got a strange phone call from one of her students who was being held in the backroom of a Chinese-owned and run counterfeit shop on Canal St. Apparently the kids didn’t know how to be discrete in their requests for fake luxury goods, and the shop owner believed they were part of a sting operation. How holding these kids in the back room added up to a solution, I have no idea, but eventually the kids were released and my friend decided to stick to camping trips with her students.

In 2019, The Swatch Group sued the landlord of 375 Canal Street for $1.1-million because the land lord had knowingly allowed Omega counterfeiters to operate out of his building for years and years. Swatch won the case, and the landlord paid his fines.

375 Canal St. was once home to a major Omega and Rolex counterfeit outlet.

The Bandits Are Now Online

It’s pretty darn easy to navigate to a site on the web and buy a counterfeit watch. Just google “counterfeit rolex” and you’ll find them, as I just did. Perfect Rolex is a robust site with chat support ready to go 24/7.

When the chat window at Perfect Rolex popped up, I decided to ask about the legality of the business transaction. Here’s what transpired.

“Hello! How may I help you?”

“I’m wondering if it’s legal to buy your watches? They’re not real Rolex.”

“I am sorry, but we are not able to advise on this.”

So the bandits are still there, and they’re being exactly as cagey and weird about doing business as the guy who pulled me around the corner to the Starbucks dumpster to sell me my fake Sub. It appears that if you want to be a seller of counterfeit watches, you still have to be discrete. I don’t know where or how such a website can exist without restrictions, but from what I’ve heard there are servers in China. This isn’t the Dark Web, and it’s not streaming some digital movie or song; this is the sale of hard goods straight through a simple site I found via a simple google search.

Perhaps, like the busted landlord from 375 Canal Street, the folks hosting these fake Rolex sites are willing to look the other way. Perhaps the server owner (i.e., the digital landlord) gets a little bump on the side to keep these sites alive. It’s entirely possible, but I suspect that sniffing around these questions would land me in the cyber-version of the back room where god know what would happen. I honestly fear malware or even a ransom request to unlock my computer.

Superfakes & The Collectors Who Love Them

There is a whole sub-culture of folks who want to witness how quickly and how accurately the Chinese can produce counterfeits, especially counterfeits of late-model Rolexes. Turn around times for near-exact replicas can be as short as two weeks from the release of the genuine article to the availability of the fake today, and once the counterfeiters learn what might distinguish their fakes, they can change that feature nearly in real time, such that counterfeit watches are constantly adapting to survive the scrutiny of those who care to compare the real to the fake.

Image: Wired Magazine.

“Superfake” is a relatively recent phrase that describes a watch from the best counterfeiters, and for a certain sub-section of the watch wonk community, swiftly acquiring these superfakes and subjecting them to scrutiny against the original is an obsession.

What these fans of the superfakes may or may not realize is that they are integral to the counterfeiters honing their fakes into superfakes. These oddball collectors provide exactly the kind of careful scrutiny that the counterfeiters require to refine their watches into nearly perfect replicas. With modern technology, counterfeiters can adapt overnight.

The Urge To Fake Is Real

Do not press the red button

I am completely against counterfeiting, for all of the common reasons, which can be summed up as “do unto others.” As one who owns and (sometimes) profits from intellectual property via my time in the music industry, I really feel this personally. But I will confess an urge to get into this superfake scene. I don’t want to become a collector of superfakes, however; I kind of want to become an importer of counterfeits. I’ll never do it – just as I’ll never actually become a spy – yet my urge to enter these subversive and clandestine worlds is real. Let’s call it the allure of transgression.

That Instagram message I got this morning was like the proverbial red button of countless cartoons, and I can’t claim to feel anything other than a desire to find out what would happen if I engaged. Yet, as a rational man, I am unwilling to find out. Instead, I will just have to wear my $40 Sub and remember the good old days when fake Rolexes were as common on a Manhattan street as cocaine baggies and sex workers.