Rolex produces 2,000 luxury watches every day. That’s roughly three-quarters-of-a-million luxury watches every year. With such great demand comes a booming counterfeit market. As well as producing more high-end timepieces than any other brand in the world, Rolex has the dubious honour of being the most faked.
Whether you’re buying your first Rolex or your 40th, it’s easy to get taken in by increasingly sophisticated bootlegs. Even authorised dealers have trouble spotting the best fakes. And if you’re buying on the pre-owned market, fakes are not the only problem you have to contend with. Plenty of perfectly genuine Rolexes are sold to unsuspecting buyers who don’t understand that they’re not getting the watch they thought they were. An antique Rolex with the wrong dial, for example, or a timepiece that has been fitted with after-market service parts.
Fortunately, Rolex builds a lot of information into its luxury watches. If you know where to look, you can tell a lot about the watch you’re thinking of buying. For first-time buyer and seasoned connoisseur alike, this information can make the difference between a good buying experience and a bad one.
Get in the loupe
If you haven’t got a jeweller’s loupe, go and get one. A loupe is a magnifying device that is used to inspect a watch microscopically. Standard magnifying power for a watch loupe is 10x, and you’ll need to buy either a doublet or a triplet. Triplet loupes, which have three lenses combined to form a compound (doublets have two), are able to magnify the elements of your luxury watch without the aberrations and distortions found in single-lens loupes. (Single-lens loupes are the ones usually provided in the packaging of a luxury watch).
A loupe is an invaluable tool for checking out your Rolex in more detail. And if you’re considering purchasing a pre-owned Rolex, detail is precisely what you’re looking for.
The condition of a Rolex can vary greatly, depending on age and treatment. And the condition you’re happy to buy will also vary, dependent on your expectations and budget. If, for example, you are a Rolex collector looking for a coveted ‘tropical’ dial, your face will positively light up when you find a model with an evenly faded brown face. If, on the other hand, you are after a modern Rolex at a good pre-owned price, you’ll want it to look as though it has just come out of a showroom.
Your loupe (see Get in the loupe, above) enables you to spot imperfections (or, if you’re in the market for them, perfect oddities) that cannot be seen with the naked eye. These commonly include polishing marks, or scratches and damage marks where a seller has tried to open the caseback with non-Rolex tools.
Rolexes cannot be opened up without a specific tool, held by official Rolex dealers or service centres. If you try to open a Rolex without this tool, you will leave telltale marks behind. Scratches on the caseback, depressions in the metal. For a buyer, these indicate that the seller has a Rolex that has been compromised in a serious and irreversible fashion. Taking the back off a Rolex in a non-authorised environment leaves it open, literally, to the worst enemies of a precision movement: dust, dirt, and water.
If the overall condition of the watch appears satisfactory under the loupe, you can proceed to the next stage: painstakingly checking the watch is what the seller says it is, and that all its parts are the right ones.
To start with, take the bracelet off (using the proper tool of course) and look between the lugs, at 12 o’clock.
How to decode a Rolex reference number
Rolex hides plenty of information about its luxury watches in the reference number. Whether you’re buying vintage or modern, it’s good to know what the digits, and occasional letters, can tell you about your purchase.
The reference is found engraved on the case, between the lugs at 12 o’clock. To see it, you will need to remove the bracelet. (The serial number, incidentally, is found between the lugs at 6 o’clock on older models, and on the rehaut or inner bezel on post-2005 models).
Note that a reference number is not the same as a serial number. The serial number is a unique identifier given to each individual Rolex as it comes out of the manufacture. The reference number refers to the model. So a blue dial, blue bezel 2016 Rolex Submariner, for example, has the reference 116619LB. But each individual blue-dialled Sub will also have its own unique serial number.
There are three elements to a Rolex reference. The first is a code for the model itself (Submariner, Milgauss, etc). The second is a code for the type of bezel on a specific watch. Rolex sells some of its luxury watches with bezels in different shapes or finishes (for example the Datejust, which may have either a fluted or a domed bezel), so you can have multiple references within each model family: i.e. 116233 or 116203 in the example just given. The third reference element indicates the material(s) from which the case is made. Again, it’s possible to find multiple references referring to one model family, for instance where a buyer chooses yellow gold or Everose gold.
So, what can a reference number tell you when you’re buying a Rolex? Well, if you’re looking on the pre-owned market, then the reference number is your first port of call for verifying that you’re buying what you think you are. Do the materials of the luxury watch match up with the final digit in the reference number? Does the bezel code tally?
And finally: do other examples of Rolexes with the same reference number look like yours? Using the reference you find between the lugs, you can hunt down pictures of the model. If there are differences between the luxury watch you are looking at and the official Rolex images of the same piece, it’s time to investigate further (you could be looking at a genuine Rolex with genuine replacement parts, see Original, or replacement? below) or walk away.
You may have noticed that some Rolex references also contain letters—like the SARU at the end of the reference for the Rolex GMT Master II 116759SARU. Typically these letters refer to non-standard bezel colouring, bezel materials, or other non-standard materials used in the construction of the watch. SARU = SApphire and RUby. The BLNR on a Batman GMT Master II stands for BLeu et NoiR. And the GV at the end of a Milgauss reference? That’s Glass Verte, a reference to the factory-tinted green glass with which the Milgauss ships.
Rolex serial numbers explained
On older Rolexes, the serial number is found between the lugs, at 6 o’clock. On post-2008 Rolexes, it’s found on the rehaut (inner bezel), with the ROLEXROLEXROLEX engraving, which crept into production starting in around 2005.
The ROLEXROLEXROLEX engraving on the rehaut, and the engraving of the serial number, is so precise and sharp it is difficult to fake. It’s one of the points on a modern Rolex that sets it apart from plausible but not-quite-right imitations. In fact, all engravings on your Rolex, including the logo and serial numbers on the bracelet and clasp, should be crisp, well-centred, and perfectly stamped. The engraving of Rolex serial numbers is typically so deep and exact that the numbers appear to glow when held up to the light. Wobbly numbers, inexact centring, or a smudgy appearance are clear signs of a potential fake.
Rolex is notoriously cagey about serial numbers, and with good reason. Early serial numbers—in fact, numbers all the way up to those found on 2009 models—contain exact information about the luxury watch to which they refer. The number, or the number taken in conjunction with a letter prefix (between 2003 and 2010), is a tool that can tell a buyer when a Rolex was produced. But that also means they can be faked, simply and easily. If you know, for example, that in 2005 Rolex serial numbers started at D000,001, you don’t even have to find an actual 2005 serial number to create a convincing fake. You just give your dummy Rolex a low number with a D prefix, and it passes any cursory investigation.
So in 2010, Rolex began stamping its luxury watches with completely randomised serials. Post 2010 Rolex serial numbers are a mixture of letters and numbers, and only Rolex can tell you when the luxury watch was actually made.
The serial number may not give you definitive information about the watch, but it can help paint a general picture of its probable authenticity. Search for it online, and you may turn up specific results related to your piece, which can help determine if it was made when the seller claims it was made, or whether it has been stolen.
The dial: is it authentic?
If you’re buying a vintage Rolex, the dial is where the value lies. Rare dials on vintage models, like the Paul Newman dials on mid-60s and early-70s Daytonas, can amp up the premium on a Rolex to spectacular levels. A Paul Newman dial on a 6263 Daytona (see How to decode a Rolex reference number, above) can add between £120k and £725k to the price of the piece. That’s right: £725k. Taking what would have been a £33k luxury watch to the 758k mark. So it’s vital that you know whether the dial on your prospective Rolex is the right one.
Two big questions: is it real? And is it original? In the world of antique Rolexes, fake dials are a huge problem. Particularly when we’re talking Paul Newman Rolexes. There are more fake Paul Newman dials in the world than there are fakes of all the other luxury watch dials in history. Given the number of known genuine Paul Newman dials out there, this means that any Newman you look at is statistically likely to be a fake. Particularly if it’s one of the ultra-rare £1m-plus black-dial Oyster 6263 Paul Newmans, of which fewer than 20 are known to exist worldwide.
So for those big questions, one big piece of advice. If it’s a rare Paul Newman, consider recruiting acknowledged and trustworthy experts to go over the dial with microscopic attention.
If you’re checking out a less valuable antique, or a modern Rolex sold by a non-Rolex dealer, you can carry out basic authenticity tests yourself. Mainly, you’re looking at the Rolex logo, and the placement and font of the dial ‘lines’ (the information written on the watch, at 12 and 6 o’clock). Different models, and different ages, have their own characteristics. You might find an applied Rolex logo, or a printed one—the modern Day-Date, for example, has an applied crown as a 12 o’clock index, while a modern Air-King has a printed crown beneath a triangular applied index. Some models have lines at both 12 and 6. Some have lines only at 12 (as is the case with Daytonas, which have a running seconds subdial at 6 instead). Some have lines only at 6.
The lines, which may indicate the presence of different movements inside otherwise identical Rolex models, can add or detract from the value of the watch depending on the opinion of collectors. Or they may have no affect on the watch’s value other than confirming you have the right dial for the watch that’s being sold to you. Example: in 2010 no-date Subs were available in both two-line and four-line versions. The four-line version is theoretically more accurate, because it is COSC certified. In practice, however, there’s no difference between the two beyond what the Rolex marketing department wish you to know. Both Subs are very accurate, both are genuine Rolexes, both are sought by collectors. Some prefer the two-line Sub because it gives the dial a cleaner, more spacious look. Some assume the four-line to be more accurate. And so in practice, the difference is cosmetic and not qualitative.
