I’ve learned a few valuable lessons over the last few years in the watch collecting hobby, some through experience and some through research. So I thought I would share two really important ones with my readers today:
- Do not buy a Rolex watch and try to ship it into the USA
- Do not buy a watch strap made of an endangered species and try to ship it out of Europe
These two rules are unrelated, but both can easily trip up would-be watch enthusiasts. And not all watch dealers will have your back if you run afoul of them!
Rolex Watches Can’t Be Imported
Probably the most surprising of the two is the simple fact that it is not legal to import a new or used Rolex watch (even a genuine one) into the United States. This will shock most people, since it’s not true of any other watch brand or indeed most any other product. But it’s true.
Rolex set up a special structure to take advantage of a catch-22 in American customs rules. Essentially, there are two different Rolexes:
- Manufacture des Montres Rolex S.A. Bienne (Rolex S.A. for short) is the company we all know and love in Switzerland. It handles production of Rolex and Tudor brand watches.
- Rolex Geneva and Rolex Watch USA Inc. (Rolex USA) is a separate company that handles import and distribution of Rolex and Tudor brand watches inside the USA.
It is illegal to import any trademarked item into the USA without the permission of the trademark holder. This makes sense, right? And since trademarks are specific to each country, and can vary, the USA requires that importers of trademarked items have permission from the trademark owners. So far so good. But Rolex pulled a special trick by assigning the American trademark for Rolex (as well as the patent on the Rolex crown logo) to Rolex USA rather than keeping it with Rolex S.A. And with a wink and a nod, Rolex and Rolex refuse to work together on imports. Genius! (It’s a lot more complicated than this – see this Crown & Caliber article and this TimeZone post for more)
In practice, this means that it is illegal to import Rolex watches by mail or freight unless your name is Rolex Watch USA Inc. And US Customs can (and frequently does) seize Rolex watches on the way into the country. For this reason, no reputable foreign dealer will ship a Rolex watch into the USA since there is a very good chance it will be seized by Customs. And if it is seized, it’s likely to be auctioned off with the buyer getting stiffed! Some shady operators will try to sneak a Rolex in, but I wouldn’t work with that sort of person or take that sort of risk.
None of this has anything to do with Customs duties or counterfeiting, mind you. It is perfectly legal to import one (and only one) Rolex watch by hand. If you travel outside the USA and buy a Rolex watch, you can bring it back on your wrist. But you cannot bring more than one and you had better declare it and pay import duties! And counterfeit watches can land you in some hot water, so just stay away.
Alligator Straps Are Trouble
Now let’s turn to the other part of that watch I pictured above: The alligator strap. According to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), it is illegal to import or export any products from a long list of endangered species. Although almost every country in the world is part of CITES, the European Union is particularly strict when it comes to watch straps.
European watch dealers can get in big trouble if they ship an alligator or crocodile watch strap outside the EU without proper paperwork. And watch strap makers (even compliant ones) don’t usually bother with proper paperwork on individual straps. So dealers generally will remove and discard these straps before shipment, even when it’s pretty likely they are CITES compliant (as in the case of a major brand strap or a historical watch). It’s just not worth the risk to them.
I learned this the hard way when I purchased a Paul Picot Chronograph. Although it came with the original box and papers, it did not include a CITES certificate. So Auctionata sent me the watch without the strap. This was a disappointment since it was the original strap from the factory and thus was obviously compliant. And it was in good shape, too!
Most other countries seem to be a bit more “common sense” when it comes to watch straps. I haven’t heard of any trouble shipping alligator straps between other countries, especially when they are attached to a watch. I guess the Customs agencies in other areas assume that a major-brand watch strap is going to be CITES compliant even if there’s no certificate.
I imagine the same issue could come up with watches with other materials, including ivory or wood. And there are many covered species but the American Alligator and Brown Caiman are probably the most common.
So there you have it: Don’t try buying Rolex watches and having them mailed to the USA, and don’t try buying an alligator or crocodile watch strap from Europe!
Note: I am not a lawyer. Seek legal advice rather than trusting what I’ve written here!
Note 2: Yes, the headline is sensationalist. It’s perfectly OK to buy Rolex watches and alligator straps, just not to have them mailed from Europe to the USA!