Chemical profiling uncovers fake luxury watches

Researchers in Switzerland reckon it could be possible to distinguish between authentic and counterfeit luxury watches by looking at trace metals in their composition.

Using a sample of 35 counterfeit watches, the scientists – from the University of Lausanne, Cantonal Laboratory of Vaud and the anticounterfeiting department of the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry (FHS) – analysed the watchcases using inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP–MS), getting a readout of the elemental composition in the metal.

Even on the small sample, the team found they were able to group some of the fakes according to their compositions, the sort of data that could eventually help establish where – and maybe by whom – a counterfeit was made.

To cross-reference the findings, they also tapped into intelligence about the provenance of counterfeiters, including for example physical features and where they were seized. Some of the chemical profiling data corroborated existing knowledge, while others revealed new connections between different seizures and specimens.

“As the production of watchcases requires expensive machinery, we assumed that only a finite number of production sites, intended to manufacture copies of watch parts, have access to such technology,” write the researchers in the journal Forensic Science International.

“Watchcases originating from the same production batch are made from the same raw materials and should have the same chemical composition.”

Tens of millions of fake Swiss watches are offered for sale every year, while the Swiss watch industry produces around 30 million original watches, says the FHS. The legitimate market was worth around $21bn last year.

Fake watches account for 9 per cent of customs seizures, placing watches second only to textiles as the most counterfeited products, according to the FHS.

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