Spotting a Fake Rolex Watch: 10 Tips for Avoiding a Forgery

Spotting a Fake Rolex Watch: 10 Tips for Avoiding a Forgery

Rolex was founded in London in 1905 and has been based in Switzerland since 1919. Today, it occupies a household-name status that few if any other watch brands can match. Many of the 20th Century’s recognized icons of watch design hail from the rich history and archives of Rolex, and the company’s watches are indisputably some of the most popular and coveted timepieces on the planet. What comes with that enviable status, however, is a huge target on the company’s back at which counterfeiters take constant aim — and with increasing levels of sophistication. How does one determine that the Rolex watch one is buying in this day and age is real or fake?

Rolex crown logo

To be clear in our definition of a "fake Rolex," we’re not talking about homage pieces from legitimate watch brands here; there’s nothing illegal or even particularly unscrupulous about emulating popular and groundbreaking designs like the Submariner, GMT-Master, and Explorer as influences on one’s own watches, so long as one’s own brand name is on the dials. We’re also not focusing on the so-called “Frankenwatches” here, i.e., watches re-imagined with movements, dials, bezels or other elements that weren’t part of them when they were originally sold. What we’re talking about here are watches that are not made by Rolex but are sold as Rolexes, logo and all. Here are 10 tips for anyone looking to make sure that the Rolex they’re thinking of purchasing is legit. 

Deal With a Trusted Seller

Rolex Authorized Service dealer plaque

If you’re eyeing a new Rolex watch, your best bet is to deal with a Rolex Authorized Dealer (or AD), which is defined as a retailer that receives watches directly from the Rolex factory at wholesale prices. Because they are directly affiliated with the brand, Rolex ADs receive special staff training in the areas of sales, product knowledge, and visual merchandising, and have exclusive access to new models and product updates. Most importantly for many, Rolex ADs employ watchmakers who are specifically trained and certified to service Rolex watches. 

Rolex Certified Pre-Owned Tag

If it’s a pre-owned or vintage Rolex you’re after, your options are more varied, but it’s just as important to do some homework on the independent seller or sellers you’re interested in doing business with. The surest chance you have these days of getting a bonafide pre-owned Rolex watch is to deal with the company’s own Certified Pre-Owned program, launched in 2022. The watches in this program are sold alongside new models by Authorized Dealers and undergo a strict certification process for authenticity conducted by a worldwide network of experts. Retailers that are part of the program, including international titans like Bucherer (now itself owned by Rolex) and Watches of Switzerland, display special plaques denoting their status as Certified Pre-Owned dealers. Online retailers like Bob’s Watches, WatchBox, Analog/Shift, Swiss Watch Expo, and even eBay all have their own multi-step authentication programs for pre-owned Rolex watches (as well as pre-owned watches from other brands), and prospective buyers should find it easy to familiarize themselves with those criteria and to judge for themselves whether to trust them. 

Check for the Serial and Model Number

Rolex Serial Number Engraved Between LugsEvery legitimate Rolex watch has a serial number, four to eight digits in length, that identifies its production date, and a reference number that corresponds to its product family and model.. Traditionally, serial numbers were engraved on the side of the case on the 6 o’clock side between the lugs, while the engraved reference or model number is found between the lugs on the 12 o’clock side. (If you’re buying new, this information is obviously also included in the paperwork that accompanies the watch. But if the Rolex you’re buying doesn’t have these documents, it’s best to determine that both these numbers are present on the watch itself.) Older Rolex models — that is, ones manufactured prior to 2008 — will have the serial number engraved on the case as described above, but newer models are a bit different. The model numbers still appear solely on the case, but in 2005, Rolex started engraving the serial number on the flange, or rehaut, of the watch’s dial in addition to the traditional spot between the case lugs. By 2008, Rolex had stopped engraving the serial numbers on the cases and started applying them only to the flange. (This is a plus for spotting counterfeits, as it makes the serial number more accessible at a glance, as opposed to older models in which one would have to remove the bracelet to confirm the presence of an engraving between the lugs.) Keep in mind, also, that on a fake Rolex, engravings such as these are either entirely absent or shoddy-looking, rather than sharply defined, under a loupe.

Dial Text and Details

Rolex Oyster Perpetual dial details

It may seem like a no-brainer to point out something as basic as making sure the classic Rolex logo, with the familiar font and the stylized crown emblem above it, is present and executed elegantly. Making sure that all the verbiage on the dial, from the name “Rolex” to descriptors like “Oyster Perpetual” and “Superlative Chronometer,” are complete, well-spaced, and spelled correctly might even elicit an eye roll from those watch connoisseurs who take pride in their eagle eyes. But we’re covering all bases here, and these are subtle details that are easy to simply overlook; at the same time, they’re some of the easiest red flags to spot. Misspellings, misaligned text and mismatched fonts are dead giveaways that the “Rolex” watch you’re examining is anything but. While you’re taking that fine-toothed comb to the dial, note also the finishing on details like the hands, hour markers, and subdials, all of which should be smoothly angled and finely formed. 

Smoothly Sweeping Seconds

Rolex GMT-Master II seconds hand

This one might seem basic to watch collecting veterans, but worth pointing out to newcomers: the motion of the seconds hand on the dial is an indicator of the type of movement inside the watch. In a watch with a mechanical movement, like the vast majority of Rolexes, the hand will circumnavigate the dial in a smooth, sweeping motion. A seconds hand that makes jerky jumps from one second to the next, on the other hand, is a giveaway that the movement inside is quartz, which generally denotes a less expensive watch. For the purposes of identifying a fake Rolex, the only exception to keep in mind is that for about 25 years starting in the 1970s, the heyday of quartz watches, Rolex produced “OysterQuartz” versions of its popular Datejust and Day-Date models. These watches are quite rare (fewer than 25,000 were ever produced) and very valuable, and any dealer selling a pre-owned one would likely be up-front about the movement inside. Simply put, though, if the Rolex watch you’re considering has a quartz movement, and its dial doesn’t say “OysterQuartz,” it’s probably a fake.

