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Adam Harris: From Museum Curator to Spotting Luxury Watch Fakers

- By Keith Lehman (PA) 09/25/20

Adam Harris poses in front of various horological workbenches and  equipment
Harris during his time as Guest Wristwatch Curator at the National Watch & Clock Museum. Photo by Keith Lehman.

It has been nearly five years since Adam Harris began teaching his class at the National Watch & Clock Museum in Columbia, PA, to show students how to identify fake luxury wristwatches. Harris began volunteering for the Museum as a guest wristwatch curator in 2012. Over the next three years, his knowledge of wristwatches and horology expanded and, working with our Education Department, he developed methods to identify fake luxury wristwatches. The first class he taught was with the world-famous pawnbrokers of the hit reality TV show Pawn Stars. From there he refined his course and began teaching it at the Museum, then out into the world.

The NAWCC has offered many workshops over the years, but this one was different. Instead of teaching about clock making, watchmaking, repair, or appraising timepieces, this was specifically about identifying fake luxury wristwatches. It attracted an entirely new demographic to the NAWCC. The majority of the students were from the pawn and appraisal industry. Harris's passion for wristwatches and enthusiasm for teaching made the class an instant success. During his time with the NAWCC, Harris traveled all over the United States, to Canada, and even to Singapore.

In 2018, Harris began working for EZ Pawn Corp, the second-largest pawn group in New York City. He handles the authentication, valuation, and sales of all wristwatches that come into their 15 shops. He also conducts regular classes for the employees of EZ Pawn Corp to keep them up to date on how to spot fake watches that come into their stores. On September 16, 2020, Harris taught his last course before retiring to return to Europe. The class focused on how to identify fake Rolex watches. This skill is, without a doubt, valuable for anyone working in the pawn industry. A mistake could cost a business thousands of dollars, but the rewards are thousands more.


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Harris sitting in front of a computer with a young female student standing beside him
Harris working with one of his students. Photo by Keith Lehman.

This final class had a total of 21 students, 16 online and five in-person. All were employees of EZ Pawn Corp with the exception of me. The course started with the chronological history of Rolex movements. Harris took care to explain the important advancements of each movement as they evolved, including the addition of the Incabloc shock protection system and their in-house Parachrom Bleu magnetic-resistant hairspring. He pointed out effective ways to spot trademark attributes of a modern Rolex watch: noting the microstella screws found in the balance wheel and observing which direction the hands go when turning the crown clockwise when adjusting the time.

The next part of the class was what Harris coined as "Knowing the Beast." This involved learning the use of lume on the dials and hands, what a "marriage" watch is, and how to spot poor printing and engraving on the dial, case, and movement. The course’s focus grew more refined as it progressed, looking at every detail of the watch including dials, crystals, case and bracelet engraving assay marks, specific details on movements, bracelets, lug engravings, and Rolex built-in counterfeit measures. In addition to his PowerPoint, Harris employed a high-definition microscope to show in high detail each part of the watch. He also had fake watches as examples to contrast the difference between the authentic and counterfeit.

By the end of the course, I was far more aware of just how high a standard Rolex sets for its pieces. There is a reason why their watches command such high prices and popularity. I left also aware of just how challenging spotting a fake can be, especially if presented with what Harris describes as "supernova fakes." These fakes, which can cost $800, are made with such high detail they could trick even an experienced watch collector. In fact, Harris admitted he has been fooled twice. His successes, however, far outweigh his failures. He has worked closely with Rolex to identify these "supernova fakes" which are fitted with genuine Rolex movements. He supplied over 16 examples of these movements and believes he has helped stamp them out.

He also provided practical advice as well. If the deal is too good to be true or if the seller doesn't have a solid story as to where the watch is from, then it's most likely a fake. Avoiding the purchase of a fake watch requires both practical and technical knowledge, but keeping a cool head is also paramount—a difficult thing to do when presented with what could be a watch worth $30,000. No doubt Harris's students left this class, as I did, with more confidence to face the never-ending onslaught of fakes and forgeries that will come their way.

