The Murky World Of Counterfeit Rolex

The Murky World Of Counterfeit Rolex

Fake Watch Shopping In Istanbul -  A Case Study

As a CIA Case Officer operating overseas, you are exposed to the dark side of humanity. It is not a career for the faint-hearted and you learn some things they don’t teach in school.

He who fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you. – Friedrich Nietzsche

While the quote is dramatic, there is some merit to it. I didn’t fully realize how abnormal life at CIA was until I separated from the Agency. A byproduct of a career at CIA is a fascination with illicit activity; arms dealers, wildlife trafficking, organized crime, and, now that I am an aspiring watch nerd, counterfeit watches.

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Fake Watches - A Real-World Case Study

Most articles on fake, or “replica” watches cover topics like “How to spot fake Rolex?”, “How much does a fake Rolex cost?”, or “Where to buy a fake Rolex?” These are all interesting topics, but we wanted to go deeper into the counterfeit luxury watch industry.  To do this, I went counterfeit watch shopping in Istanbul, Turkey. There’s nothing like first-hand experience.

Counterfeit timepieces are a multi-billion-dollar industry, with shaky estimates indicating between 30 and 50 million fake watches entering the market each year. Contrast that figure with Rolex’s estimated annual production of approximately 1 million pieces per annum; It is reasonable to conclude that there are probably more fake Rolex watches on wrists than there are genuine examples throughout the world. This means that when you see someone wearing a Rolex, statistically speaking, it’s probably fake – a crazy thought.

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Istanbul - A Counterfeit Watch Mecca

During a recent trip to Istanbul, I had a mission: to acquire a “super clone,” or ”superfake” a watch that is nearly indistinguishable from a real thing. Not only are cosmetic traits like the miniature laser-etched Rolex crown on the crystal present but if you take the watch apart, the movement itself is branded Rolex. Even for experienced watchmakers, some of these “super clones” are, all the way down to the movement components, virtually indistinguishable from genuine Rolex. There are differences, of course, but these “super clones” are astonishingly close to the genuine product to the untrained eye. I wanted to see for myself.

rolex gmt-master II crystal engraving laser anti-counterfeit
Rolex crown laser-etched into the crystal, introduced in 2001 to deter counterfeiters. (Photo Credit: Bob’s Watches)

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul's Grand Bazaar is a covered market with over 4,000 shops selling everything from Turkish sweets to clothes and yes, of course, a large selection of counterfeit goods. Entering through the Nuruosmaniye Mosque gate, visitors are overwhelmed with a plethora of shops specifically targeting tourists. The presence of fake watches is immediately apparent and, in contrast to many markets around the world, completely in the open.

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The watch shopping experience varies depending on the shop but on the higher end is almost like a boutique experience, the only difference being the watches are fake and you can actually buy a “Rolex” rather than be put on a waiting list. They offer tea and coffee, a chair for your bored spouse to sit in, and customer service that exceeds the boutique experience presented by many luxury watchmakers. Interestingly, pictures are generally not discouraged and the sellers are relatively open about the sale of fakes.

It isn’t just Rolex, either. Panerai, Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe, and even counterfeit sketchy Breitlings are readily available, with starting (negotiable) prices of around $450. Most of the watches utilize Miyota movements and are, as you might expect, made in China. Pretty much any reference you can imagine is available including the Le Mans Daytona and Titanium Yachtmaster. 2024 Watches and Wonders releases? No worries, they should be available soon.

replica homage fake rolex breitling omega seamaster submariner

What Is A “Fake” Rolex? 

It is important to understand what a fake Rolex is. We have identified three categories of counterfeit Rolex watches to be aware of.

Cheap Or Tourist Fakes: These cost somewhere between $50 and $300 and are generally picked up from street vendors in major tourist cities in Europe, South America, the Middle East, and even New York. You used to be able to spot them by their quartz movements which caused the second hand to “tick” instead of sweep, but now they tend to have automatic movements, more accurate details, and better finishing. But, in general, they are still sloppy fakes and you are not fooling anyone who owns a Rolex with this piece unless you are in a dark room.

