ostage-takings, armed robberies, burglaries, assaults: from suppliers to retailers, tourists to collectors, no-one is safe from watch theft. Once the purview of specialised gangs, these crimes are increasingly the work of individuals who, because they are “amateurs”, resort more readily to violence. As tourism returns, watch thefts are on the rise. In the south of France, there was a sixfold increase in the number of incidents over the first five months of 2022.
Whereas headlines still focus on the more spectacular cases, such as two hostage-takings in the Arc Jurassien, in November 2021 and January 2022, security professionals warn that this new form of watch theft is spreading.
The type of armed robbery made infamous by the Pink Panthers between 1955 and 2015 is still a threat, as evidenced by heists targeting Dinh Van and Chaumet in Paris last year, or the spectacular hold-up at a Chanel boutique in May this year, when robbers made off with items worth in excess of €2.5 million. But, says Christophe Korell, “they’re not as frequent as they once were. Watch theft is changing faces.” This former officer with the Paris police criminal investigation division spent long enough in the front line to witness the emergence of a new breed of watch thief.
- In 2015 Europa Star ran a special feature on watch theft in its Première edition
- ©Archives Europa Star
“It’s becoming more and more difficult to rob a jeweller’s,” Korell adds. “There are still organised gangs operating across Europe in carefully planned heists, as in the days of the Pink Panthers. What’s new is the rising number of opportunistic thefts, often snatch and grab. Thieves hang around cafés in affluent areas, locate a potential victim, follow them and once they’re out of view, in a side street or a building entrance, mug them. In the Paris region we’re also witnessing more incidents of petty criminals who see watch theft as a chance to make a lot of money for little effort. It’s not organised crime. More like localised thuggery.”
Proof that the Paris police are taking this new criminality seriously, the territorial security division now has some thirty investigators who specialise in watch theft and receiving, compared with half a dozen when the unit was set up ten years ago. Elsewhere in France, between January and May 2022 the number of thefts rocketed 600% in the Alpes-Maritimes region, in particular around Nice and Saint-Tropez.
“It’s becoming more and more difficult to rob a jeweller’s. What’s new is the rising number of opportunistic thefts, often snatch and grab.”
The phenomenon isn’t specific to a particular region or country. In London, the Metropolitan Police recorded 621 luxury watch thefts over the first seven months of the year. Monaco, Naples, Los Angeles, Zurich, Milan and Barcelona have all seen the number of thefts explode as tourists return, post-pandemic. This summer, police in the Catalan capital said they had identified 70 groups of gangs specialising in watch thefts, and that they were especially active around the main tourist sites such as Las Ramblas, the port or the Sagrada Familia.
As the home of luxury watch brands, Switzerland hasn’t been spared by this spike in violent robbery, notes Alexandre Brahier, spokesperson for the Geneva canton police. “There are two types of operation. One is what we call the “Neapolitan” because it uses a method that’s popular with certain Italian criminals. Two men on a motorbike with fake licence plates spot a luxury car and check that the driver is wearing an expensive watch. The driver of the motorbike causes an accident, usually knocking a side mirror. In the ensuing commotion, the second rider grabs the watch, often threatening its owner with a weapon. They then disappear into traffic. These are well organised gangs that never stay long in one place, moving from Switzerland to Monaco, Spain, France or Luxembourg. There was a spate of cases in Geneva at the beginning of the year, but controls and arrests in Switzerland and Italy proved successful, and there were no further incidents during the summer.”
“In the Paris region we’re witnessing more incidents of petty criminals who see watch theft as a chance to make a lot of money for little effort. It’s not organised crime. More like localised thuggery.”
Violence and amateurism
The second category of watch thief also targets individuals but is less methodical, and more of a concern. “In this instance, the criminals are generally North Africans who operate outside night clubs or in the parking lot of an upscale bar or restaurant, for example. They’re not afraid to threaten their victim or use violence to force them to hand over their jewellery or watch.”
Fifteen years ago incidents were either distraction thefts or large-scale, coordinated operations such as those perpetrated by the Pink Panthers. Now the potential for gain is attracting these petty criminals who make up for their lack of “expertise” with violence. Sometimes this amateurism borders on the comical: in July this year a Swiss tourist was robbed of his watch at gunpoint while at a café in Naples. A few moments later a second criminal returned the watch and apologised. A sudden bout of remorse? Not exactly. The €300,000 Richard Mille that had caught the first robber’s eye was actually a fake, as his more experienced accomplice was quick to note. Or what happens when two forms of criminality – theft and counterfeiting – collide.
The vast majority of cases are far less likely to raise a smile, ending in physical injury and lasting trauma for victims, most of whom have no idea how to respond to this sudden eruption of casual violence. The only possible protection is to take basic precautions, such as keeping high-value items out of sight. “We need to alert watch owners,” Alexandre Brahier explains. “The more aware they are, the more they know about how these criminals operate, the less at risk they are.”
The vast majority of cases are far less likely to raise a smile, ending in physical injury and lasting trauma for victims, most of whom have no idea how to respond to this sudden eruption of casual violence.
