Red Flags: How to Avoid Rip-offs When Buying a Watch

Part I: How To Detect And Defeat Misrepresentation When Buying A Watch

Every collector of luxury watches wishes to shield himself from deceptions, fraud, and outright theft. Predatory sellers, pure con artists, and product defects all are facts of the market, and the large amounts of money that change hands in the watch space are an incentive to those with unscrupulous inclinations. Fundamentally, a watch collector can protect himself by avoiding two classes of threat: misrepresented products and theft schemes.

It is important to distinguish between these primary hazards. Part one of this two-part feature will discuss the forms of misrepresentation that a watch collector might encounter when dealing with watch sellers – especially those that operate online. Misrepresented product can fall into several categories that encompass inaccurate listing of cosmetic condition, functional condition, brand, model, age, provenance (e.g. documentation, past ownership), and originality.

While identity or financial theft schemes often draw financial predators from outside the luxury watch space, misrepresented product generally involves an actual dealer or individual seller. For this reason, it is not enough to confirm that the seller is a real person or documented past seller of luxury watches.

Unlike outright theft operations, which can appear out of the ether and vanish just as quickly, misrepresented watches can be associated with recognized sellers, registered businesses, and longtime dealers. Moreover, while theft is intentional in nearly every case, misrepresentation can be inadvertent; guarding against it requires extra vigilance from watch buyers.

Misrepresentation takes several forms. The most common is an inaccurate description of product condition and functionality by an online seller. Watch collectors should consider online sales listings to be incomplete when the actual watch being described is not depicted in the images provided. Generic press photos from Rolex cannot provide any meaningful insight into the condition of a ten year-old Rolex Submariner. Pre-owned and vintage watches are non-standard by virtue of the unique marring marks and service lives that they have lived, so “stock” photos will not suffice; demand clear, detailed, and numerous photos of an offered watch from every angle.

If the watch is vintage (30 years or more, for our purposes), demand a photo of the exposed movement to prove its condition, absence of water damage, loose parts, or inauthentic additions. When a seller claims that he or she “cannot remove the caseback” to photograph the watch, ask whether this particular seller even has the expertise to accurately represent the watch. Inability to open a caseback is a serious sign that the seller is in over his or her head. Would you purchase an older car from a dealer who didn’t know how to open the hood?

Photographs should be detailed. At the very least, they should be sufficient to corroborate any claims about made in the written descriptions. A disparity between the two or a lack of one should be viewed as a red flag.

Dial condition must be clearly depicted. The images of the dial are key since many classic brands such as Rolex, Omega, and Heuer sell within the vintage market on the strength of dial condition and originality. Correct replacement dials often are impossible to source for vintage watches, and dial damage on a modern watch minimally indicates water damage or bad watchmaking. Marked hands, scratched dials, and debris on the dial are the hallmarks of bad watchmaking; demand clarity.

Recently manufactured watches also require excellent photos. Due to the modern-day popularity of sports watches from brands like Panerai, IWC, and Breitling, more luxury watches than ever before are being used for active lifestyles and watersports. Clear photos depict case marks from aggressive use and water damage (caseback crystal or dial side) from insufficient care followed by submersion. This can result in repair bills that surpass the value of many watches.

Photographs also should include comprehensive images of boxes, documentation (e.g., certificate of origin, chronometer certificates, warranty cards, and bills of sale, as applicable), user guides, and unique accessories (e.g., historic inclusions such as Rolex’s “diving anchor” or Omega’s chronometer cards). As the luxury watch market matures, collectors are placing greater emphasis on this class of product portrayal. Ensure before purchase that any documentation of serial numbers, model numbers, and model name actually matches the watch being offered.

In short, written descriptions of physical watch condition and accessories should correspond to the photos offered; insufficient photographic portrayal or refusal to provide additional clear images should be viewed as a red flag and a prelude to a rip-off.

Functional condition is more difficult to ascertain from photos or written descriptions. In rare instances, certain specialized luxury watch functions such as minute repeaters can be displayed in videos, but most aspects of functional condition cannot. There is no way to prove remotely that power reserve meets factory specification, that timing on a chronoscope shows healthy performance, or that water resistance will meet the original figures.

In order to avoid scams and rip-offs from unscrupulous luxury watch sellers, be certain to demand promises of after-sales service support, a written guarantee of warranty, and an approval period for watches purchased online. If a watch stops running or malfunctions shortly after purchase, a watch buyer should be able to send it back for a full refund. But it isn’t enough to receive promises; ask for references from previous customers who can verify that the seller in question honors his post-purchase pledges. If the seller is so new that he lacks references, or he refuses to provide them, move on; this is a rip-off waiting to happen.

Finally, watch collectors need to buy watches that they understand in order to avoid rip-offs. Shopping for a watch requires a degree of product knowledge. Deceptive or incompetent sellers will make false claims regarding a watch’s specification, history, and authenticity. Even boutique staff selling new watches have been known to make inaccurate statements regarding the functions and features of the watches they sell.

Watch collectors need to educate themselves using the online resources and local watch club knowledge that applies to the luxury watches of interest to those collectors. Rolex collectors speak of innumerable dial and bezel permutations; Panerai collectors fixate on Special Series boxed accessories and telltales of Chinese manufactured movement replicas; Patek Philippe collectors are inclined to walk away from a late-model watch that does not include the Certificate of Origin.

Becoming an expert in one’s target watch and brand is part of the fun of the luxury watch hobby; don’t get caught up in a watch seller’s jargon and emotional sales pitch without the factual tools to force a reality-check.

Once a watch collector or aspiring watch collector has educated himself, many forms of misrepresentation quickly cease to threaten. Consider the common error that many watch sellers make when listing a Rolex GMT-Master; they incorrectly assume that all Rolex “GMT-Master” models have dual time functionality (only GMT-Master IIs do). Not only is that not the case, single time zone GMTs were built from 1955 until the twilight of the twentieth century, and many collectors have marveled at the superb deal they received on their Rolex GMT-Masters… until they tried to set the second time zone.

Or consider the threat posed by outright counterfeits. Often, these are built by dubious machinists in small series and offered online at rock-bottom prices to sell quickly. A collector who researches the typical resale value of a steel Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore “Volcano” will quickly notice a serious discrepancy when an example shipping from Crimea appears for 50% below normal market value on Chrono24. Researching the normal price range for a fancied model can help a collector to spot offers that really are too good to be true.

Continue reading with Part Two: How to Detect Theft Schemes When Buying A Watch.