Super Clone or One For One: So-called replica watches, nearly identical to the genuine thing. They can cost over a thousand dollars and rumor has it that even when taken apart, it can be difficult to tell if the watch is genuine or a reproduction. In theory, one could wear a super clone to the local RedBar watch nerd meetup and fool everyone in the room. It’s been rumored that these have even been unknowingly sold by legitimate dealers as well, proving that the only way to know something is real is to buy it from the boutique.

Frankenwatches:  A catch-all term used to describe watches that may be made up of parts that have been switched out and/or a real watch with fake parts (replaced bezel, dial, hands, etc…). Some are honest efforts to restore a watch, but more sinister versions are meant to fool prospective buyers. A recent notable example was the “Tropical” Omega Speedmaster Ref. 2915-1 ‘Broad Arrow’ auctioned by Phillips for over $3.4 million. As documented by popular watch blogger Perezcope, the watch itself was a frankenwatch, allegedly cobbled together by insiders with access to the Omega archives.  

frankenwatch omega speedmaster moon watch auction house
Tropical” Omega Speedmaster Ref. 2915-1 ‘Broad Arrow’ frankenwatch, sold Phillips for over $3.4 million (Photo Credit: Phillips)

Why Are Fake Watches A Problem?

At a minimum, fake watches are textbook examples of intellectual property (IP) theft, using the designs and logos that Swiss brands spent millions of dollars developing over decades. Some go as far as to link the sale of counterfeit watches to child labor, sweatshops, and even terrorism, human trafficking, and organized crime. While direct evidence of this is scarce, it is reasonable to assume that a link exists to some extent. That said, the vast majority of the counterfeit industry originates in China and it appears as though the Chinese government at least tacitly supports it and probably has some oversight and regulation.

counterfeit watch boutique istanbul turkey

Are Fakes Substitutes For The Real Thing?

According to Business Insider, 23.3 million counterfeit watches are circling the US, more than Rolex has sold worldwide in the past 15 years. The logical conclusion is that this hurts Rolex’s bottom line. But are fakes reasonable substitutes? Is Rolex losing potential customers to fake watches? Probably not.

The fact is, the type of person that will buy and wear a fake, likely can’t afford the real thing. In other cases, some may buy a fake now and then the real thing as their financial circumstances change. UFC fighter Conor McGregor recently revealed during a GQ Sports interview that he used to wear fake watches to press conferences before he could afford a genuine Rolex. He is now a legitimate customer, owning millions of dollars in Rolex, AP, and Patek. One could argue that in McGregor’s case, the fake Rolex watches served as the “top of the funnel” for Swiss brands.

Conor McGregor Wearing a (real?) Rolex Daytona “Eye of the Tiger”
Conor McGregor Wearing a (real?) Rolex Daytona “Eye of the Tiger”

Should I Buy A Fake Rolex?

We can think of very few legitimate reasons to purchase a fake Rolex, and yes, doing so does ultimately fuel the already insatiable market for these timepieces and potentially provide funding for organized crime syndicates. Further, in some places, it’s illegal to buy and transport fake watches. Our advice is simple, buy the (real) and best watch you can afford. There are plenty of great and legitimate watches on the market that cost less than your iPhone.

rolex ceramic submariner 2024 james rupley watches of espionage
Real Rolex Sub (Photo Credit: James Rupley)

In response to “Trading A Rolex To Get Out Of A Sticky Situation - Myth Or Reality?”, many commenters suggested traveling with a fake Rolex for bartering. The logic may be sound, but if you are really at the point where you have decided to part with a watch worth thousands of dollars, your life is likely on the line and the cost is trivial. Further, whoever you are giving the watch to is presumably in a position of power and likely someone you do not want to piss off should they determine the watch is fake. The potential for this plan to backfire is simply too high.

fake replica homage rolex daytona le mans superclone
Le Mans Daytona and “Titanium” Yachtmaster - all fakes

I have heard of some people with expensive watch collections that have “dummy” displays in their house, the idea being that if someone breaks in to steal their collection, they would take the fake watches without realizing the real collection is hidden in a safe. This is something that could potentially make sense but is not a practice I would advise. If someone goes the distance to specifically target you for your watch collection, they are likely going to be pissed to find out they stole fake watches and may come back for retribution. No watch is worth your life.

