Low End Theory

Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?


By Brendan I. Koerner

One of my favorite archetypes of shadiness is the dude whose trenchcoat is lined with fake Rolexes. He's got gold front and a bad combover, and he insists on doing business in a urine-soaked alley, but somehow you can't help but be dazzled by his merchandise—all those shiny Submariners for about what it costs to treat the family to Waffle House. Not that I've ever bought anything from such a Runyonesque character—I may appreciate the style, but even I know that a $40 Rolex is barely worth the tin its stamped out of.

At least that used to be the case. Not only has the trenchcoated fake Rolex dealer gone the way of the dodo bird, but so too has the knockoff watch that breaks within hours of being purchased. Quality "replica watches" (the preferred euphemism among low-end merchants) are actually decent pieces of machinery nowadays, complete with genuine Swiss movements. I'm not saying you can't tell the difference between a fake and the real thing, but you'll need some chops. And even if you can, hey, who among us low-enders is really gonna shell out an extra $9,950 for the genuine article? In our modest realms, all a name-brand watch gets you is a beatdown on the crosstown bus.

But, ah, that pesky demon known as guilt. Now that there's not much of a downside to going the knockoff route, is the realization that we're taking money out the mouths of the Gucci and Cartier? In other words, I'm asking you, can—or should—low-end consumers have a conscience? Thoughts worthy of Jack Handy at his shallowest after the jump.

It really should come as no surprise that knock-off luxury watches have really increased in quality over the last, say, five years. Folks much smarter than I have expended considerable ink on the reasons for this; my favorite theory is that, once a lot of the luxury vendors started outsourcing their mid-tier manufacturing to China, they made it that much easier for the Wizards of Guangdong to copy core designs. Also worth noting is the fact that there's a lot more capital sloshing around Asian factories, which means they've got the dosh needed to buy European parts rather than fabricating their own. There was a great Wall Street Journal piece a few months back which reported that a Swatch subsidiary was shipping oodles of parts to China; they said they wanted to stop, but that European Union competition rules precluded them from doing so for at least another five years.

The other thing to consider here is the shifting distribution pattern, abetted by that lovely beast known as international business. Used to be you needed a serious hook up, via multiple middlemen, to get a batch of watches from Shenzhen to downtown New York. No longer: the factories can now sell direct via fly-by-night Web sites. (To avoid antagonizing the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, I'll refrain from listing any currently active URLs. But I know y'all can Google "Rolex replica".) This is bad news for our pal in the trenchcoat, who's been forced to pay for his lotto and Night Train habits by taking on other work. (For example, y'know that guy who says his car broke down, and he needs $45 to get it fixed, and he totally wants your address so he can pay you back, pronto? Erstwhile watch salesman.) But it's good news for folks who want a solid, albeit unspectacular, watch at a price that won't get them into debt.

The luxury watch industry's standard argument against fakes has been that they're a) of terrible quality, and b) not the real thing, and so won't impress the people you want to impress. But now Guangdong (and, to a lesser extent, the greater Bangkok area) has rendered the former point moot, and the latter point never really mattered to us low-enders, now, did it? It's not like I'm gonna be hanging in the VIP room with Busta Rhymes anytime soon no matter what watch I wear; I just want one that looks good, and will work for several years. (Note to Busta: If you do perchance read Gizmodo and wanna hang, drop me a line.)

So the industry's new argument is the immorality of supporting counterfeiters. It's obviously illegal to knowingly purchase counterfeit goods (right, law-talking guys?), and I do buy the argument that creating an environment in which piracy is winked at can have deleterious long-term consequences. Lord knows I'd be pretty miffed if someone started writing an Engrish-filled column called Low End Theory for some Chinese gadgets site. (Especially if they tried passing themselves off as "Branden I. Kerner" or something.)

Low End Theory

But, come on, don't those of us who make the median and below deserve decent watches? So, lemme propose a solution to the Rolexes of the world: take a page from the Target playbook and come out with some reasonably priced, limited-edition lines once in a while. Y'know, how Target hires a couple of big designers every year to do a seasonal line of stylish-yet-affordable togs. Us Joe Sixpacks would pay a markup over the replicas, if only because we could get real warranties. We're cheap, yes, but we'll shell out for the right product—just not an extra few grand extra for the sake of the brag factor.

Don't worry, Rolex, the snobs will still love you as long as you keep icing out your watches to ridiculous extremes; there's always an Arab sheik or coked-out supermodel who's got $500,000 lying around. But if you really want us on the low-end to protect that market by shunning the fakes, how about tossing us a frickin' bone here?

NEXT WEEK: The low-end salesman—an anthropological study!

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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