Watches make good gifts for birthdays, weddings and special occasions like graduations. But if you don’t purchase a watch often, it’s hard to know where to look first for the best deal, the best warranty & a guarantee of authenticity. Most people find that the online watch purchasing experience is fragmented and fraught with fakes and high prices. This article explains how to pick an online watch store.
We cover safe places to buy watches online, including the pros and cons of each category of vendor. At the bottom, we explain how the watch buying industry works to give some insight into the lingo and the reasons why the industry is structured the way it is. We’ve also included some term definitions and a section for international buyers.
Some (but not all) of the vendors mentioned below are our affiliates.
Where to start when buying a watch online
To start with, the safest place to buy a watch online is directly from the manufacturer’s site. You know you’ll be getting a genuine watch and you’ll qualify for all the warranties and guarantees that the watch maker usually offers. For a lot of watches, however, you won’t get the best price and for expensive watches, you won’t even be able to buy anything, they sell only through dealers.
Expensive watch companies are usually pretty old school, which means they rely on a network of distributors and dealers to sell watches, and have for generations. That means those distributors usually offer the sales and the best online prices. The price on the watchmaker website is usually higher than walking into a store.
Newer watch companies that don’t have a historical dealer network in place are an exception. Either way, always check the manufacturer’s website first, it takes only a few minutes and you can get what you want directly from the source.
Pros – genuine watch guarantee, usually comes with original warranty.
Cons – usually not the best price. the cheaper the watch, the better the chance the manufacturer website will be a good price.
No surprise that Amazon is on the list because you can find almost everything on there. But how you buy a watch matters on Amazon, so always pay attention to the details. Here’s how it works:
There are two types of sellers on Amazon: Amazon itself and third-party sellers. Third-party sellers could be anyone from a well-known watch company to a shady dealer out to scam you. When you buy on Amazon, if the product says it is “shipped and sold by Amazon.com” that means that Amazon is the seller. You can trust these sales because Amazon sources its goods just like any other big retailer and you’re likely getting the real thing. You can check the box on the left and limit yourself only to the watches that Amazon sells itself. Here is a search that only shows the watches where Amazon is the seller.
On the other hand, third-party sales on Amazon are a thing to be cautious about. To put it in Star Wars terms, you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. Of course, there are also a lot of good sellers there, which is why we recommend them. Always, always, always, look to see who the seller is on Amazon. In the right hand column, you can see who the seller is, and below the add to cart button, you can see the other sellers on Amazon. These are important things to check.
For example, look at the listing for the Orient Bambino dress watch, a favorite in the inexpensive dress watch category. On the right hand side, just under the word “In Stock” it says “Ships from and sold by Amazon.com.” That’s good. If you scroll down and look under the “Buy Now” button you will see “Other Sellers on Amazon.” If other sellers are selling the watch, you can click on that to see if there is a more reputable dealer with a better price. In general, unless another seller is cheaper AND highly rated, always go with Amazon if Amazon is the seller.
They key to judging a third-party seller is the ratings, not reviews. Why? Reviews review the product, ratings rate the seller. For example, here is the storefront for the third-party seller The Watch Locker. You can see what they are selling and click through to different watches. Here is their ratings page. You can see that they are a highly rated seller with a lot of ratings (96% positive in the last 12 months (7,966 total ratings at the time this was article was written).
Always check both the product reviews and the ratings page before buying from a third-party seller. Other sellers I would trust are The Watch Locker. (96% positive in the last 12 months) My Gift Stop (5 out of 5 stars 97% positive over the past 12 months (31,263 total ratings); JustCalculators (4.5 out of 5 stars 90% positive over the past 12 months (41,501 total ratings), and Watchsavings (5 out of 5 stars 99% positive over the past 12 months (63,696 total ratings). Yes, all of these names are ridiculous, and I’ll explain why in a minute.
When you’re buying on Amazon, you should keep an eye out for:
- Bad reviews, obviously.
- Lack of reviews – a lack of reviews indicates a lack of buyers, which could indicate that the seller is new or a scammer.
