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Watchmakers sound alarm over internet fakes

(Keystone)

The Swiss watchmaking industry says it faces an uphill struggle to check the rapidly expanding network of illegal websites selling counterfeit watches.

The run-up to Christmas has seen a flood of spam offering discounts on "replica" watches – even the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry has been on the receiving end.

"Christmas is a period that is set up for this kind of offer and people are profiting from this," Jean-Daniel Pasche, president of the federation, told swissinfo. "I too have been getting [these emails] at the federation despite our firewall."

"It's a very difficult situation. Unfortunately the internet has increased the distribution of fake watches."

Those looking to lay their hands on a fake Rolex or Patek Philippe no longer need to travel halfway round the world to the markets of Asia. At the touch of a button an increasing number of websites now deliver counterfeits to your door.

The federation estimates that the trade in fake watches is costing the industry around SFr800 million ($655 million) a year.

One site visited by swissinfo is selling a fake 18K Oyster Perpetual Submariner with "all the appropriate Rolex markings in the correct places" for $239 (SFr291). The genuine article retails for around SFr25,500.

Another is advertising a replica Breitling Navitimer Olympus, again with all the trimmings, ready for worldwide shipping at $249.95 a piece. An original goes for around SFr6,000.

Tip of the iceberg

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Type in "replica watches" in the internet search engine Google and you will find 1.3 million entries.

"It's very easy to build up a website. You can take the genuine photos from the official website of the brand, and people think they will receive this watch," said Pasche.

"We have had some success and have been able to close some of these sites. But as soon as we close one, another one appears under a different name. It has not been possible to reduce the number, because it is so easy to launch a site."

Leading brands such as Rolex and Breitling now carry prominent warnings on their homepage on the risks of buying watches on the internet.

Firms make it clear that no official distributors or retailers sell their watches on the internet, adding that goods sold via the web will not be protected by warranty.

According to Pasche, the watchmaking industry is still getting to grips with what he describes as a new front in the war on counterfeiting. He said there was an urgent need for new legislation, as well as lawsuits to establish case law in favour of brand owners.

"There are a lot of things to do. We are trying to step up the fight but it will take a long time. This is a new aspect of counterfeiting," he said.

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont in Geneva

In brief

The federation says counterfeiters have been producing fake "Swiss Made" watches for the past 30-40 years.

Originally they were produced in Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand and Taiwan. But today, China is the number one producer of fakes, and the local authorities have only just begun to crack down on counterfeiting.

The federation believes sales of fake watches cost the industry around SFr800 million every year.

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Key facts

The Swiss watch industry produces around 25 million timepieces every year.
At the same time 40 million fake Swiss watches are produced around the world.
70% come from Asia, mostly from China.

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