The asking price on a Chinese website on Wednesday for an Apple Watch clone was $45. The real version, on the right, is $349

Fake Apple Watches — or at least watches that appear similar to the new devices and are suspiciously affordable — have gone on sale across China, as consumers jump the gun before the genuine items are available next month.

On ecommerce websites such as Alibaba’s Taobao, the watches appear nearly identical to Apple’s product, right down to the distinctive digital crown controller on the side of the device and four sensors on the underside.

Most do not have a brand marking, and cost Rmb250-Rmb500 ($40-$80) — about a tenth to one-fifth of the price of the cheapest Apple watch exhibited this week by Tim Cook, chief executive of the Cupertino-based group.

Revealed on Tuesday and scheduled to go on sale on April 24, Apple’s gold-cased luxury model costs up to $17,000 and appears to be aimed at wealthy Chinese buyers. In his multimedia presentation at the launch, Mr Cook highlighted that WeChat, China’s most popular chat app, could be used on the Apple device.

The early proliferation of fakes will not help Apple’s hopes of replicating the success of its iPhones in China, which is the world’s second-largest market for the smartphones behind the US.

Chinese knock-offs collectively demonstrate the speed, boldness and uncanny accuracy with which China’s counterfeiters can mimic even pioneering products.

Sellers have been fairly brazen about the provenance of their wares — on Taobao the “iwatch” was advertised with the slogan “Knockoff Apple watches have hit the market!”

But the seller cautioned: “If you are the kind of person who wants to compare a Rmb200 product with a Rmb3,000 Apple watch which has not been released, then this watch is not for you. Also, please stop asking us if this is the actual Apple watch.”

As early as January, Chinese companies were hawking knock-offs at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show, costing as little as $27.

The Apple Watch fakes seen by the Financial Times at CES ran a version of Google’s Android operating system, redesigned to resemble Apple’s iOS.

Taobao is owned by Alibaba, the US-listed group that handles 70 per cent of China’s online commerce. The knock-offs were also seen on other ecommerce websites and have been on sale this week in shopping centres.

Chinese authorities have been cracking down on online counterfeiting. In January, the State Administration for Industry and Commerce (SAIC), a regulator, criticised Alibaba for allowing fakes on its websites. Alibaba said it was taking the matter seriously and was “dedicated to the fight against counterfeits”.

On Monday, Zhang Mao, head of the SAIC, said the regulator was seeking harsher punishments for merchants caught selling counterfeit goods, adding that ecommerce was growing at a faster pace than regulations and laws could cope with, and that companies and the government should co-operate.

Additional reporting by Ma Fangjing

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