Thieves target watches by the likes of Rolex, Richard Mille or Patek Philippe for their value and because they are easy to transport, conceal and resell. Speculation has made the most valuable specimens particularly attractive, notes Nicolas Amsellem, associate director of Les Rhabilleurs magazine and a connoisseur of the watch industry.
“The price of certain models has increased by an unbelievable amount in recent years. In 2005 or 2010, some of today’s most coveted models simply weren’t selling. Since then the watch has become an object for speculators and investors, but luxury watch brands haven’t increased their production in proportion. Mechanically, prices have taken off. A steel Patek Philippe Nautilus that was worth around €6,000 in 1993 now changes hands for almost €30,000. A Rolex that cost €10,000 is now worth twice that second-hand. It’s far easier to steal a €100,000 Patek Philippe Aquanaut than it is a luxury car worth the same amount. As long as the market for recent watches is as crazy as it is right now, there’s no reason for the pressure to ease.”
Christophe Korell has an additional explanation: “One particularity of luxury watches is that the thieves themselves like to wear them as a status symbol. For some they’re an easy way to pay foot soldiers. Others offer them as gifts.” Beyond this, numerous networks specialise in reselling watches internationally, including watch and jewellery professionals. Belgium, around Antwerp, is a hotspot.
Higher up the criminal ladder, for drug traffickers in particular luxury watches are a convenient way to launder large sums of money. “You can’t catch a plane to Dubai with a million euros in cash but you can travel with three or four watches worth €200,000 each, particularly when the passenger has the “genuine” certificates and only an expert – certainly not a customs officer – can detect that the watch has been stamped with a new serial number,” says Florent Mion, at the head of the criminal investigation division in Nice, after a recent dragnet on the Côte d’Azur (see below). Enough to buy property in Abu Dhabi, Dubai – or Europe, after making what appears to be a legitimate bank transfer.
This summer, the Barcelona police identified 70 groups of gangs specialising in watch thefts, operating primarily around the main tourist sites such as Las Ramblas, the port or the Sagrada Familia.
Cross-border police collaboration pays off
Police have responded to this cross-border crime with enhanced cooperation between national forces. Painstaking investigations involve close collaboration between detectives in Italy, France, Spain, Switzerland and Monaco, all countries where watch theft is rampant. “We worked a lot with Monaco and Switzerland at the time of the Pink Panthers and that cooperation has grown stronger,” says Christophe Korell. “We now work quickly and efficiently with colleagues, even though investigations still take a long time. There are dozens of specialised watch thieves operating in Paris alone and they are very mobile. Sometimes we can count on our informers but we have to work on the ground, sift through CCTV footage and check where phones pinged to determine whether victims were followed.”
Cross-border cooperation between French and Swiss police has already borne fruit, reveals Georges-André Lozouet, spokesperson for the Neuchâtel police. “If necessary we can intervene in France and vice versa. There is a network covering the Swiss Jura and the Doubs and Belfort regions in France that functions extremely well. Between the French gendarmerie, police and customs on one side of the border, and the Swiss police and border guards on the other, that makes five security forces coordinating operations. Once a gang has been identified and is on the run, there’s really nowhere for them to go.” The seasoned criminals behind the hostage-taking at Calçada, a polishing company in Le Locle, Switzerland, last January, experienced this first-hand. Having crossed the border into France, they drove just 15 miles before being intercepted by French police who opened fire (there were no victims).
Another example of successful international collaboration is the arrest of 33 people in Nice and Antwerp last June, following a year-long investigation during which police in several countries shared information. Defendants in France and Belgium were charged in connection with a major criminal network that had set up a sophisticated process for reconditioning stolen watches. The 152 watches that were recovered during the operation – mainly Rolex, Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet – had all been given a new serial number as well as cleverly imitated authenticity certificates. Even the packaging was original. Skilled counterfeiters had gone as far as to transform standard releases into fake limited editions, which sell for two to three times more.
“Between the French gendarmerie, police and customs on one side of the border, and the Swiss police and border guards on the other, that makes five security forces coordinating operations. Once a gang has been identified and is on the run, there’s really nowhere for them to go.”
“They should think twice”
Deterred by cutting-edge security systems, criminals rarely target manufacturers while attacks on suppliers, such as the hostage-taking in Le Locle, are rare. But what of retailers or members of the public? How can they protect themselves? Firstly, thanks to the police. “We make regular checks in areas such as the city centre and Rue du Rhône,” says Alexandre Brahier. “As soon as someone is seen to be acting suspiciously, we pass on the information. The last attempted robberies on Rue du Rhône were all intercepted.”
It’s a similar story in Neuchâtel, where police have developed an information-sharing system. Georges-André Lozouet explains: “The platform we set up ten years ago is an invaluable communication and prevention tool when ensuring the security of the watch sector. The forum we’re organising this autumn, the tenth of its kind, is also an effective means of sharing information and observing evolutions in criminal activity, in particular developments on the organised crime front. For anyone intending to target the watch industry, it’s a message that they should think twice.”
Watch retailers also enlist the services of specialist security companies such as Sentinel Protection. