Fakes, replicas and homages
A 'fake' watch is easily defined. It is an illegal counterfeit, incorporating the brand and distinctive features of a recognized pre-existing model of watch, created with the intention of deceiving. Production and sale of fakes is illegal throughout the developed world, including China. In parts of Europe possession of a fake watch is illegal and may result in confiscation.
Prior to 1997, Hong Kong was a major regional centre for counterfeiting of watches, using parts sourced from Switzerland, Japan and China. Since then, this illegal practice has spread to neighbouring Guangzhou and Shenzhen and elsewhere in China as counterfeiters move closer to parts sources.
In China, the suppression of counterfeiting is the responsibility of a variety of national and provincial agencies. Inter-agency coordination has been limited and there is currently a lack of independent oversight. Consequentially, apart from a few high-profile arrests, these efforts have had little effect on the fakes industry.
There seems to be a popular misconception that fake watches are produced by major manufacturers in giant 'fake factories'. In fact, the majority of faking is carried out by small, highly mobile operations, assembling generic parts, with some specialist finishing to provide the famous brand name. Dials are the most commonly manufactured fake components. Cases and buckles can generally be purchased 'clean' and engraved by the faker. The most advanced fakes have custom engraving on the movement.
Traditionally the term 'replica' referred to a reproduction by the original manufacturer or current brand owner e.g. the Sea-Gull Air-Force Chronograph. In recent years it has become more common to refer to such a watch as a 'reissue'. In common usage 'replica' has become a euphemism for 'fake' intended to downplay the illegality of such a watch.
Although some current Chinese watch movements are based on foreign designs, these have not been developed specifically to build fakes. Development and manufacture of mechanical watch movements are only within the means of major, established enterprises with too much to lose if caught building counterfeit watches. However a few of these 'clone' movements (e.g. ETA 7750, ETA 6497) seem to have been developed primarily for 3rd party OEM makers, some of whom sell quantities of 'cleanskin' watches, which of course may easily be converted into fakes.
Similar market forces drive the development of 'look-alike modules' i.e. generic movements with enhancements to produce a dial layout similar to a more famous watch e.g. the Shanghai 'four-eyes' calendar module replicating the sub-dials of the Eberhard Chrono-4.
At its best, a 'homage' watch is one with its own distinct brand identity, but which draws inspiration from a famous established design or a distinctive element of that design. Popular design elements found in many new brands include B-Uhr dial, California dial, canteen crown, Rolex and Omega bezel styles.
However more commonly, a watch referred to as 'homage' is simply a look-alike, differing externally from its source of inspiration only in the brand name and logo. Occasionally a major Swiss brand-owner will take action against a homage builder where a infringement of intellectual property rights is believed to occurred. This has led to the accusation by some enthusiasts that homages amount to nothing more than 'faking by stealth'.
Adding to the controversy is the fact that in many instances, fakes are produced from seemingly identical parts as homages. Thus the market demand for watches incorporating elements of famous designs actually feeds the supply of parts to fakers.
In the 1960s, Rolex took legal action against Japanese company Ricoh for a watch very similar to Rolex's President Day-Date. The Ricoh watch was no more Rolex-like than many similar Swiss watches, however it did provide an affordable parts source for Hong Kong fakers. More recently Fortis acted against Poljot regarding watches that were far from Fortis look-alikes, but had been used as the basis for Fortis counterfeits.
The attraction of homages is various. Many of the world's most famous brands are simply very good looking watches, and homages bring those styles within the reach of any customer. For the dedicated enthusiast, the homage presents an affordable opportunity to 'try out' a Submariner or a Speedmaster for a while before committing to purchase the expensive genuine article.
One of the leading brands of homage watches is Alpha.
Some of the cheapest Hong Kong watches of the 1960s and 70s bore brand names intended to appear similar to more famous brands. Likewise with some of the cheapest Swiss watches from the 1850s to the beginning of the quartz era e.g. Omeqa, Longreene, Hormilton. This practice has been continued by modern Chinese watch companies e.g. Minorva, Orkina. Strangely in both vintage and modern bogus brand watches, the watch very rarely looks anything like the famous watch whose name it emulates.
A Chinese case study
Due to the enormous number of inexpensive mechanical movements produced by Sea-Gull, it is no surprise that counterfeiters often use Sea-Gull's movements to power their fakes. However, it has come to light on the Watchuseek Forums that at least one Sea-Gull branded watch (Sea-Gull Power Reserve) is stylistically an accurate copy of the Jaeger LeCoultre Master Reserve de Marche. And more disturbingly, apparently identical watches are also being sold deceptively branded as Jaeger LeCoultre. However... many smaller Chinese watchmakers make homage pieces similar to this. As noted above, many of those same watchmakers sell their stock wholesale, unbranded, to third parties for them to modify, re-brand and sell.
So just how much is Sea-Gull complicit in the fake watch industry? What we are not able to determine in this instance is: though this watch is branded SEA-GULL and undoubtedly features a Sea-Gull movement, is it cased by Sea-Gull or by a subcontractor? In either case, are fake JLC's branded with the JLC logo and markings during initial production or post-production by a small fake building operation?
Although Sea-Gull are one of the world's major movement manufacturers, their output of complete watches is small. If they order custom case designs from an external case maker, that case maker may need to overproduce and sell the excess in order to deliver at an acceptable price. Sea-Gull might not necessarily have any control over where those extra cases end up. A similar situation has been observed with Poljot limited edition watches with cases by Vitsebsk Instruments, where the same cases later show up on watches by VI's house-brand Vympel. So it may be that Sea-Gull intention was simply to build a homage, but in doing so made available the necessary parts for others to create fakes.
The lack of transparency in the production operations of Chinese watchmakers (and Chinese manufacturing at large), coupled with the fact that protection of intellectual property rights has only been enshrined in law recently in China compared to many other parts of the world, means that questions like these will continue to be wrestled with for some time into the future.