- Lack of real reviews – Amazon has gotten pretty good at catching these sellers with AI software, but still keep an eye out. If all the reviews say the same thing and all seem positive or generically negative, it’s a sign of fake reviews.
- Lack of positive ratings – ratings are different from reviews, and relate to the seller in general and not a specific product.
- Don’t be fooled by the phrase “Fulfilled by Amazon.” This doesn’t mean that Amazon has checked that it is genuine, only that the seller is using Amazon’s warehouse to ship goods. The phrase has no bearing on quality.
- Bad packaging. At the very least, it means you’re getting a used watch that has been returned, but is also often an obvious indicator for fraud. Make sure that what comes is in its original packaging free from obvious spelling mistakes and errors.
While all this can sound scary, for the most part you’ll find that popular watches are usually sold by very popular sellers. Three or four big sellers dominate the selling in each watch category, with hundreds or thousands of positive ratings (sometimes the manufacturer itself is the seller). If you stick to those sellers, you can generally get a genuine watch at a great price. The more rare the watch, the less likely you will find someone that sells it, making the potential for fraud higher. In that case, switch to the authorized dealer.
Exception: Expensive watches on Amazon: While you can buy a Rolex or Omega on Amazon, we just don’t recommend it. Either shop through a dealer or a reputable watch seller. Authorized dealers and other online stores can provide better service, better warranties and more specialized watch knowledge, as well as a better guarantee of getting a genuine watch The most popular and commonly recommended online store is Jomashop, one of our affiliates. Generally, if you’re under $1500, you should be fine shopping on Amazon if you’re careful. Above that, switch to the authorized dealer or Jomashop.
Amazon Pros – usually the best or close to the best price, especially for cheaper watches.
Amazon Cons – have to closely identify the seller to prevent scams and fakes. Warranties might not be as long as buying directly from manufacturer or AD.
Department Stores and Big Box Retailers
Department stores are an often-overlooked source for great watch sales, especially when combined with coupons or charge card benefits (if they apply). Especially around the Black Friday shopping season, don’t be hesitant to check out Macy’s, Kohls, JC Penny, Costco, Walmart or Best Buy. For example, Walmart sells Casio & Timex, which are great brands for starter watches. These stores often have the clout to command sales from watch companies and combined with all the other benefits they offer, can give you a good deal. They usually also carry a lot of fashion watches, so if you’re in the market for one of those, you’ll find the best prices there on sale day.
Another benefit of the big box stores over other online retailers like Amazon is that there is usually one in your area, meaning you can go check out a watch in person and then wait for a sale to come along on the one you want. That can be an advantage if you’re shopping for a gift or a first watch and don’t know sizes and how they look on the wrist. You can try it on in person and then buy when it’s cheap.
Pros – Good sales, especially on fashion watches. Can check out in store and then wait for the best price.
Cons – Don’t usually carry a wide range of watches, and some watch brands are unique to each store; a lot of coupons exclude watches.
Authorized Dealers (AD)
Authorized dealers (ADs in watch speak) are more common the more expensive the watch is. If you’re looking for a watch over $1000, chances are you’ll want to go to an authorized dealer. However, chances are also that you might not be able to buy a watch online in a quick transaction. What you will find on AD websites are a lot of “call us” buttons instead of “buy now” buttons, a frustration to watch buyers everywhere (and a reason why people dislike them). Authorized dealers in high end watches are like expensive car salesmen, they want you in their store so they can sell you on the merits of all the different models and maybe up-sell you while you’re there.
If you hate car salesmen, you might also hate dealing with an authorized dealer. And to be fair to them, a lot of times it’s the watch company that limits online sales, not the dealer themselves. Of course, just because they don’t sell online doesn’t mean you have to be there in person. A phone call will usually get you a watch sent over.
On the other hand, some people love authorized dealers. Let’s face it, if you’re buying a $2,000 or $50,000 watch, you probably want personal service. And you probably wouldn’t mind the opportunity to get it engraved when you buy it. At the price point some watches are selling at, getting such service is part of the appeal, the exclusivity, and if those watch companies sold directly online you wouldn’t get the same thing out of it. It’s an experience.
People love authorized dealers for another reason, and that’s because you have someone watching your back if something goes wrong. You have a place to send your watch for service and most of the time, the dealer is required to be able to service the watch. You can take it in and someone can open it up right there. ADs usually offer the best guarantees and warranties in the business, backed by the manufacturer. All in all, for an expensive watch, an AD is probably where you’ll have the best experience.
Other online vendors (aka Gray Market sellers)
Some vendors have, over the years, earned reputations for selling watches at great prices or giving great service. Amazon is not the only retailer out there! In the lingo, these places are often called “gray market retailers.” For an explanation of the term, see the bottom of this post where we explain how the watch industry works.
Gray market dealers usually have the best price on expensive watches, with the trade-off being that you get a lesser warranty and more uncertainty about who will be servicing your watch if something goes wrong. They consistently undercut authorized dealers on price, so if cost is your main consideration, we recommend looking into them. If you’re worried about service and guarantees, you should stick with an authorized dealer.
The best and largest grey market watch dealer out there is our affiliate Jomashop. It probably gets mentioned the most on watch forums and it’s one of the first places people go to check prices against other retailers. It consistently has the largest selection. Other options include Authentic Watches.com (also our affiliate), Long Island Watch, a watch house on Long Island in NY state, Creation Watches, Bernard Watch Co., Jacobtime and Ashford (and many more are recommended on watch forums). If you’re specifically looking for a fashion watch, like Michael Kors or Armani, you can check out our affiliate WatchStation.
If you’re in the U.K. or the EU, you can check out The Watch Shop, the U.K.’s largest online watch seller (and also our affiliate), The Watch Hut (non-affiliate), and the above-mentioned WatchStation, which is owned by Fossil and has a large EU presence and even physical locations to try on watches.
Popular category searches on Jomashop:
Generally, gray market dealers like the ones above are great places to find mid-range to high-range watches and sales. If it’s between $250 – $8,000, they generally offer better service or prices than other retailers on a watch that you might not want to deal with an authorized dealer on. They also offer a way to buy watches from companies that don’t have a very big presence your area or that won’t ship to your country. For a lot of watch enthusiasts outside the United States, a gray market dealer will be the only way to get a watch shipped to them.
Cautions: The gray market offers better prices and an easier buying and shipping experience. If you know what you want and don’t mind buying online, go for it. The downside of course, is that they don’t offer the same warranties as an authorized dealer. The authorized dealer warranty is usually from the manufacturer itself (who cares a great deal about their reputation), while the online retailer warranty is from the retailer itself. If the retailer goes out of business, you’re out of luck. With an authorized dealer, you also can trust that the dealer is trained on your watch or will send it back to the factory if necessary. With an online dealer, you won’t know who is doing the repairs and with what parts.
Pros – great prices, can save hundreds on an expensive watch, easy buying experience, fast shipping. Can find watches from companies that don’t have dealers in your county, many ship internationally.
Cons – warranties are not the same as that offered by an AD, can go out of business or refuse to honor obligations, can service your watch with generic or substandard parts not purchased from the manufacturer.
Watch forums and watch exchange websites
Forums and watch websites are a hidden gem when it comes to buying watches online. Generally, this category means you’re buying a used watch from another person, not a new watch from a retailer. But more often than not, that “used” watch is in mint condition and a steal on price, especially if you’re looking for a unique or rare watch or a watch released a few years ago. They are a great way to find previously released versions of watches that might fit your wrist better than a current version or look slightly different and have a style you love.
A great example of a watch exchange is Reddit’s r/Watchexchange. They have a great system of self-policing and are an excellent way to find something awesome, either for yourself or as a gift. I’ve used them before and highly recommend them. For watch advice, be sure to check out r/watches beforehand. And as a bit of self-promotion, I’m a moderator of r/watchbands, a place to find great pictures of watchbands and links to strapmakers. Some used watches aren’t sold with the bracelet or band; good thing you’re reading a watch band blog! Check out our guides on buying a new watch strap or replacing one at the bottom of this post.
Another highly recommended watch exchange (and retailer) is Chrono24. Geared more towards the higher-end watch market, it’s the place to go to pick up a very expensive used watch. They have built their reputation on buyer protection, so they offer a lot of peace of mind when you’re spending thousands or tens of thousands of dollars.
Pros – great deals on used watches, many almost indistinguishable from new watches. A great place to find a previous size or make that might not be sold any more. Knowledgeable and frank discussions of specific watch models’ pros and cons available to help you choose, and many eagle eyes to catch fakes or frankenwatches.
Cons – they rely on trust systems to ensure fair dealings, but often have little power to punish sellers, if it’s too good to be true it’s not true.
eBay: eBay is of course a well-known auction and watch buying website. It’s also a haven for fakes, replicas and frakenwatches. In general, we advise to avoid it unless you take the time to research the seller. Many old school sellers on watch websites started using eBay back in the day and continue to use it because that’s where their sellers know them from. Do your research first. It’s a good site for out of date watches and rare finds, but we would recommend looking elsewhere for new watches. There are much better and safer options available.
Buying a watch Internationally
If you’re an international buyer, chances are you will have trouble finding a seller willing to ship you the model you want, and you will also have to deal with high shipping costs, customs and import taxes, currency conversions and other annoyances. To handle all that, your best bet is going to be a grey market retailer (including Amazon) or a watch exchange website or forum. Many retailers will ship internationally because they are not under any constrains of where they can sell their watches. Look for sellers on Amazon willing to ship internationally, or try the grey market sellers listed above. Our affiliate grey market seller is Jomashop, and you can see their international shipping policy here: https://www.jomashop.com/help-center/international-shipping
Most watch sellers will make you take care of the customs duties yourself, which means the customs office (or if you’re lucky, your local post office) will hold your package until you go in and pay the fees and taxes. Always consider your currency conversions costs when you’re comparing prices as well, and realize that almost no watch sellers accept cryptocurrencies at the moment.
Watch forums and watch exchange websites are also places to look because individual sellers are willing to ship internationally (because they will get the payment from you first in a way that will be hard to get it back from them, ie. cash no credit cards). As the quality of watches on a lot of the sites I mentioned in that section above and the trust mechanisms are usually very high, this can be an excellent resource for international buyers. Users on the sites are also usually very good at spotting fakes and franken watches.
Watch Buying Terms
Here are some terms to help you out when you’re looking to buy a watch online:
Fakes, replicas & counterfeit watches – terms for a watch that is not made by the original company, but branded to look real. These are illegal and all reputable online places won’t deal in them or even allow discussions of them, aside from pointing out how to spot them. Your job when buying a watch is to avoid them.
Homage watches– a term for a watch that mimics the style of another (usually more famous) watch. When an homage mimics the style too closely it becomes a replica and then illegal. Homages are mostly looked down upon in the watch world as a cheap man’s version of the real thing. The company making them gets looked down upon as lacking creativity and for copying designs, while the buyer gets looked down upon for cheaply trying to purchase something that looks like the real, more expensive thing. Lately, however, there has been a trend among watch companies to “reissue” or make homages/replicas of their own styles or the styles of now-defunct watch companies. These are generally looked more favorably upon in the watch world because it allows watch enthusiasts to purchase a watch that they would never be able to purchase otherwise, with the benefit of updated internal mechanisms, usually from the same company that made the original.
Frankenwatch – a term for a watch made up of the parts of other watches or a badly done modification. Franken watches are generally not illegal (despite what some watch companies would wish), as long as they are indicated as such. After all, it’s not illegal to take an engine of one car and put it in another, and the same is true for watches. When frakenwatches become illegal are when people try and hide the modifications and attempt to sell it as an unmodified watch, or speak about it in ways that suggest the modifications were done at the factory or by the watch maker themselves. You can’t put another watch mechanism in a Rolex and still call it a Rolex.
