Answer: You could not… until recently. In 2013, we interviewed the head attorney at the US Customs IP Branch (who asked not to be named in this article) who did her best to explain this question, which has appeared throughout the watch enthusiast community. Her simple answer was that you could own a Rolex watch, but Rolex still owned the Rolex logo. A Rolex watch, both new and pre-owned, could not be shipped into the United States because Rolex had a Gray Market Patent Protection which said that Rolex USA still owned the Rolex logo and could restrict the transfer of any watch with the Rolex logo. Rolex was the only company that had this patent protection.
However, it appears that these restrictions have been lifted as of early April. After speaking with two different U.S. Customs officials, we have received confirmation that Rolex watches, both new and pre-owned, can now be shipped into the United States and the company no longer possesses “Gray Market Patent Protections.” The lift of these Rolex importation restrictions can also be confirmed on the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol website. Notice that the page says “NO” to “Gray Market Importations Restricted.” While the officials offered no details and did not elaborate on the matter, it is clear that the restrictions are no longer in place, which means that Rolex watches can now be imported into the United States. We will continue to update this post as more information is presented to us.— End Update — [The below information was accurate prior to the lift of these importation restrictions. This article was updated May 21, 2015.]
If a dealer ever says that it is perfectly legal to import a Rolex watch into the United States, they are incorrect. The only ways that a Rolex watch can enter the United States is if it is on the wrist of the individual, limited to one Rolex per person. Another way to import a Rolex watch in the United States is if the Rolex logo on the watch has been destroyed. Rolex logos are usually located on the dial, crown, clasp, etc. Every one of these logos must be removed before the watch can pass through US customs. Also, a Rolex watch can be imported into the United States with permission from Rolex USA, which does not happen too often.
According to the US Customs regulation, restrictions on imported goods do not apply when: (1) Both the foreign and the U.S. trademark or trade name are owned by the same person or business entity; [or] (2) the foreign and domestic trademark or trade name owners are parent and subsidiary companies or are otherwise subject to common ownership or control.” Many assume that Rolex USA is under common ownership with Swiss Rolex in Geneva. However, the owner of Swiss Rolex, Manufacture des Montres Rolex S.A. Bienne, has granted Rolex USA with the U.S. Registration for the “Rolex” logo. Therefore, the trademark of the Swiss Rolex watches that are created in Geneva and sold in the United States are owned by Rolex USA, which means the foreign and U.S. trademark are owned by separate business entities. This is why the Rolex watches sold in the United States are applicable to the importation restrictions.
The main reason is to control the market and protect its Rolex authorized dealers. The importation of Rolex watches is not the only restriction enforced by Rolex. Authorized Rolex dealers are also restricted on where they are allowed to sell Rolex watches and cannot sell brand new Rolex watches online. However, our sources are saying that this restriction may be lifted next year. Rolex wants to be able to control the flow of their watches, as well as protect the authorized dealers. This importation restriction has caused many issues and grievances for Rolex owners. However, no cases have ever been presented against these restrictions, so there is no case law to support the restrictions on Rolex watches. But US Customs does not treat these restrictions lightly. There are stories all over the Internet about people’s Rolex watches being confiscated at customs and later being auctioned off. One story that is listed on the US Customs Today site is very interesting and shows the seriousness of these restrictions. A US Customs inspector came across a box from a customs broker that said the box need to be expedited and that it contained three Cartier watches and a Patek Philippe. However, the US Customer inspector did not think that the registered weight was correct, so she inspected the box. Inside, she found 15 Rolex watches that were valued at $141,025 USD. Although the shipper tried to claim that it was a shipping error and the watches were not supposed to go to the United States, the paper work inside the Rolex boxes stated otherwise. The Rolex watches were confiscated and were later auctioned off for export only. As frustrating as it may be, it is not possible to import a Rolex watch into the United States because of Rolex’s “Gray Market Patent Protection.” We can understand that Rolex wants to have control over the flow of its watches, but hopefully they develop a way to protect their trademark without restricting importation!