If you’re looking at a black-dial Paul Newman 6263, on the other hand, and you see three lines at 12 o’clock—ROLEX COSMOGRAPH OYSTER—you could be in the presence of the rarest and most collectable of all vintage Rolexes. (If it’s a black-dial Newman with screw-down pushers and the legend ROLEX OYSTER COSMOGRAPH, it’s a fake).
Original, or replacement?
Here’s the problem with Rolexes: their owners tend to religiously observe service intervals. And that means an older watch may, in fact, be a hybrid: a Rolex that has had some of its original elements replaced with service parts.
Replacement dials, hands, and indices are genuine Rolex parts, of course, but in some instances, the fact that they’re not the part that was shipped with the original watch affects the value of the piece. This tends to apply more to antique Rolexes, particularly rare ones, and less to modern models. After all, a serviced Day-Date probably works better than it did before it was serviced, so if you have the proper documentation of the service it can actually be a better buy than an un-serviced model.
If you’re buying a Paul Newman Daytona, though, and you find one with a service case, you’re likely to be looking at a drop in value. Service cases carry unique serial numbers (most begin 44 or 47), which differ from the serial number of the original. And so the watch becomes what collectors call a ‘Frankenwatch’—a Rolex made of parts of other Rolexes.
Crowns are often replaced during servicing: a fact that may affect your decision to buy, depending again on your expectations for the watch. For instance, Rolexes with a Twinlock crown, identified by the line embossed beneath the coronet logo, often have Triplock crowns installed in a service. A Triplock crown, which is more waterproof, has three dots under the coronet. This theoretically makes the watch more resistant to water entry, but it also changes the look and feel of the piece, and makes it less ‘authentic’. In some cases, where crown guards are present, a larger Triplock crown on an originally-Twinlock model can also make it difficult to properly operate the watch.
The lume test
If you want to be sure the dial of your Rolex is the right age for the reference and serial number on the case, look at the lume.
Over the past 100 years or so, lume has been applied to the indices and hands on luxury watches to allow wearers to read them in dark environments: at night, underwater, or (as is the case with historic field watches) in the appalling conditions of battle. The type of lume used has changed over the years. Poisonous radium (poisonous to the women who applied it to the dials, not the wearer) was replaced by tritium, and then, on Rolexes, we got Luminova, SuperLuminova, and Chromalight. As a reference, Rolex used radium until the early 1960s, swapped out for tritium until 1998, and brought in the Luminovas and Chromalight from 1998 onwards. Luminova was used for just one year, between 1998 and 1999: Rolex dials from 1999-2008 use SuperLuminova, and from 2008 to the time of writing in 2016, either SuperLuminova or Chromalight.
Not sure how to spot a tritium tube, or what to look for to determine if your Rolex dial has radium on it? You’ll find the answer at 6 o’clock. A Rolex dial that bears the legend SWISS is either coated with radium or Luminova. A Rolex dial inscribed with T Swiss T or T Swiss T<25 has tritium on it. If it says Swiss Made, it’s either SuperLuminova or Chromalight.
Lume can also help you spot if the hands on your Rolex have been replaced. Simply compare the effectiveness of the charged hands with the light given off by the indices. If the lume on your Rolex’s hands glows brightly, while the lume on the dial is weak, you probably have a watch that has had new hands.
The laser etched crown
Got a torch to hand? Got half an hour to spare? If you shine a torch horizontally onto the crystal of your luxury watch, and really look hard, you should see what looks like a tiny white smudge somewhere around the 6 o’clock position. It’s actually the Rolex coronet logo, laser etched so finely onto the glass that it is nearly impossible to see without a loupe (jeweller’s magnifying eyepiece) and a strong light source. Be prepared to play around with angles of lighting for some time before you finally spot the crown. And be aware: some Rolexes have the logo etched at positions other than 6. And the Rolex Milgauss’ green crystal reportedly doesn’t have one at all.
Buy your seller
A Rolex is a desirable object: for owners and sellers alike. Pre-owned modern Rolexes fetch respectable prices from buyers who look for a specific model, or who want to invest in a horological legacy without paying ticket price for a brand-new piece. And antique Rolexes in all conditions command big sums from avid collectors. But the road to a Rolex can be a tricky one, beset on all sides by pitfalls and hidden obstacles.
Always buy with knowledge on your side. Researching the dealer is a good way to gauge the authenticity of the sale. As the Rolex forums and the luxury watch blogs say: buy your seller. Find out if others have been satisfied with Rolex purchases from the seller you’re talking with. Ask for references. And never, ever buy a Rolex you have not seen in person and researched in detail first.
This is not an exhaustive guide to buying a pre-owned Rolex. To fully research the peculiarities and telltale signs associated with a particular model made in a particular year, you’d need to consult the dozens of books that have been published on the subject, and avail yourself of the expertise of long-term collectors. Instead, it aims to give you an introduction to the key elements of a Rolex luxury watch, so that you can research your purchase with a degree of knowledge. Here’s to finding your first—or your next—perfect Rolex.