On November 12, 2017, the Planet of the Fakes auctioned a Rolex Explorer Ref. 1016 with case number 5626155 from 1978 featuring a peculiar and never-before-seen “Lègion Étrangère”-engraved caseback. Légion Étragère is French for Foreign Legion, a legendary military service branch of the French Army that is open to recruits from most countries of the world.
Interestingly, the spelling of “Légion Étrangère” was wrong. “Légion” was engraved with the accent grave [ ` ] instead of the accent aigu [ ´ ]. “Lègion” vs. “Légion”, quite an error in French language. But there is more. As it became evident just recently, the case and reference number engravings between the lugs are fake and so is the case number engraved on the inside of the caseback. What is more troubling however, is that Rolex accepted this watch for service, despite third party alterations.
In late 2017, nothing about it sounded the alarm and its sale for a relatively small amount of 12,500 Swiss Francs went unnoticed. More than a year later in January 2019, the very same watch started appearing in troll accounts associated with the Planet of the Fakes. The watch was described as having fixed bars between the lugs – suggesting it was an issued military watch made to be worn on a Nato strap. It soon was disclosed the caseback had the full case number 5626155 engraved on the inside, something only known from special production Rolex watches made for Comex or the British Ministry of Defense (Milsubs), etc. French followers almost immediately chimed in to express their doubts about the watch. A Rolex specifically made for the French Foreign Legion did not exist, so their assertion. These critics were quickly silenced (blocked), their comments removed and later insulted as clowns in a dedicated post.
More and more details were revealed to suggest its legitimazy. It appears the watch was even brought to Rolex Geneva in March 2019 and received an overhaul estimate. Subsequently it was claimed the watch comes “with Rolex Geneva papers”.
Lot 346 – Rolex Explorer Ref. 1016, 5626155, “Lègion Étrangère”
Viewed from the front, the watch appears like a regular Rolex Explorer Ref. 1016 from 1978.
Auction link: Lot 346 – Rolex Explorer Ref. 1016 Legion Etrangere
The special feature lies in the caseback which is engraved with “Lègion Étrangère”. But “Lègion” is misspelled with an accent grave [ ` ] instead of an accent aigu [ ´ ]. That is quite an error in French language as it changes the way a word is pronounced to something that does not exist.
The following book cover shows how Légion Étrangère is spelled correctly.
In the center, the caseback features the so-called “Dextrochere”, the beret insignia of the 2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment (2e Régiment étranger de parachutistes). The winged arm with a sword represents the right Arm of Archangel Michael, a symbol for righteous combat and fidelity to superior missions. The “Dextrochere” is not exclusive to the Foreign Legion, it is worn by all French Army Paratroopers.
The picture below shows French Foreign Legion Paratroopers during an intervention in Kolwezi, Zaire in May 1978. Interestinlgy, the watch was produced in 1978 according to its case number. It is very much possible that the intention was to link this watch to this event.
However, the watch worn by the Légionnaire this photo from 1978 is certainly no Rolex but nonetheless quite interesting. It is a Yema diver watch with what appears to be the badge of the 2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment printed onto the dial. Thanks to @mikawatches for pointing this out.
It is interesting to note that this Yema watch featured a badge that is unique to the French Foreign Legion Paratroopers and not the “Dextrochere” insignia which is shared with other French Army paratrooper units.
Read more: 2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment (Wikipedia)
Coming back to the Explorer, except for the specially engraved caseback, the original listing did not mention any other special features of this watch.
On January 27, 2019, the very same watch was featured on Instagram by one of the troll accounts associated with the Planet of the Fakes. From information gathered online, the watch appeared to belong to a Singaporean but it soon ended up with said troll who kept promoting it as “one of a kind”.
On February 25, 2019, the troll posted a picture of the case and reference number engravings between the lugs. The purpose of this post was to prove there were no bracelet marks to be seen. Military issued watches produced with factory fixed bars would never show any bracelet marks, so the statement.
The area between the lugs looked indeed very clean. Case and reference number engravings seemed ok at first glance but a comparison with Explorer Ref. 1016 watches from the same batch and other batches in close case number proximity revealed the engravings are fake.
The comparison below shows the reference number engravings of 5626155 in the center. The numbers are considerably taller than on genuine watches in close case number proximity. The shape of the numbers differs as well, especially that of the number 6 (see illustration in the bottom right corner).
