For the first time, fake Swiss watches of real technical sophistication are coming out of China. Sometimes sold at the same price as the originals, they result in lost earnings and harm the brand image of Swiss watchmaking.
If you look at it very, very closely, you can detect a few irregularities: a screw slot with a microscopic fault in it, a piece of the carbon casing replaced by plastic, or the absence of anti-glare glass.
But apart from these details, which even experts have trouble detecting at a glance, the fake Hublot Big Bang seized last December by Swiss customs is hard to tell apart from the original.
The look, the weight, even the smell - because like its model, the fake’s wristband was scented with vanilla - are deceptive. But the most telling factor resides in the core of the watch.
“That was one of the first times I’ve held in my hand a fake tourbillon watch, a real high-precision mechanism. The counterfeiters have now mastered ultra-complex movements,” says Michel Arnoux, head of the anti-counterfeiting unit of the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, at his office in Biel.
At the foot of the Jura, in this industrial city of 50,000 inhabitants where Swatch Group, the world’s largest watchmaking concern, has its headquarters, the investigators study - and worry about - the evolution of the Chinese counterfeit market, which is now hitting the high-precision watchmaking sector hard.
Money from online betting
In contrast to the Rolex sold for less than SFr100 ($104) on Asian and South American markets, these fake watches sold at several thousand francs apiece often to unwitting consumers - considerable forgone earnings for the brands involved.
Industry executives willing to go on the record about this highly touchy subject do not make light of their concerns.
“Counterfeiting costs the watchmaking industry billions each year,” Nick Hayek, head of Swatch Group, recently told the 20 Minuten newspaper. “The worst thing about it is that these copies are being made more and more professionally.”
The counterfeiters’ interest is certainly aroused by the current boom in luxury watches, but not only that.
“Following the crisis in the watch industry in 2008-2009, Chinese makers of highly complicated movements had to drop their prices to get rid of their stocks,” explains Michel Arnoux. “At the same time, the Chinese triads were looking for new outlets to invest the colossal sums they garnered from online sports betting.”
While a direct link between organised crime and counterfeit watchmaking is hard to establish, it is clear to Swiss investigators that the two are associated.
“The counterfeiters are well organised and sometimes know the market better than the brand-name firms. They choose watches which sell best in the countries concerned, and quickly adjust to demand,” says Arnaux.
To distribute their products, the counterfeiters now mainly use internet buy-and-sell platforms like e-Bay. “When the crisis hit, many financial traders in New York or London sold off their watches on the Internet. The counterfeiters were able to jump into the breach, pretending that they were selling goods second-hand,” adds Arnoux.
Loss of trust
While no one admits it openly, there are whispers in Swiss watchmaking circles that the “inflated” prices of some brands and the policy of restrictive supply may have encouraged counterfeiting.
Also, by drastically reducing their sales network on the traditional markets, the Swiss brands have forced hundreds of jewellers to source supplies at second-hand. “This parallel market, which is perfectly legal in the EU and the USA, has been a real magnet for the counterfeiters,” Arnoux notes.
The charismatic CEO of Hublot, Jean-Claude Biver, has talked several times in recent years about the pride he felt when his watches were copied for the first time, proving the international status acquired by his brand. But now such talk is rarely heard.
For the harm done goes beyond just direct economic losses, as Arnoux points out: “If the consumer can no longer tell the difference between the real watch and a fake, he loses trust. This is a considerable blow to the brand image of Swiss watchmaking.”
Taking action on the ground
To curb the counterfeit phenomenon, the industry federation now has a team of 40 to 50 Chinese inspectors in the field. “Our strategy involves mounting a lot of operations so as to keep those producers under constant pressure.” These joint operations with the police are a daily occurrence in the province of Guangdong, which is the epicentre of counterfeit watchmaking.
The results can be “pretty slight”, admits Arnoux. “Everything is spread out - there is no official economic link between the different players. Sometimes the components have been manufactured in a completely legal way by bona fide companies, then assembled and engraved in secret workshops.”
While smaller fry regularly get caught in the net, as in an operation in March that yielded a haul of 280,000 prefinished items in a secret workshop, it is much more difficult to find the trail leading to the brains behind the organisation. Involved in all kinds of other criminal activities, they may in fact enjoy the protection of the authorities.
Swiss watchmakers are hoping that their concerns will be passed on by Economics Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann when he goes to China on a trade mission from July 8 to 15.
“Matters of intellectual property are right at the top of the memorandum we addressed to Mr Schneider-Ammann,” says Arnoux.