Luxury Watches Are Impossible to Get Right Now, So I Tried a Knock-Off

Surprise, surprise: it wasn't worth it

March 14, 2022 6:00 am
three watches on a blue background
Spot the homage: Two innovative designs, one very familiar face.
Farer, Zodiac, Fanmis

Yeah, I screwed up. My wallet is a little lighter and I’m more than a little mad at myself for succumbing to the Amazon algorithm and ordering the Fanmis homage to the Rolex GMT Master II. How did I get here? The short answer is because I want a Rolex really bad — and I can’t get one. 

Over the last year and a half, I’ve visited authorized dealers from Los Angeles to London. Not one of them had a watch they could sell me. Demand is absolutely through the roof for luxury watches. Not just Rolex, all the big names are hard to find. Thirsty for a Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet or Vacheron Constantin? Good luck! 

Rolex is the biggest brand in the game and thought to produce somewhere around one million watches a year – a massive number but still not enough to satiate the growing market. The Swiss maker won’t disclose how much demand exceeds supply. (Yes, we asked.) But during my last stop at a Rolex boutique in the northeast, the line was 10 deep just to get into a store with no watches to sell. When I was finally allowed in, the salesperson told me this is the worst he’s ever seen it for the Rolex-craving crowd. About fifteen months ago, when I finally decided I wanted a Roley (no small decision given the price tag), the first retailer I visited told me he had a customer that was offering cash over the sticker price and early access to a COVID vaccine. Yeah, shit’s messed up.

So, at this point, how do you actually get a Rolex? The answer is rather opaque if you’re hoping to go through an authorized dealer. “It should be noted that Rolex watches are available exclusively from official retailers, who independently manage the allocation of watches to customers,” Rolex said in a statement to Yahoo News last year. Meaning that authorized dealers can cherry pick who they choose to sell their watches to, making it not necessarily first come first served. 

Every boutique I’ve visited has been happy to take my name and number to add to their “interest list.” But they don’t necessarily start at the top and work their way down. They can offer watches to customers based on previous purchase history, personal relationships, or merely whether they dig the cut of your jib. 

There is an alternate, transparent, more immediate and somewhat sketchy route to getting a Rolex on your wrist. Gray market dealers can probably sell you the watch they want right away, but at a massive markup. Customers in search of a new, men’s steel sports watch with box and papers will need to pay nearly double or up to 7x the retail price, depending on the model. But those who choose this route will need to reconcile the fact that their splurge is encouraging flippers (those who purchase at retail and then immediately sell at inflated prices) and feeding this absurd cycle.

For me, MSRP was stretching my budget to begin with, so the gray market was a non-starter. So after several hopeful months languishing on the interest lists and no guarantee I’ll ever actually get called in to buy one, I got tired of waiting. My desire for more immediate gratification forced me to consider a “placeholder.” I began hitting the shops and sites again, trying on other bits of Swiss wrist candy hoping I’d find something that was actually available, and that would give me the same fix. But Cartier, Zenith, Omega just aren’t for me at the moment. The heart wants what the heart wants and mine only pines for a Roley.

Enter our big brother Amazon. With the help of its shopping widget, the site could clearly sense my craving and when it presented the homage piece the first time, I thought it rather meh. But, after dozens more digital encounters inundating me with images of the watch and its $150 price tag, I started to think, The hell with it! If it sucks, what does it matter? After all, I could buy 70 of them for the price of one steel Rolex GMT Master II and still have enough left over to get a decent dinner. 

A few days later when I opened the box I knew immediately that I had done something plain dopey. The watch itself is actually surprisingly well made for $150. With a sapphire crystal, 120 click 24-hour, uni-directional bezel (the real Rolex GMT’s is bi-directional) it’s generally comfortable with a solid feel on the wrist, similar to a Rolex though not nearly as soft and finished as the genuine article. The automatic movement loses somewhere between 15 and 25 seconds a day, which isn’t bad but obviously well beneath the Rolex standards. My only real gripes with the construction are that the beak on the clasp is a little loose and setting the second time zone is janky as it jumps forward a half an hour when you push in the crown.  

For those not oxygen deprived from holding their breath for a call from the authorized dealer, I’m sure it’s quite obvious that the thing that truly kills this watch for any remotely serious enthusiast is just how closely it hews to its design inspiration. There’s nothing wrong with an homage. Great designs often inspire new aesthetics. But a carbon copy of the original, like the Fanmis, doesn’t have any flourishes of its own. In all honesty, it’s an homage that could easily be mistaken for a plain old fake you might see for sale on a New York sidewalk. And there is no point in owning a fake watch.

I wore the homage around for a week or so hoping I hadn’t totally wasted my money. But with every glance at the time, the watch’s sterile, unsigned dial screamed “I’m not a Rolex but I want to be.” Or rather. “You want me to be.” 

No, I never tried to fool anyone. That was never the point, but I was worried they might see that as my aim. Watch enthusiasts find themselves drawn to collecting for many different reasons. For me there’s a sense of awe at the mechanical engineering and precision required to create a movement and design a piece that is holistically elegant. In my mind the cachet in owning a watch is predicated on the maker’s designs and commitment to quality, rather than advertising and buzz. Those that produce replicas are merely appropriating from others with such pedigrees.  

Perhaps, to satiate my hunger for a new piece. I should have bought a G-Shock for less money. Or ordered something from modestly priced micro brand like the Zodiac Super Sea Wolf GMT, or the Farer Charlton GMT. Both brands deliver solid, well-made watches that are doing innovative things on the design front. They tick the second time zone box and are watches that you can look down at and feel good about. Plus they are both less than a fifth the price of the Rolex.

Or better yet, maybe next time I can learn a bit more patience and just wait for the watch I really want. 

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