Image: Rolex

“There are more fake Rolex watches on this planet than all other fakes combined,” Benjamin Clymer, the founder of influential watch magazine and website, Hodinkee, wrote in 2014. He was referring – at least in part – to an Oyster Black Dial Paul Newman Daytona that went up for auction at Christie’s Gevena around the same time. Clymer noted that the watch – which was expected to break the $1 million mark – bore “some traits that are commonly believed to not be authentic.”

Is it that the well-known Swiss-made watches from Rolex are so popular amongst counterfeit-makers that they routinely nab the title of the most market-saturating fakes, even more so than Louis Vuitton logo-covered handbags or Nike sneakers? If market reports are to be believed, demand is high, in part because Rolex – which brings in an estimated $4.5 billion in revenue each year – carefully controls supply. “By gradually increasing its production each year, instead of rapidly ramping up based on the whims of the market, Rolex enjoys controlled growth and stability.”

That marked demand, as impacted by carefully controlled supply and incessant popularity amongst consumers, has spawned an explosion of fakes of varying quality. As TechCrunch noted in 2017, the likes of Canal Street and other notorious counterfeit havens have long been home to egregiously-obvious fakes, with dirt-cheap price tags to boot. All the while, other fakes – “ones created so that they can sell for a maximum price to unsuspecting buyers – are getting better and better.” And there are a lot of them. The Federation of the Swiss Watch industry says Switzerland-based watchmakers produces 30 million authentic time-keepers a year. Counterfeit-makers, on the other hand, churn out an estimated 1.6 million a year

“Historically, less than 5 percent of the watches that we authenticate are fake,” Hamilton Powell, whose company, Crown & Caliber, specializes in reselling pre-owned watches, told TechCrunch. “At one point this number was as high as 10 percent,” and the numbers are growing further –  with well-made copies of Rolex’s Submariner, Daytona and Datejust appearing regularly.

But that is only part of the equation.

The sheer number of counterfeit Rolex watches is partially due to the way the 113-year old watch brand distinguishes between real and fake. Unlike nearly every other product on the market, which can be altered freely by its owner without losing its status as an authentic good, Rolex is different, according to Rolex.

In the eyes of the Swiss-transplant brand, which was founded by Hans Wilsdorf and Alfred Davis in London, England in 1905, the distinction between real and fake is much more stringent: replace a part from an authentic watch with a non-Rolex approved part – this includes any non-brand custom additions – and your otherwise legitimate watch is automatically a counterfeit good in Rolex’s eyes. Or as watch enthusiasts put it, you end with a “Franken” watch, one in which real parts are mixed with replica or after-market parts, a nod to the makeshift combination of body parts used to create the Monster in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel.

As such, the already striking volume of fakes Rolex watches coming out of China and other counterfeit capitals is significantly impacted by “the ones that have been modified in some way after they left the factory,” per Clymer.

Interestingly enough, the flood of fakes – many of which go undetected even by the trained eye – has not seemed to put a dent in demand for Rolex. No shortage of watch-specific publications, plus the New York Post, reported last year that retailers across the U.S. and in some cases, internationally, were experiencing a uniform shortage of the ubiquitous stainless steel Rolex watches.

And that level of demand does not even come close to the furor surrounding the watchmaker’s most coveted model – the Daytona. In terms of that watch, Ira Melnitsky, the chief executive of Tourneau, the watch retailer, told the New York Times in 2016, “We’ll never have enough to satisfy demand.”