Opinion: Fake Watches Aren’t the Problem You Think They Are

If you spend enough time watching watch related YouTube content, you’ll eventually come across a very specific type of video. A self styled watch guru holds two watches, one in each hand, seemingly identical. He (it’s almost always a he) explains that one of these watches is a replica, a fake. Then the macro photography begins, and we see detailed images of the components of each watch up close, revealing the perfect fit and finish of the genuine example, and the obvious shortcomings of the fake. The video will frequently end with the replica being disposed of in a creative way, perhaps in a small explosion, or by way of a commode or hammer. These videos are presented as a service to the watch community, so you don’t fall victim to a so-called “super fake” when trying to purchase the genuine article from an internet stranger or unscrupulous (or perhaps unaware) dealer. 

If you watch these videos, it would be easy to imagine that fakes are rampant, and must make up a significant percentage of all the watches on the market at any given time. It’s hard to know exactly how many convincing fakes are out there, but there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence among watch consumers to indicate that there aren’t many at all. If you read the forums, consume content on Instagram, and talk to collectors who are regularly in the market for watches that are believed to be commonly faked, you’re not likely to hear rampant stories of people getting duped, at least not from a legitimate source. One-off accounts of someone falling victim to a fake? Sure, that happens. But if they were everywhere you’d expect to hear these tales all the time, right?

Fake watches, it turns out, aren’t actually much of a problem, in spite of what the YouTubers want you to believe. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t issues with authenticity in the watch market. They just come from a place that’s not quite as easily understood or dramatic. When it comes to people getting fooled, tricked, hoodwinked, and plain old ripped off, nothing, and I mean nothing, compares to what’s happening in the world of vintage watches. 

A fake movement in a replica Rolex Daytona. Image via WatchPro.

When Ben Clymer was on our podcast last year, he made a comment that remains lodged in my mind. Mostly because it’s a thought I happen to have had myself many times over in the last several years as I’ve watched the market for vintage watches mature. Speaking about why he’s drawn more toward modern watches that he can wear frequently and form his own memories with, he commented that the vintage world has become increasingly fraught, and even for experts it’s more and more difficult to know exactly what you’re getting. 

Compared to the oftentimes scary content produced around super fakes, this vintage problem is rarely spoken of, but it impacts scores more collectors. I don’t have hard and fast data to back this up, but there’s plenty of easy to find evidence that reputable vintage dealers (and some not so reputable anonymous wannabe dealers via Internet forums) are selling vintage watches by the proverbial truckload that have cases that have been reconditioned (without disclosure) or over polished (with cleverly chosen language). Case issues are minor, though, compared to dial refinishing. 

Very often, dials on vintage watches sold today were refinished (“redialed” in the parlance of the trade) years ago – long before they were photographed for the eBay listing or Reddit sales post where you’ve found it. That’s an important point: it’s not likely that the person selling the watch with a refinished dial actually had the dial refinished himself. It happened long enough ago in the watch’s history that the refinished dial is now vintage itself, making it harder to spot, and for many, frankly, something of a moot point. 

Note the original lume on this Submariner dial.

Through the years, dials have been refinished for a variety of reasons. Repairing damage during service, for one. If a dial was beginning to show signs of fading, or of lume degradation, it would be rectified during routine service at the factory. This is well understood among Rolex collectors in particular, and service dials are easy to spot if you know what you’re looking for. (Here’s a fantastic breakdown of what collectors look for in a Rolex 6062 that illustrates just how minute some of the changes are when it comes to service dials.)

It’s harder to identify dials that have been touched up as part of the resale process so they resemble something akin to a “new” dial. Before there was a mature vintage watch market as we see now, dealers would frequently have watches broken down, cleaned, serviced, and generally renewed in all sorts of ways before putting them under the glass with the thought that a more aesthetically pleasing watch would be easier to sell. In the 80s, these watches from the 50s would have looked brand new. Today, they show their age, and can easily fool a novice collector into thinking they’ve picked up something rare or special. In fact, they’ve found something that might be in a wildly different state than it was when it left the factory, and the alterations were likely not disclosed. 

