Now this is a unique story in the world of watch repair. However, I feel that over the next few years, this type of anecdote may not be such a rare occurrence. The world of counterfeit and fake watches is a billion dollar a year industry, and it is positioning itself as a very real competitor for those established and historic watch brands. In some cases, such as this, the established brand shoots itself in the foot by producing a sub-quality product under an assumed standard and the counterfeiters have no choice but to out-perform.
This is the story of a Tag Heuer Aquaracer that came into my workshop a few weeks ago. It had a chipped crystal and a recently replaced battery, but it kept stopping. This may be a sign that there is an issue with the movement and it may need to be serviced or replaced. I would need to perform an estimate. Now, I have serviced many Tag Heuer watches over the years, but this particular watch taught me a lesson about Tag that I won’t soon forget.
Once I had it on my bench I began my regular estimating procedure. I opened her up, only to find a movement that was surprisingly low quality. Tag Heuer has positioned itself as a luxury watch brand and therefore, this movement did not represent the brand as I understood it, so I automatically assumed it was a fake watch. Now at this point I should’ve dug a little deeper into the brand and what they are actually producing, but instead I started the dialogue with my client. I told him that I believed the watch to be fake and that unfortunately, I do not work on counterfeit watches. Naturally he was quite alarmed at this news. He told me that he bought the watch at a reputable dealer and he produced the original receipt. It was at this point that I started to doubt my initial assessment. I recommended we bring the watch into a certified Tag Heuer service centre and have them verify its authenticity once and for all.
The answer we got was both alarming and relieving. The watch wasn’t fake, it was real! I was speechless. How was this possible?! How can a watch that costs over $2000 dollars contain a movement of such low quality? It contained an untreated, 3 jewel Ronda 4120B movement. Now the amount of jewels in a watch matters because these jewels are there to protect wear on the main-plate and other bridges that experience excessive friction over time. 3 jewels is not enough to be considered acceptable. Plus, there is a much higher quality 7 jewel movement that, at cost, would not be much more expensive. So the question is, why would Tag Heuer put this movement in their watch when the better movement is not that much more? And I mean not much more….like $25 dollars more. This small difference in expense baffles me. Tag Heuer has many tiers in their watch offerings. There are entry level watches (which would seem to contain less than adequate mechanics) and there are very high-end and impressive watchmaking examples. Unfortunately, the general public doesn’t know the difference. All they know is that “Tag Heuer” is a good name.
We then had a choice to make. I offered to replaced the original movement with the higher quality one. Then the question persisted. “If I make this switch to a higher quality movement, not the original design, is the watch at that point considered counterfeit?” My head exploded! The fake outshines the original! Left is Right and Up is Down. To me this was a scary precedent indeed! He told me to go ahead and make the switch. I think he just wanted a good watch. One that represented the money he put down for it. Whatever deeper meanings and questions raised in the continuing rhetoric of real vs. fake, did not matter to him.
Alas, I suppose this is a sign of the times. This brand has some serious history (check out this article with Watchtime) but it has in recent years become complacent and uninspired. Those that make decisions like this on behalf of the brand may not realize how fragile and important the name “Tag Heuer” is. Their behaviour tells me that they have no connection to its past and treasured history. The many players and interests involved prefer to focus on profit and volume vs. quality and… well… soul. It’s a real shame. I pray that other well-established watchmaking houses take this as an example of what not to do as they move forward. Unfortunately, I don’t have much faith. And that’s sad. This is just another reason to look closer at those new up and coming watch brands that have so much to prove. They don’t have the luxury of putting out garbage. They need to prove themselves before they can do that, as Tag Heuer has shown us.
When I gave the watch back to the client, I was proud to exclaim (without hyperbole), that now it is indeed “better than new!”
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Tell me, is this watch now a counterfeit? What do you think about the quality of Tag Heuer watches, and does this represent your experience with them? Please add your comments below and let’s keep this discussion going.
This actually shocks me. I have always subscribed to the “you get what you pay for” mantra, but this kind of makes me wonder…
It would be so nice to have a level-headed watchmaker like yourself on speed dial…
It goes back to the old story about the ship that sailed around the world, and as it sailed around the world some of the wood rotted in the sea water and the rotten pieces would be swapped out as the boat made its voyage. By the time the ship returns home every single plank has been replaced. Is it the same boat?
Or another favourite; “this is the best axe I’ve ever owned, I’ve only had to replace the head twice, and the handle four times…”
To that end, once you replace the movement, even with exactly the same movement as originally specced, the watch is a different watch. Right? Like the boards of a ship, or an axe. It might be similar to the original, but essentially it’s a new thing, created in the spirit of the original.
Tag put a crap movement in their watch. Does replacing it with something different/better make it counterfeit? It’s a question of semantics, really. Counterfeit implies deceit. It implies that you’re trying to get away with something, to fake something. So, for me, it’s about disclosing the history and intent of the watch.
The watch was genuine at the beginning. And one would buy a Tag, or Oris, or Rolex, or whatever with an idea about what a watch is. What that watch is. The original Ronda quartz movement wasn’t an in-house offering. So replacing it with a similar movement that’s also not in-house, but of the same supplier as the original movement, well, that’s maintaining the spirit of the original offering.
And “spirit” is really what we’re talking about here, right?
The Tag says “Swiss made” on the front, so replacing the Ronda with a Japanese movement, if one fit, and was of higher quality, disrupts the spirit of the original Tag. The “Swiss made” becomes a lie.
But would that be alright?
Howie, you say you don’t work on counterfeit watches, but technically you just made one. But the motivation wasn’t to deceive. It was to make a good watch better, and to end up with a solid and working time piece.
It would be like me dropping an LS7 V8 crate motor into my Miata (which I really want to do) and then having a mechanic refuse to work on the car because the original 1.8L inline 4 had been removed. But my intention wasn’t to pass off the car as a stock Miata. One difference being, it’s a real Miata, and the LS7 crate motor would be a real crate motor. It would be different if it was a different motor with LS7 written on it in Sharpie, or if the watch wasn’t a Tag but had Tag stickers on the box. Even then, all facts disclosed, and due diligence done, fix the car anyway?
Where did we start? Oh yeah, is the watch now counterfeit? No, but it’s different. And as long as it’s represented as different then it’s fine. It’s evolved. It’s had a ship board replaced. It has a new handle. There’s no intent to represent it as anything more than it is. The Tag parts are still Tag. The Ronda parts are still Ronda. And if the owner has no intent to sell it or pass it on, it doubly doesn’t matter. It’s a watch. And he’s been informed along the way of the changes being made. Nothing wrong with that, is there?