We Asked a Vintage Watch Dealer All the Ways to Spot a Fake

The devil is in the details

By Reuben Brody

We Asked a Vintage Watch Dealer All the Ways to Spot a Fake
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07 August 2017

Hucksters used to hawk ersatz luxury goods — watches, women's bags, silk scarves — on street corners or in back alleys, producing the goods from the pocket of a trench coat or a bindled black trash bag. Nowadays, all they need is a screenname.

And that makes spotting a fake a few measures more difficult.

But a fake is a fake, and when that fake is a vintage timepiece, mistakes don’t come cheap. Luckily, we know a guy who's a bit of an expert on the topic. His name is Cameron Barr, and he’s the purveyor behind vintage watch dealer Craft & Tailored. “I have made some expensive mistakes myself,” he says. “I have spent what seems like a lifetime studying vintage timepieces — the details and history.”

Barr sees around 20-30 vintage watches a day, and has traveled around the world inspecting tickers and visiting with their makers and dealers. For a demonstration he hosted for us last week, he chose a 1968 Rolex Submariner, reference no. 5513. Why? He says it’s one of the best examples of a fake he’s seen. It was purchased by a broker who didn’t know it was a fake. When Cameron was presented with it, he had to bear the bad news.

“Sometimes the brokers or jewelry shops don’t know it’s a fake,” he says. “They opened the caseback and thought it was Rolex.” He took pics with his iPhone for verification, and so he could pass on some know-how to others. “Sometimes it’s just an error in the watch, from a bad repair,” he explains. “And that happens. But this one was clearly manufactured to be something else.”

1. Inspect the Insert Details
“First, the insert is clearly inauthentic based on typical fonts seen in an era-correct ‘Fat Font’ Submariner insert. The Lume dot (or “Pearl”) within the triangle at the 12 o’clock position has a metal surrounding, which is also not correct for this piece. The other thing that immediately jumps out to me is that the patina (or fading) on the insert looks manufactured or created. A replacement or non-authentic insert doesn't always mean that the watch is fake or inauthentic. But when I think of patina, if it looks overdone or manufactured, then it most likely is. True patina or fading is something that is hard to fake — it takes time.”

Fake 1968 Ref 5513. Submariner (Font & Lume Details) 

2. Go Under the Loupe
“Next, I look at the dial under a loupe [aka a jeweler’s magnifying glass] with at least 10x magnification. We use a very special loupe that also has UV LED light because it allows us to see the difference in texture and flaws. If it’s been refinished, you can see it much easier.” Here, Barr is primarily concerned with the lume, a luminescent solution that was brushed on vintage watch dials to make them glow in the dark. Vintage watches were treated with a now-banned radioactive isotope called tritium that lights up under UV. Here, the tritium “didn’t react correctly with the dial, so it was 110% fake,” says Barr.

“The patina or coloration of this lume is consistent and even kind of a dirty or sandy like coloration, which is not a dealbreaker. But the consistency of the lume on the watch we are looking at looks off, especially in the hand. This dial, when looked at directly under UV, did not react as it should have — by emitting a green glow. Also, under close inspection, the lume plots looked blotchy and kind of clumpy. Even the most Tropical and distressed dials have some form of uniformity and consistency.”

Authentic 1968 Ref 5513 Submariner (Font & Lume Details)

3. Fonts Are Difficult to Imitate
“From the beginning, Rolex was a stickler when it came to quality control and consistency, even though many of the manufacturing processes in the '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s were done by hand. Here, the font is off. It's not as crisp as it should be: the sixes in 660ft are too fat, and the text possesses other inconsistencies.”

Fake 1968 Ref 5513. Submariner (serial numbers)

4. Serial Numbers Don't Lie
“The serial number is another concern. The inauthentic example has a 4.0M serial number, which would date the case of the watch to 1975. Rolex stopped doing meters-first dials around 1969-1970. It’s unlikely to see a meters-first dial in a mid-‘70s Submariner, even as a ‘service’ or replacement dial. It’s more likely to see a feet-first dial in an earlier watch due to the dial being replaced at a later service interval due to damage or discoloration.”

Authentic 1968 Ref 5513. Submariner serial number

“The correct serial number for a 1968 Ref. 5513 should be in the 1,752,000-1,900,000 range. The other slight thing to note here is that the stamping of the reference and the serial numbers is shallow and very faint — you can barely see it in the case it's so shallow compared to the genuine and correct example [like the one shown directly above].”

Fake Rolex triplock crown

5. Watch the Crown
“The crown [meaning that small knob you use to adjust the time; not the Rolex crown] on this specific example is also incorrect for a couple of different reasons. In completely original condition, meters-first watches should have a twin-lock crown that has no dots or underline beneath the coronet [aka the Rolex crown]. This isn't a dealbreaker, as many vintage watches have received an ‘upgrade’ by Rolex to a Trip-Lock crown during service intervals, as the trip-locks provide increased water resistance.”

Genuine Rolex triplock crown shown on 1984 Rolex Submariner Ref. 16800 showing correct dot spacing and mid case

“But what is interesting here — and what makes this a fake — is the spacing of the dots underneath the coronet are too close together, and the Rolex Coronet is too wide at the bottom and too short and fat.” Compare the example immediately above (which is real) with the fake (second photo above), and the differences in the coronet embossing make themselves quite apparent.

Incorrect Movement For 1968 Rolex Ref. 5513

6. Know Your Movement
“The movement is last thing that is commonly seen with this type of fake vintage Rolex. Here, the movement is Rolex, but the reference 5513 uses a Rolex cal 1520 movement and not a cal. 1560, which is pretty crazy if you think about it: the movement is genuine Rolex ... just not the right one for a ref. 5513 Submariner.”

Correct Movement Cal. 1520 Rolex Submariner Ref 5513

“The guys who are making these fakes are clearly catching on that there is a desirability for fake vintage watches, and they are getting better and better at figuring out how to dupe a potential buyer who may not have the knowledge or tools to make an informed purchase.”

That means that unless you're willing to put in the time to reach Barr's levels of expertise, you should be very wary of anyone other than a legitimate dealer. And if you need a second opinion, don't hesitate to hit him up.

“I’m all for the enthusiast, and I’m happy help.”

All images via Cameron Barr / Craft & Tailored

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