Scroll down to read my interview with Harris and learn about his life and career as a horologist. On a personal note, Adam Harris is my good friend, and my career here at the NAWCC has benefited greatly from his horological tutelage. I greatly admire his passion, inventiveness, and tenacity not only in wristwatches but in life. Before his time as a horologist, Harris was CEO of the European branch of Fujitsu. There is no doubt that he applied the same determination and focus there as he did for the NAWCC and EZ Pawn Corp. As a friend, he has shown me great generosity and kindness. He has traveled to nearly every corner of the world and readily shares his stories that never fail to enlighten and entertain. The most valuable lesson I learned from Adam is that intelligence is good, but wisdom is better—because it's earned. It saddens me that Adam is retiring from teaching, but I'm glad that he has the time now to enjoy the good things that life has yet to offer.

Many students sitting around a table with many books and watches which they are studying.
Students attending Harris's course in 2016. Photo by Keith Lehman.

WN: Who are you and where do you live?

AH: I am a nomad. I have a British passport, but I don't live there. I have an apartment in Spain, but I’m not a citizen there either. I have an O1 American Visa, but again that does not allow me citizenship. I am just a wandering Jew.

WN: Where are you originally from?

AH: I was born in Glasgow, Scotland. In my day it was gangland city; now it’s a city of culture.

WN: How did you get your start as a horologist?

AH: I have always been interested in mechanical items. After retiring to Spain, I started to study horology, especially the "beginning of the wristwatch." Even 20 years ago we did not know who made or who wore the first wristwatches. Thanks to my research now we do.

WN: You spent a number of years as guest wristwatch curator and an instructor for the NAWCC. What did you learn there?

AH: I learned to be humble. Before I came to the NAWCC as a guest curator, I thought I knew it all. It soon became obvious, after working with true experts, how little I knew.

WN: Where do you work now and what is your job title?

AH: I work for EZ Pawn Corp, the second-largest pawn group in New York City. They have 15 shops.

WN: What do you do during a typical workday?

AH: My job is twofold. First, I authenticate watches; secondly (and just as important), I value them. As a pawn shop we don't just make loans on items, we will purchase most of them for cash. Once we own the watch, my job is to photograph it, correctly describe it, and put it up for sale both on eBay and in one of our stores.

WN: What was the most expensive watch you handled?

AH: We had a rare Cartier Tourbillon for which we loaned $31,000. It was valued at about $150,000. We've had Breguets, too. What is most interesting now is that an SS Rolex that retails for $8,000 is now worth over $23,000 due to scarcity.

WN: How has the counterfeit world changed since you first started teaching people how to identify fake wristwatches?

AH: It has moved dramatically from cheap quartz movements made in Asia to what I term "supernova fakes." These fakes use reverse-engineered Rolex movements and are nearly perfect externally unless you know where to look. It is very scary and not for the faint of heart.

WN: Has COVID-19 affected the retail watch industry?

AH: Strangely, no! stainless steel sports watches have increased in value, also gold exceeded $2,000 per ounce. Top Swiss watches like Rolex, Patek, and Cartier are on the rise. Remember, COVID-19 stopped production in Switzerland for 12 weeks!

WN: How has COVID-19 affected the pawn industry?

AH: Well, it's surely affected the pawn industry. Instead, as we all predicted that people would be desperately short of money due to lock downs and unemployment, actually the opposite occurred. With stimulus packages, unemployment benefits, and the fact that no one could go on vacations or even out for dinners, people had excess cash to redeem their loans. Most pawn shops have seen the loan portfolio reduced by 40%.

WN: In which countries have you taught your course?

AH: I have taught in over 14 states within United States, and in three countries, United States, Singapore, and Canada.

WN: How many students have you taught in total?

AH: I estimate about 500 in five years.

WN: Do you think your efforts to combat counterfeit watches succeeded?

AH: Well, it never stopped fake watches from coming into the shops or improving, but I helped a lot of people to not be duped. I have some lovely testimonials.

WN: What is your advice for someone starting out today collecting and dealing in wristwatches?

AH: Act with extreme caution, even in payment methods. Always expect the unexpected.

WN: What are your plans now that you are an officially retired horologist?

AH: Maybe relax, see my daughters and grandchildren, and try to be happy—try to see the bottle as half full rather than always half empty!  


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