Mods, modifications – the term for changing your watch and adding aftermarket parts, like a Toyota enthusiast might add a spoiler to their car. These are not illegal and some watch companies even encourage it. A few watch styles (like Seiko divers) have communities dedicated to modding watches and the results can be very cool.
Fashion watch – a usually derogatory term for watches made for fashion houses (Gucci, Tommy Hilfiger, etc.), but now also includes any watch where the emphasis is on the looks and not the internal mechanisms (there are a lot of start-up watch companies on Kickstarter that fit this category). They are very popular watches, either because they are advertised heavily or because they look good, depending on which side you’re on. Here is the category on Jomashop, where you can see the distinctive look.
Most watch enthusiasts use the term derogatorily because the companies producing fashion watches don’t usually care about the history and craft of the internal mechanisms of watches, they just care about the looks (and the internals of fashion watches are often cheaply made). You will find a lot of these watches in department stores and jewelry stores. Fashion watches are popular gifts, and in fact most people who receive a fashion watch as a gift love them because they look good. Watch enthusiasts consider them overpriced for what you get inside. Don’t let that bother you if you love a fashion watch, wear the heck out of it,
Microbrand – a new-ish term for small brands that make or design watches. It is used both as a way to describe companies or artists making small amounts of great watches, or as a derogatory term to describe start-up brands that make mass-produced watches masquerading as a hipster fashion watch. Yes, there are companies that spend a lot of time making exquisite watches in small batches. There are also people raising money on Kickstarter to produce an overpriced watch with a nice-looking case filled with a cheaply made watch movement that will break in a few months. It’s up to you to research them before you buy.
Gray market – refers to a specific type of retailer in the watch business. In this guide, it just means an online dealer who is not an authorized dealer (although they can be both, an authorized dealer for one brand and not authorized for another). See the explanation of the watch industry below for details on the history of this term. Grey market retailers have a mixed reputation in the watch business. Some of them offer great service, great prices and great warranties, while others might sell you watches repaired with non-genuine parts or used watches claiming they are new. If you hang around enough, a few of them get mentioned a lot on the watch forums. Our recommended online watch store and affiliate is Jomashop.
Other watch terms – if you’re interested in watch characteristics, like dials and internal mechanisms, see this good article from Gear Patrol: 50 Terms Every Watch-Lover Needs to Know.
Explanations of the Watch-Buying Industry
Why do we have terms like “Authorized Dealers” and “Gray-Market Retailers”? Read on for a summarized history of the watch buying industry that explains the origins.
In the beginning… we had watch makers. They were small and very specialized. Watch making was (and still is) a work of art and incredibly intricate. Everything was made and assembled by hand and watches were expensive and still relatively rare. You purchased your watch from the person or company that made it and you took it back to them when it broke. As the world got bigger, watch makers began selling through intermediaries. But they needed to protect their reputations, because reputations were everything.
It turns out that if you sell your watches to just anyone and let anyone repair them (which they do badly, since they are very complicated), your reputation suffers. Then you go out of business. So watch companies tightly controlled who got to sell their watches, and who got to repair and service them. They want to ensure quality, but all that quality takes money. They also wanted to maintain an appearance of exclusivity.
The companies that high-end watch companies choose to sell their watches are called “Authorized Dealers” or “AD” for short. The watch company and the dealer agree to a contract where the dealer agrees to provide a high level of service. If the dealer provides repair options, it agrees to use genuine parts and maintain a high level of quality. Often, authorized dealers and repair shops have to undergo specialized training and years of service to be able to repair a high-end watch. Authorized dealers are often jewelry shops, watch repair centers or high-end retailers who have been in the business a long time, sometimes almost as long as the watch companies themselves. Often, the dealer will bid for the rights to sell in a particular geographic area.
That’s how it used to be. Then the Quartz Crisis came along and cheap watches became widely available. Then internet came along and people wanted to buy watches online. Enter the rise of online gray market retailers.
The Gray Market (or Grey if you’re not from the U.S.)
