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I shopped for a $260,000 Patek Philippe watch at Tiffany's and compared a $60 Chinatown knock-off

Ask the average person what the most luxurious watch company is and he or she might answer, "Rolex."

But there is a different brand making its way into the mainstream because of its record-setting resale prices and rising influence among culture-setting celebrities and hip-hop artists: Swiss watch brand Patek Philippe.

Kevin Hart wearing a six-figure Patek Philippe watch. 
Brian Dowling | WireImage | Getty Images
Kevin Hart wearing a six-figure Patek Philippe watch. 

According to music lyric site Genius, a third of Billboard's Hot 100 songs in 2017 included a reference to Patek Philippe. That number outpaced both Rolex and Jay-Z's frequently mentioned Audemars Piguet, and continues to grow, with 13 chart-toppers mentioning the brand so far in 2018.

Of course, for watch enthusiasts, the brand, founded in 1839, is not a new discovery; it has long been the pre-eminent mark of luxury.

"For many, Patek Philippe is religion," says John Reardon, international head of watches at Christie's. "Patek Philippe represents the finest watches humankind ... can make or has made or will make, but actually represents the best of the best whether it was 150 years ago or today."

The brand has set itself apart with a unique combination of craftsmanship and utility, featuring some of the most complicated functions found in mechanical watches, such as perpetual calendars and double chronographs.

But with a sterling reputation also comes an eye-catching price tag. At the Tiffany & Co. flagship store off New York's Fifth Avenue, the Patek Philippe 5271p Grand Complications will set you back $260,825 — before taxes. Historic pieces often set records. A 1930 Patek Philippe pocket watch sold at auction in 2014 with a final price tag of $24 million and was hailed by Sotheby's as the most expensive watch ever sold at auction at the time.

As a novice, paying the equivalent of a college education for a watch seems insane. Since I'm still paying off my own four-year degree, an authentic Patek Philippe is light years out of my budget. I wanted to see how a more affordable option might stack up, so I headed to New York City's Chinatown, where street hawkers are known to sell knock-offs of the world's finest luxury brands.

Amid the cover of a crowded street, a man asking if I'm interested in watches flashes a laminated list of brand names like Rolex, Gucci — and Patek Philippe. After some negotiations, he hands me a watch that vaguely resembles a Patek model, except he's willing to sell it for just $60 in cash.

The watch looked somewhat convincing to me, though the embossed stamp on the back of the band read "GENUINE LEATHER," a laughably unnecessary statement for a watch that is supposed to cost six figures.

A $60 Patek Philippe knock-off purchased in New York City's Chinatown (left) and the real deal — a $260,000 Patek Philippe 5271P Grand Complications watch with manual winding
CNBCs Zack Guzman & Nate Skid
A $60 Patek Philippe knock-off purchased in New York City's Chinatown (left) and the real deal — a $260,000 Patek Philippe 5271P Grand Complications watch with manual winding

My next stop was Reardon's office at Christie's to show it to him, a man who has been personally collecting Patek watches for nearly 20 years. Could my bargain "Patek" remotely pass for the real thing?

He smiled immediately as he eyed the watch with disdain. "Usually when I look at a watch the first thing I want to do is take a loupe [magnifier] and take a close look at it," he says. "But with this watch, unfortunately, from across the room I could tell you have a fake watch."

My $60 watch seemed to function as well as an automatic watch is expected to function — a fact that impressed Reardon — but it obviously lacked the world-class movements that come with handmade craftsmanship, the weight of platinum, the detailed dial and working complications that come with most genuine Pateks.

International head of watches at Christie's, John Reardon, explains to frugal CNBC multimedia reporter Zack Guzman why a knock off $60 Patek Philippe is a bad purchase.
CNBC's Nate Skid
International head of watches at Christie's, John Reardon, explains to frugal CNBC multimedia reporter Zack Guzman why a knock off $60 Patek Philippe is a bad purchase.

"At the end of the day, watch values are all about supply and demand. Patek Philippe has made less watches in its history from 1839 than other companies make in a year," says Reardon. "These are pieces that aren't being churned out by machines 24/7, so for that reason even the most simple, basic, non-complicated Patek Philippe has an intrinsic value to it."

I asked Reardon if my $60 was at least well spent. He conceded that the value of any watch depends on what a buyer is willing to pay for it.

"If this is worth $60 to you, it's worth $60," he says. "But, in my opinion, don't go out in public with this on your wrist."

Watch the video above to see the $260,825 watch and the $60 watch up close.

— Video by Zack Guzman & Nate Skid

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