All that said, I do have a fake Rolex Submariner that I received as a gag gift from a wealthy friend in Dubai. I have never worn it or even taken out the links to make it fit. Who knows, maybe it will come in handy one day.

rolex daytona meteorite dial rubber oysterflex strap watches of espionage james rupley
A real Rolex Daytona (Photo Credit: James Rupley)

Should I Be Worried About Fake Watches?

By some estimates 20-50% of art in museums is fake and even the largest auction houses with significant resources have been duped with fake watches. While the risk of unwittingly buying a modern watch that is fake is real, this is particularly real in the vintage market, where replacement parts and refinishing jobs can result in a “real” watch becoming a frankenwatch.

As an individual buyer, you should not be responsible for identifying a fake.  The safest thing to do is to either buy new watches or build a relationship with a seller you not only trust but trust their expertise. The latter is difficult as it can be incredibly difficult to determine which parts are genuine and which are replacements.  

fake replica homage rolex box and papers

Back In Istanbul

Despite my best efforts, I was not able to track down a “super clone” in the Grand Bazaar. Many of the vendors claimed to have better quality watches and vigorously sent Whatsapp messages to their colleagues to bring one by, but they never appeared. The fakes in the souk were mediocre at best with loose bezels and crude finishing and claimed Miyota movements. Fun party gags? Maybe, but I didn’t buy one.

watches of espionage fake homage replica rolex
W.O.E.’s personal fake watch, acquired in Dubai.

I did pick up a set of (fake) boxes, papers, and a blank Rolex warranty card to match my gifted counterfeit Rolex. Similar to the watches themselves, the box was crudely crafted and isn't fooling anyone. While I do not advocate for anyone to purchase anything illicit, I did it in the name of science.

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Great read and a topic I’ve been hoping you’d cover for a while. I recently visited SE Asia and the fake watch industry was on full display, although most were far from “super clones.” As a novice watch guy, I own a Submariner and a Seiko, but after much debate bought a replica JLC ultrathin moon to get a feel for it before committing. It’s a beautiful subtle dress watch, high quality replica, and looks nicer than anything I could get at that price point, but after a year of occasional wear I’m still unsure how I feel about it. That said, starting out with the replica may have helped me realize this isn’t the watch for me and opened up my budget for something better suited to my liking. Or maybe it’s just that I can’t fully appreciate it since I know its not the real deal?


There’s one important element that this article missed, the parted watch. It’s not a Franken watch it’s a watch made with authentic mfg parts. WatchCo, out of Australia, was an authorized dealer/repair center & they had a ton of genuine Omega parts. Omega had decided they wanted to recapture all of the repair work & would no longer sell replacement parts. Tons of dealers were very mad at Omega over this & other new polices. So Watchco decided they’d start assembling/selling watches. They start pumping out vintage grail watches from the 60’s & ’70’s. I’m taking about SM300, Moonwatches, Broadarrow, & Plofprofs at incredible prices. These are essentially brand new at 1/4-1/2 off of what you’d pay for the used vintage models. Naturally, Omega gets mad but as there’s no longer a business relationship with Watchco, there’s not much Omega can do to stop them.
So customers are really happy about getting a new classic grail watch until they need service on the watch. Apparently, parted watches are missing one thing, the serial number. I know of 2 stories (firsthand) from Watchco Omega owners who were refused service from Omega Service Centers & another who swears he had his watch confiscated by an official repair center.
If you have one, they look amazing, BUT you must find a someone who knows Omega watches & has a stockpile 50-60yr old parts.


Would love for you to review some of these online watch companies that have authentication ie. chrono24, jomashop, etc.
Also, if one was to buy a watch from a reputable company online, can you bring it to a Rolex boutique to get official authentication or do they not do that?


As an IP lawyer and watch guy this was a fascinating article. Thanks for the awesome work. WOE always delivers.


Many years ago I believe a Hong Kong AD employee was swapping out real Rolex watches with very good fakes. This apparently occurred for some time (a large number of months, possibly a few years) before the scam was spotted & stopped. Be careful our there.

Jules H

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