How to -Really- Spot a Fake Vintage Watch

There are guides out there, and many are wrong, which compelled me to write this. Without naming names, I’d like to adress one major blooper right off the bat made by a very famous Men’s magazine about Luminous hands and fakes:

If the vintage watch you are holding has freshly glowing hands, this does not mean its fake. In all likelyhood, it means that some poor watchmaker took the actual trouble to painstakingly re-lume the hands, as old lume tends to crumble and fall off. A savvy watchmaker will avail the latest colored luminous compounds to try and match the fatigued, discolored look of the old. But a watchmaker who uses plain white lume is not necessarily guilty of a bad restoration — in the old days, much of the lume out there was white or a pale yellow.

Also, if a crown does not have the marking, this also does not mean that the watch is fake.  Crowns are frequently the first things to be damaged and are frequently replaced with a generic. Again, a good restorer will attempt to source the original, but sometimes that’s not always possible.

I’m already feeling better. But it’s important to address the topic of fakes because it’s probably the foremost worry of a buyer.

This is how you know if something is fake

Never buy a watch if you cannot see the movement.

In some cases, a harried webmaster or eBay lister may not post all the photos of the watch, especially of the inside. I’m guilty of this myself. But you should always ask. And they should always show you. The movement IS the watch. Movements should match the model of the watch. The top plate or the automatic rotor should have the name of the watch brand and the jewel count should match the count listed on the dial. There are exceptions to this, and you should be prepared to ask: In some cases, the top plate may be swapped out with another from a similar model to make a repair. That doesn’t make the watch any less true to it’s purpose, but it does damage the authenticity and should be reflected in the price.

Familiarize yourself with what the movements for the brand and period should look like

You can do this with a Google Images search just to be acquainted. Then if you know the calibre number of the movement, you can look it up.
My personal bible for checking movements is the rannft.de database of watches and movements (German and English) and you can find it here. I use this resource frequently to do a reality check on some of the movements I might find in listings. If a vendor is claiming to have an Omega Seamaster from the early 1960s, and you see this movement then you know it’s an Omega, but that the movement is a Cal 1020 from the 1970s and therefore a frankenwatch. If the parts are from the same period/brand, there’s nothing really wrong with frankenwatches per se and its a great way to get an excellent vintage watch for less that are functionally perfect. But again, not purist, and anybody who is selling you a frankenwatch as something else isn’t dealing ethically.

Look at the inside of the Caseback.

The caseback should have the appropriate markings, including the brand. If it’s a different brand, then somebody mashed up two watches. If the serial numbers do not indicate the right period for the watch, but it’s the same brand, then you have a frankenwatch. This is common with luxury models that are sold on eBay. Usually they are combinations of different watches that had one varying problem or another and dealers put them together to make a sale. Also make sure that the markings LOOK like they should. Vintages used chemical etching for the markings, they did not use engraving or laser marking. I periodically see on Fleabay case markings that say Omega, but look like they were drawn with an engraving pen by somebody with a shaky hand. Markings should be nice and neat. In the particular case of Omega watches, look at the shape of the A on dial markings and engravings. With exception to the Omega Logo itself, The A’s should have a flat tops. If they are instead pointed, then it’s likely a fake. (Again, this rule does not apply to the actual Omega logo)

Look carefully at the dial

Bulova Sea King, Courtesy of Padron Watch Company. Example of a vintage watch with an appropriate amount of patina.

In most cases, funny looking dials are just bad redial jobs and they should rightfully hurt the value of the watch. Examples of bad redials are thick, blurry looking letters and markings, and really white white white paint. (most vintages should have a reasonable patina). These are not fakes, or dishonesty, but just artless examples of restoration. If the logo is supposed to be raised, and you see a printed logo, then chances are it was a bad redial. Logos DO change over the years, and you should be Google Image’ing the brand to death to see examples of what’s period appropriate. Bulova’s logo has gone through several incarnations as one example. But if the logo looks completely off, then that’s a warning sign. One thing to note: Any watch that says “Electra” on the dial was a dollar watch knockoff made in the 70’s and was the kind of stuff peddled to NYC tourists by guys wearing trenchcoats back in the day. These have humorous mispellings like “Bolovia Electra, or “Longenes” to trick people into buying a Bulova or Longines. The Electra watches were awfully crappy things with pin lever escapements and no jewels. Some people actually collect these now, which goes to show you there’s a collector for everything.

Things that should absolutely stop you from buying:

  • No watch should ever say “jewels” on the dial and then have a Quartz movement inside it. (This one is obvious).
  • An unmarked movement. Movements should always be marked. I would only pass on this rule if the movement in question bears obvious telltale signs of being really old. In one case, I had a Golay Fils and Stahl with an unmarked ETA movement inside of it, but it was an obvious model from the 50s and not a candidate for far east fakery.  More recent watches from the 60’s and the 70’s should always have marked movements and those that are not marked are likely Chinese copies. Again, make sure the markings are clean and do not look roughly hand-made.

THE BALANCE WHEEL JEWEL. This is a huge tell.  Generally speaking, there’s two kinds of designs: Novadiac and the traditional Incabloc. There are others (like Kif, etc.) but these are the two major ones. One looks like a trefoil and the other looks like two inverted bows. Generally speaking, new watch movements will use both. Swiss Movements exclusively used Incabloc.  Older Swiss movements will use Incabloc, but may also have other shockproof systems. What’s important is that they not be (a) swiss (b) old and (c) Novadiac at the same time.  If you are buying a watch from the 60s or 70s, and the movement is supposedly ETA, but you see a Novadiac design on the balance jewel? FAKE! Seagull and Hangzhou both manufacture some excellent movements based off of the ETA 2824-2 and the Unitas 6497-8.  Seagull in particular is quite good, and I am proudly using the Seagull TY2130 in the Padron Vuelta. The problem is, unscrupulous vendors will try and pass them off as their Swiss counterparts complete with ‘Swiss Made’ markings. Swiss movements that were not made in the past decade or so generally should not have Novadiac at all.

  • Advertised as “14k Gold” or “Gold” but you see RGP on the markings. This means gold plate. There’s nothing wrong with Gold plate, but again, nobody should ever try to pass off anything but a solid gold watch as a solid gold watch.

I intend to periodically update to make it more thorough and I welcome the experience and insights of others. But for now, these are the big things I look for.


3 comments on “How to -Really- Spot a Fake Vintage Watch

  1. Hey, thanks for this guide. My friend introduced me to your site. I’m getting into vintage watches and would like to start collecting them, but it’s quite intimidating especially the slew of fakes out there. Is there a trustworthy site to buy from?

  2. Thanks for all the helpful info. I wish I just had read it before I bought 3 fake vintage Breitling’s . They looked really good , I believe them to be from the 60’s.

  3. Brilliant advice. I think I have bought a Frankenwatch at a local auction. Too ebarrassed to say how much I paid!

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