Meticulous Finishing on the Movement

Rolex Perpetual Caliber 3830

You probably won’t be offered the opportunity to remove the caseback and peer into the movement of the watch you’re considering, but if you have any doubts as to its authenticity, you should ask to see a photo of the movement. Once you’re confirmed that it is indeed a mechanical (manually wound, as in Rolex’s Cellini dress watches and earlier Oyster models, including all Daytonas made before 1988; or self-winding, as in the vast majority of Oyster models today), pay close attention to the quality of the finishing, Legitimate Rolex movements display an impressive level of finishing, owing to the materials used and the expertise of the watchmakers who produce them. Among the elements in evidence will be golden engraved text, satin-finished bridges, a gold balance wheel, and an openworked oscillating weight made of dense tungsten alloy.

Eyeball the Engravings on the Rehaut

Rolex GMT-Master II rehaut details

In addition to the serial numbers, newer Rolex watches (i.e., those manufactured after 2005) feature another difficult-to-counterfeit feature on their rehaut, namely an engraved pattern of repeated “ROLEXROLEXROLEX” text that surrounds the dial, interrupted only by the crown logo at 12 o’clock and the serial number at 6 o’clock. It’s a feature that’s been around long enough for counterfeiters to take stabs at faking it, so when you look at it closely, it’s best to be aware of another detail about the repeating pattern: on the left side of the inner bezel, the letter “R” in ROLEX lines up with the five-minute markers, whereas on the right side, it’s the letter “X” that lines up with them. A misaligned version of this motif, or a version in which the repeating “ROLEX” text encircles the entire dial, absent the serial number or 12 o’clock crown, is a sure sign of a forgery. 

Is the Cyclops Lens Magnifying or Obscuring?

Rolex Submariner Cyclops Lens

The so-called Cyclops magnifying lens over the dial’s date window has been a mainstay of many Rolex watches since the brand’s founder, Hans Wilsdorf, first applied it to a watch’s crystal in 1948 — inspired, so the legend goes, by his wife’s lament that she needed something that would make it easier for her to read the date on her watch. On a real Rolex watch, the Cyclops lens will actually magnify the date numeral under it, by a factor of about 2.5 degrees, so that the date looks not only larger but clearer. Since 2005, these lenses have also been antireflective. On a fake Rolex, the date magnification might not be as clear or noticeable, or it might even render the date numeral more difficult to read. It’s important to remember that not all Rolex models are equipped with a Cyclops lens, especially vintage models; early Sea-Dweller and Deepsea references won’t have one, nor will models without dates, like some Submariners and all Milgauss models. Submariners and GMT-Masters with date windows, however, all should have the Cyclops.

Weigh the Watch

Rolex Explorer in hand

Despite an industry-wide movement toward making timepieces lighter and thus more wearable, a Rolex watch will still have some ample heft to it. Most steel-cased Rolexes should weigh between 100 and 160 grams depending on their size and whether they’re on a strap or bracelet, while most Rolex watches in gold will weigh between 240 and 270 grams. If a case feels uncommonly light for the watch’s size, it’s a telltale sign of skimping, on either the case material or the movement inside. That “gold” case could actually be made from a much flimsier material with a gold-plated coating. There are a handful of Rolex models in titanium, which is a substantially lighter metal than steel or gold, like the recently released Yacht-Master 42, but even these should weigh upwards of 100 grams. Rolex has not used its proprietary RLX titanium widely throughout the line yet, aside from the Yacht-Master, so anyone trying to sell you, say, a titanium GMT-Master “Batman” or a titanium Submariner “Hulk” should be avoided.

Case ClosedRolex Oyster Caseback

Rolex has always prided itself on being a setter of trends rather than a follower of them, and nowhere is this more evident than in the company’s continued use of simple, traditional solid casebacks on its watches rather than the sapphire-glass exhibition casebacks that many other brands now use regularly to show off the artistry of their movements. Rolex has also never widely adopted the practice of adding elaborate engravings to their casebacks, like the seahorse emblem on many of Omega’s dive watches or the vintage-plane badge on Zenith’s Pilot watches. With very rare exceptions — i.e., the steel-and-gold Daytonas that are personally gifted to, and engraved for, winners of the 24 Hours of Daytona race, which you are unlikely to encounter anywhere but in an auction setting anyway — Rolex casebacks, whether in steel or precious metal — are the definition of sobriety: no brand logo, no reference number, no engravings of any kind other than possibly a personalized inscription by a previous owner, though personalized watches rarely make it to the secondary market for sentimental reasons. (Paul Newman’s Daytona, personalized for him by his wife, is one of those exceptions that proves the rule.) 

A Tiny Clue on the Crystal

Rolex crystal etched crown logo

Starting in 2002, Rolex added another subtle indicator of authenticity to its watches, a tiny laser etching of the brand’s famous crown emblem in the crystal directly over the 6 o’clock position. It’s visible to the naked eye but might require a bit of tilting into the light and squinting. Of course, as with so many of the other aforementioned details, putting this feature under a loupe will allow you to verify that this minuscule engraving is executed to Rolex’s high standards. The so-called Rolex Coronet logo will also be engraved on the surface of the fluted crown in a true Rolex watch. 

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