The term “gray market” (Wikipedia) is a derogatory term designed to instill fear in a buyer that they’re not getting the real thing. And indeed, there is that chance. Often used in trademark law, it refers to a distribution channel outside of the official ones run by the manufacturer. Remember those high-end watch companies using jewelry stores and watch repair shops to sell their watches? Well there are many jewelry stores, pawn shops, watch repair shops and retailers in the world, and they desire to sell watches too. But how do they get a hold of the watches to sell? They buy them under the table from an authorized dealer.
Unlike the black market, which would refer to stolen watches and counterfeits, the gray market isn’t usually illegal (in most countries). Non-authorized jewelry stores and watch shops don’t necessarily sell fake watches or stolen watches, the watches are real. They just bought them from someone who wasn’t supposed to sell them. Which isn’t very nice.
With the rise of international trade, enterprising entrepreneurs realized you could go to a jewelry store in Europe, buy genuine high-end watches, ship them to another country and sell them for a huge profit. Often at the expense of the authorized dealer in that country who was required to import them at the manufacturer’s prices and to maintain levels of service and repair facilities that cost money. Other enterprising fraudsters realized you could import sub-par or fake watches, tell customers they were genuinely from another country, and make a ton of money from consumers who wouldn’t know the difference. When the watch broke, the manufacturer got blamed. This pissed everyone off so much the lawsuits flew, but in the end, in most places it is not illegal to import something genuine and then resell it. Manufacturers (of everything, not just watches) came up with the term “gray market” to deter buyers. Are you getting the real thing? Better be suspicious! It might be fake.
Gray market retailers who sell real watches usually buy them from a store, the manufacturer in bulk (sometimes secretly), or from an authorized dealer or distributor selling them on the sly (in violation of the contract the dealer has made with the watch company). Watch companies have a love-hate relationship with gray market retailers. On the one hand, they sell a lot of watches. On the other hand, the watch company reputation can suffer if watches are poorly serviced or sold too cheaply.
Gray market sales also cause the relationships watch companies have with their current authorized dealers to suffer, especially with online sales. Watch companies hated online selling because they had sold the rights to sell in a particular territory or region to a dealer and if another dealer sold watches online to a customer in that area it would steal business away from the dealer that had paid money for the rights. The old school style of geographic dealerships suffered greatly from internet sales, and a lot of watch companies suffered because consumers wanted to buy online and the watch company’s contracts and business structure prevented it, leading to a lot of consumers to go grey market to get a watch.
In general, gray market retailers are trying to fill a need that authorized dealers are not: selling watches to people online at good prices. Maybe you’re far from any store, or maybe you don’t like dealing with pushy salesmen or even dealing with people at all. Or maybe you’re buying an expensive watch but you already know what you want and just want the best price. They grey market is for you. A lot of grey market retailers have actually become authorized dealers for mid-range and lower priced watches. So, while they might be a gray market seller of very expensive watches, they are an authorized dealer for some of the less expensive ones on their website. Third-party sellers on Amazon are an example of gray market sellers (as is Amazon itself).
That folks, is a short summary of the watch market. In summary, if the watch is inexpensive, it’s likely to be sold online or freely sold in stores. If it’s very expensive, it’s likely sold through an authorized dealer and the sale and service is highly restricted. If price is your biggest pain point, you can usually get a better deal going with a grey market retailer, either online or through a jewelry store or watch store. Another reason people use gray market retailers is because their location makes it impossible or difficult to buy. But if service and repair quality are high on your list, stick with an authorized dealer.
We hope you find this article helpful. If you’re interested, you can check out our other guides:
- List of reputable watch strap companies & brands
- Tools for Replacing A Watch Strap Or Band
- How to Pick Out The Right Watch Band For Your Watch
- 5 Tips For Picking Out A New Watch Band Or Strap
- The Complete Guide to the Orient Bambino Dress Watch
- Seiko SNK Watch Guide
- How to Fix A Broken Loop On Your Watch Strap
- Basic Bands 2018 Watch Strap And Band Gift Guide