Rolex Submariner Red Sub, 1970
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Is the purchase and possession of a counterfeit watch prosecutable?

Rolex counterfeits

There you are on the beach, unsuspectingly, and suddenly you are presented with every watch enthusiast’s dream: the full range … and so cheap! Well, this scenario admittedly is a bit outdated, and today it would take almost unnatural gullibility to be surprised by the existence of illegal knock-offs. Whether it’s a Gucci purse or a Rolex watch, the markets of this world have long been overflowing with illegally produced counterfeits.

Rolex Cosmograph Daytona 116500LN, laterally

For the Cosmograph Daytona, here the original Ref.116500LN, it is said that more fakes than originals exist (Photo: Rolex)

Of course, this highly profitable market is not just limited to luxury goods. Clothes, groceries, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, everything that can be sold is produced, and some say more money is spent here than in drug trafficking. A loss worth several billions is inflicted on the economy by product piracy, jobs are threatened, criminal activities are promoted … to say nothing of the dangers for buyers and consumers from improperly manufactured goods and the use of toxic ingredients etc.

Where are they produced and sold?

Eastern Europe, Turkey and the Middle East are big producers when it comes to food, clothing and cosmetics. For counterfeit watches, however, Asia clearly has the edge, especially China. More than 40 million illegal copies are said to have been confiscated in 2015 by customs officers at the EU’s external borders. How many pirated copies successfully cross the borders, whether in hand luggage or by mail, can hardly be estimated. The reasons for buying a counterfeit watch are easier to name. A study by Ernst & Young once showed that one in four respondents had already bought a counterfeit. The overwhelming majority named the low price as a reason for buying, the appreciation of the product came second, and the third strongest motive was the desire for a status symbol. It may also happen that owners of an original luxury watch additionally acquire these as a plagiarism, giving them the option to leave the original piece in the safe without having to give up the jewel on the wrist…

Rolex Submariner 114060

The Rolex Submariner is considered the most counterfeited watch ever (Photo: Rolex)

Is the purchase of a counterfeit watch prosecutable?

According to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry (FH), the number of counterfeits is still slightly higher than the Swiss watch industry’s annual production of around 30 million watches. The resulting damage is of course immense and it is not surprising that the affected manufacturers are trying to take action. For example, a department has been set up to deal with the prosecution of illegal offers and, if possible, the destruction of counterfeit products.

FH, Replica-Uhren Schaukasten

Master watchmaker and FH employee David Luther shows collected forgeries (Photo:

The legal situation around piracy is complex. It may come as a surprise, but in Germany, the acquisition and possession of a forgery are not fundamentally punishable, as long as it is not traded further and the purchase price is at most €175. As far as this maximum price is concerned, 430 euros is sometimes mentioned as the limit, although there are some things to keep in mind, such as the transport route. If the product is brought to Germany on the way home from vacation, the assessment by the controlling customs officers is always an important factor. If, for example, they have the impression that the goods are to be resold, these can immediately be confiscated and destroyed. But this may be the lesser problem. If the purchase price exceeded the corresponding maximum, there may be a criminal offense on hand. It can be assumed that the civil servants are quite adept at making appropriate assessments. But be that as it may, in most cases it would be difficult to prove the purchase price of the “€99 beach bargain” …

It can get even worse: In order to travel to Germany with the fake Daytona, you have to have bought it first. And depending on the country in which you did that, substantial fines can be the consequence. For example, in Italy, the buyer is liable to heavy fines when purchasing an illegal copy. Of course, it can be assumed that a large number of buyers do not want to do without the unlimited choices of internet offers. Here however, there are no exemption limits for the purchase price. In this case, so to speak with home delivery at the push of a button, a successful check by the customs authorities usually leads to the following scenario: the goods going down the shredder and the hopeful buyer waiting in vain. In principle, it is also to be expected that the authorities will inform the trademark owner, i.e. the manufacturer of the original, who may then reserve legal action against the recipient. You can only wait and see if a costly warning will ensue in that case.

What does “counterfeit” mean here?

Imitation, forgery, fake watch, pirated copy … not a real Rolex! One might think so and it would be this easy – were it not for the unpleasant intermediate range of the so-called “Frankenwatches”. Pieced together in the style of Frankenstein, these nasty examples of deception are not just pretending to be originals, they sometimes even are originals, at least to a certain extent. For example, one of the great classics, a Rolex Submariner Reference 5513.

Actually built from 1963, this beautiful Ref. 5513 probably dates back to 1962 (Photo:

The diver’s watch came on the market in the early 60s and was produced for almost 30 years. Hence there are many of them. And still, there is hardly a model of this watch in a reasonable condition for which the second-hand market price is not at least 6,000 euros. Of course you’re expecting the original for that price! But how to make sure that for example there had not been the mechanism of another Submariner installed due to some defect? And that would be a relatively harmless case. If one considers the enormous sums of money that are sometimes traded for enthusiasts’ favorites, it is clear that the clever forger will be tempted here. Even if you are not liable for prosecution as a buyer in such a case, it is still obvious why a reputable source of sales is recommended…

This video shows a specialised fake watch market in Asia:

Continuously updated article, originally put online in January 2018

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