A similar situation can be found between the lugs at 6 o’clock where the case number engravings of 5626155 are positioned considerably lower than on other Ref. 1016 watches from the same case number range or in close proximity. In addition, the shape of the number 2 is clearly off. It is these minute details that unmask these engravings as fake.
Just as with the fake Daytona Albino, the engravings on this watch are quite well executed. Without proper comparison to other watches, one could easily be fooled by them.
Here is what I think happened. To create the illusion of a military issued watch with fixed bars, the counterfeiters removed the original engravings in the process of cleaning the area between the lugs. Once clean, the engravings were reapplied.
Another detail that does not add up is the way the case number was engraved on the inside of the caseback (red frame). The typeface used is the same as between the lugs. As you can see in the comparison below, Rolex was quite consistent when it came to engraving the case numbers on the inside of casebacks of special production watches. Within the shown range, Rolex used a completely different typeface for the caseback than for the numbers between the lugs.
Alright, this is the watch. Obviously, there is something terribly wrong about it. Now to the more concerning part of the issue. As mentioned earlier, this very watch was brought to Rolex Geneva for an overhaul estimate. It appears Rolex accepted the watch for service and the owner received an estimate letter. An excerpt of the letter was posted on Instagram on July 4, 2019, of course seconded by the usual insults against those who had questioned the story.
What to make of this? Well first of all, the watch is a real Rolex, despite the alterations and the fake French Foreign Legion story. Being a real Rolex it has every right to be serviced. However, in the early 2000s, Rolex introduced a policy to reject watches that had been altered with non-original parts. Deliberate removal or erasure of case numbers would also lead to immediate rejection. In this particular case, the Rolex specialists may have missed the reengraved case numbers as the counterfeiters have gotten real good at it. Fixed bars may be considered a minor alteration so it is very much possible that Rolex accepted this watch for service simply because it is a real Rolex.
The following is an interesting passage in the above shown excerpt:
The watch arrived without any bracelet, therefore we are pleased to propose a new black leather bracelet and a new buckle. If this replacement is also refused, the watch will be returned unrepaired.
Note the word “also” in the second sentence. This suggests Rolex proposed another replacement prior to this which for some reason was not disclosed in this excerpt. This is important! Rolex tied the service to at least two conditions. Could it be that Rolex proposed to remove the non-original fixed bars and replace them with original spring bars instead in order to return the watch to original condition?
Anyhow, what Rolex certainly did NOT do is confirm the “Légion Étrangère” story. They simply acknowledged the customer’s wish not to polish the engraved caseback.
“As per request, we confirm hereby that the watch will not be polished. Additionally, the engraved case back with the mention ‘Légion étrangère’ will not be polished neither.”
The Instagram troll published this excerpt in this form to manipulate his gullible followers into thinking Rolex confirmed the “Légion Étrangère” story by mentioning the engraved caseback but they did NOT! Rolex merely acknowledged the customer’s wish not to polish an engraved caseback. If the caseback was engraved with “No way, Jose!”, they would have mentioned that also.
This is not the first time said troll used Rolex’s acknowledgement of a caseback engraving, e.g. “016 M.N. 75” on a Rolex Submariner Ref. 5513, to proclaim Rolex confirmed a controversial narrative, e.g. the 5513 Marine Nationale story.
People often assume if Rolex accepts a watch for service, the watch must be 100% legit. This example illustrates beautifully that this is NOT necessarily the case. Every year, tens of thousands of Rolex watches are submitted for service. The folks at Rolex do not have the time to inspect every watch down to the last detail and dig in the archives to verify whether a story is real or not. If a watch does not look fake at first glance – like in this particular case or in case of the recently auctioned “Foulbino” Daytona – Rolex will accept to service it. The mere existence of a service estimate letter, however, is no guarantee that the watch – or the story attached to it – is real. Rolex states so themselves:
“This quote is intended to inform the Client on the price of a service. It does not attest to or guarantee the authenticity of a watch.“
Now you know what a service estimate letter is worth in terms of authenticity of watch. Not much! Dubious dealers have used this loophole for many years to “authenticate” their watches. They bring their pieces to Geneva with no intention whatsoever to have them serviced. All they want is the service estimate letter which they can wave in front of their customers and claim the watch is real as Rolex accepted to service it. I hate to burst your bubble folks but Rolex is smarter than you think.
When I first heard about this watch it did not immediately capture my interest. Only when I realized how this case is linked to the Foulbino Daytona story and a much bigger picture, I became aware of its importance. The counterfeiters have found a loophole in Rolex’s overhaul service and are trying to exploit it to their full advantage.
Thank you for your interest.