Lots of people buy fake watches – even O.J. Simpson – forcing brands to take a multifaceted approach to protecting their trademarks.

Simpson was in the news this month, again, after it was discovered that a Rolex Submariner watch he turned over to the court to pay off part of the judgment he owes the family of his late wife was actually a fake. According to media reports, Simpson’s civil attorney said up front that the watch had potentially dubious origins.

If even celebrities are sporting fakes, it begs the question, how legit are the sources of many consumers’ watches?

Watches enjoy a unique place among consumer products, says Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University in New York. More than any other wearable item, watches evoke images of iconic brands, family heirlooms and, often, a decidedly masculine image. Although women have many ways to express themselves through fashion, men are sometimes forced to rely on a watch to signify all the things a woman’s shoes, bags and jewelry do, she says.

Watches are not just frivolous fashion,” Scafidi says. “There is a real cultural moment around watches right now.”

The increased popularity of timepieces of all kinds has given counterfeiters more to prey on, says Brian Brokate, partner with Gibney, Anthony and Flaherty. Brokate works with Rolex and other luxury and apparel brands on anticounterfeiting efforts.

As of mid-2007, watches and watch parts were responsible for 10 percent, or $11.5 million, of counterfeit goods seized by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The only categories that accounted for a larger share of seizures in the first half of this year were footwear and apparel.

Few categories seized, however, saw the dramatic increase that watches did. Watches and parts accounted for only 3 percent of goods seized, or $1.2 million, for the first half of last year. For fiscal year 2006, the most recent full year for which data is available, watches accounted for 2 percent of seizures. Those goods had a domestic value of $2.8 million.

As the number of watches seized by Customs increases it would seem to follow that more watches would be found in known counterfeit trading areas such as Manhattan’s Canal Street and Los Angeles’ Santi Alley.

A visit to Chinatown’s jewelry and accessories booths lining Canal Street reveals a long list of brands available. Readily accessible along the street are watches bearing the names or trademarks of Patek Philippe, Panerai, Dolce & Gabbana, Emporio Armani, Montblanc, Hublot, Puma, Swatch, Breitling, Chopard, Luminar, Corum, Omega, Rado, Herms, Franck Muller, Paul Frank and others.

Noticeably absent from booths are popular brands such as Rolex and Cartier. Both brands have very active anticounterfeiting enforcement programs. As a result, sources said, those brands are not always displayed up front. Instead they are often offered in a whisper to passersby, or are available on request in some stalls.

“One of [the anticounterfeiting program’s] goals is to keep the counterfeit watches out of the eye of the consumer,” Brokate says. “To be truly effective, you have to deal with the visibility problem.”

Enforcement efforts also focus on warehousing, storage and sources of fakes. The bulk of fake watches used to be manufactured in Chinatown with trademarks applied to blank faces there, Brokate says. Now the trend has shifted to a reliance on people who carry completed product in from boroughs such as Queens, where they are stored in a warehouse or other storage area. That way, he says, even when raids are conducted, only a small number of goods are confiscated.

That trend was apparent during a recent visit to Chinatown. In more than one location, Rolex watches were produced on request. One vendor, a young woman operating a sidewalk stand with a number of counterfeit watches on display, pulled out small bags of fake Rolex, Cartier and other brands after customers bought one of the brandless watches on display. One male vendor had such a small amount of product that he didn’t have a stand, and was instead doing business on a street corner in front of a restaurant.

Counterfeit watches and jewelry are much easier to hide than handbags or shoes because of their size. Sometimes watches are found inside fake handbags or secreted in a drawer, Brokate says. In online situations, hiding counterfeit goods is even easier. Web sites offering counterfeit watches or purportedly genuine watches are difficult to track, and consumers are less likely to be able to tell if goods are genuine, sources said. A Google search for “replica watches” generates more than 2 million hits.

Luxury watch brands are faced with three major threats to the integrity of their intellectual property, sources said. In addition to counterfeit watches sold in physical locations and on the Internet, some brands have been in court over genuine watches that have been altered by a third party to look like a more expensive model of a similar watch.

Cartier has been particularly active in fighting the after-market altering of watches. The brand filed a number of lawsuits over the last few years against jewelers who allegedly added diamonds to stainless steel models of Cartier watches to make them look like the gold or platinum versions.

Caption(s): Shoppers view counterfeit watches in a booth along Canal Street. / Anticounterfeiting programs work to keep fake watches out of consumer view. / Counterfeit watches representing many of the major brands are readily available on Canal Street. / As of mid-2007, watches and watch parts accounted for 10 percent of goods seized by U.S. Customs.