A redialed Omega Constellation

Examples are everywhere. A dial that is 40, 50, 60, or 70 years old that appears to be in pristine condition is, almost every time, a redial. Examine dial markings and text closely, under magnification, and you’ll begin to see fonts that don’t match, lines that aren’t straight, and even base layers of paint beginning to reappear under touch up work. Of course, it’s important to have an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the watch at hand to determine what’s original and what’s not, or at least have access to someone who does. This is a skill that tends to come only with experience, and is as expensive to acquire as the mistakes you make along the way. 

Arguments in favor of redialed watches tend to be made on aesthetic grounds. A “clean” dial with fresh paint, brighter colors, legible chronograph scales, and so forth, might be thought to be more visually appealing than a heavily patinated and worn dial that has lost some of its pop. Aesthetic taste is subjective, of course, but part of the allure of a vintage watch is that it looks, well, old. It might sound like a cliche, but the wear and tear and signs of age on a dial tell a story, and when you brush away that originality with a new coat of paint, the story is irretrievable. 

Another argument I sometimes hear in favor of artistic redials done on a custom basis to a customer’s specifications is that any owner of any watch is free to do whatever they’d like with their own property, and if they want to add their initials to the dial or change the color entirely, so be it! Fundamentally, I certainly believe in the “It’s your watch, do what you’d like” mantra, but I also care about watches, and the history wrapped up in these things. You kind of have to in order to work in this business, I think. To make the choice to destroy a piece of history is fundamentally at odds with why most of us are drawn to watches in the first place. 

Redialed Rolexes by LaCalifornienne. Image via LA Times.

And just to be clear, I’m not making a case based on maintaining a watch’s monetary value. I do think, however, that to deface a watch is to rob it of vital historic and cultural value. Maybe we take it for granted due to the prevalence of vintage inspired watches in the marketplace, but an obvious truth worth pointing out is that Omega isn’t making any new Seamasters from the 50s. To redial watches like these is to rob future generations of watch enthusiasts of the opportunity to view and study them as they originally existed, straight from the factory. Watches are, among other things, an intellectual pursuit for many of us. Every redial makes scholarship and study more difficult and fraught, regardless of whether the redial was done during the normal course of service 30 or 40 years ago with the blessing of the original manufacturer, or if it was commissioned by the current owner to correct a perceived imperfection. There are only so many of these things – we should treasure them. 

My own relationship to vintage watches has changed considerably over the years. When I began collecting, vintage (of the ultra affordable variety) was my primary focus. You could still obtain high quality pieces untouched by a polishing wheel on eBay for a relative bargain. Yes, there were redials, but as I alluded to above, you live and learn, and educate yourself. Eventually my vintage collecting goals centered entirely around condition. I didn’t even care so much about what the watch was, I just wanted time capsules that were untouched. 

This is an admittedly strange way to collect and ultimately my interests broadened considerably. These days, I’m not really too interested in vintage watches at all, and like Clymer admitted in our podcast, I’m also more inclined to make my own memories with new, modern watches. Part of that is simply changing tastes on my part from a point when I was still new to the hobby. But it also reflects the difficult and anxiety ridden process of ensuring the watches you buy are original and untouched. 

Because let me tell you, once you handle a vintage Zenith Defy that has not had a single aesthetic change since the day it left Switzerland, an over polished redial with incorrect hands and sloppily applied toothpaste colored lume will never do. One is a historic object, a rare  heirloom, and like a great old building, something that’s worth preserving. The other is a mistake, regrettably common, and while it might initially please the eye, it’s been robbed of its authenticity. 

Image via LA Times

A watch that’s been redialed might not technically be a fake in the way we understand fake watches in 2022. But they’re everywhere, and they’re every bit as insidious as a modern counterfeit. I’ve always thought it a little strange that the community is quick to condemn fakes of modern hype watches (as we all absolutely should) but many are silent about the rampant misrepresentation of vintage watches that are not what they appear to be in one way or another. As a collector and enthusiast who deeply appreciates the direct link that vintage watches provide us to the past, I hope that as more newcomers are welcomed into the hobby and begin to dabble in vintage that it becomes more acceptable to call these watches out for what they are. 

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Zach is a native of New Hampshire, and he has been interested in watches since the age of 13, when he walked into Macy’s and bought a gaudy, quartz, two-tone Citizen chronograph with his hard earned Bar Mitzvah money. It was lost in a move years ago, but he continues to hunt for a similar piece on eBay. Zach loves a wide variety of watches, but leans toward classic designs and proportions that have stood the test of time. He is currently obsessed with Grand Seiko.