A few years ago, C’Quon Gottlieb, a watch trader at watch reseller WatchBox, deemed a Panerai watch that had come through a fake, despite it being virtually flawless in almost every way. The only giveaway was the rubies in the watch, which were just a few shades lighter than those in a legitimate watch. 

“That client purchased it from a friend, paid $20,000 for it and wore it for three years — even had the box and papers, and everything — without knowing it was fake,” Gottlieb said.

This is just one example of a “superfake.” Watches, particularly ultra-high-end watches produced in Switzerland, are complex devices, and in order to successfully pass off a fake one as real, successful counterfeiters have had to become almost supernaturally good at mimicking many of the fine details of the real watches. To keep up with increased sophistication of counterfeits, authenticators have had to pool their knowledge and keep tabs on every new breakthrough in the art of making fake watches just to stay ahead.

Resellers like The RealReal have staked their reputation on their ability to discern the real from the fake. The RealReal has even faced backlash from some brands, most notably Chanel, which claims that only Chanel is qualified to determine what is a real Chanel bag and what isn’t. As competition among resellers grows, their ability to accurately authenticate products can help set them apart.

“It’s an arms race,” said Laif Anderson, head of watchmaking at The RealReal, who has decades of experience in the watch industry. “Our whole team is in constant communication with each other about what counterfeiters are doing. Every time we see something new, we catalog it, notate it and add it to the database.”

The superfakes The RealReal sees are incredibly high-quality compared to the average fake watch one might find on Canal Street. To make things more difficult, an illicit side industry has popped up in which watches or parts of watches made in the same factories as the real watches are sold off the grid as legitimate pieces. Anderson said these pieces are more difficult to identify as fake, since they are made using the same machines and materials, but the ones that are sold in this way are usually flawed in some way and lacking the final details and touches that mark them as legitimate.

Most of these factory-made fakes are coming from China, since Switzerland has an incredibly strict set of standards for watch production, meaning that brands slightly below the top-of-the-line Swiss brands — think Michael Kors rather than Audemars Piguet — are the ones that are most affected.

Also in the mix are the so-called “Frankenwatches.” These are watches where every part is a legitimate piece of a legitimate watch, but parts have been taken from different watches and pieced together into something new. Sometimes, it will be mostly one watch with a few pieces taken from another, while others can have parts of multiple different watches all in one.

Since each piece of the watch is legitimate, rooting out Frankenwatches is where authenticators have to rely on their communal knowledge. Frankenwatches are less about finding the fake pieces and more about digging through the archives to find out if a certain watch in a certain year would have had a certain combination of pieces, making for an incredibly difficult task.

“Frankenwatches give us the most problems,” Anderson said. “Superfakes can have glaring tells, but watches that are cobbled together from original parts give us the most grief. Usually they are put together to misrepresent a highly prized watch, or sometimes they are a watch that never existed. That’s where our team knowledge from different brands comes in.”

Buying a superfake is not easy. Anderson said that most of them are sold online through secret forums, where payments are processed through third-party apps. (Paypal was once common, but the service has cracked down on working with these companies.) These forums are a fountain of discussion on how fakes are made and distributed, which is valuable information for authenticators. Some counterfeiters even post in-depth side-by-side comparisons of their fakes and the real thing, explaining how they do what they do and what new techniques they’ve come up with.

“We all go undercover in these forums,” Anderson said, of his team. “It’s imperative that we be neck-and-neck with them or as close as possible. They go out of their way to point out the improvements they’re making, and we make note of everything they say. They’ve gotten really good. The dials on fakes used to be awful, but they’re making those so much better today.”

Anderson’s characterization of the relationship between authenticators and counterfeiters as an arms race is apt. Every time the authenticators get wise to some new technique, they note it, catalog it and watch for it in future authentications. Every time a technique is picked up on, counterfeiters come up with new ones. For example, a few years ago a fake watch’s movement, the mechanism that makes the watch work, was commonly made from quartz as a cost-cutting measure compared to the more expensive mechanical movements. Now, a quartz mechanism is such an obvious giveaway that fakers have largely abandoned it.

“I think 90% of fake watches are pretty obvious,” said Danny Govberg, CEO of WatchBox. “But the sophistication in the top 10% is incredible. It’s a much higher degree of craftsmanship than with something like a handbag. To counterfeit a handbag just requires the right machinery. I’ve seen counterfeit watches so good that even the box and the papers with it are perfect. I think the 10% at the top are much better today than they were 10 years ago.”

But ultimately, even the best counterfeiters cut corners. For example, a few years ago Rolex switched over to using surgical steel instead of stainless and while some counterfeit Rolexes use surgical steel now, most do not. 

These “fit and finish” details are where authenticators have the most success rooting out fakes. While most counterfeiters focus on getting all the big picture parts of the watch right, little touches like the engraving on the hand of a watch can give it away. Other times, authenticators say there are things completely separate from the watch itself that can tip them off.

“It comes down to fit and finish,” Anderson said. “Your profit is razor-thin if you’re in superfakes, and you trim where you trim, so you can make some money. Usually that’s in fit and finish. They will never get the tiniest details correct, because if you can make a watch that is identical in every way to some of the best watches in the world, you should just start your own watch brand.”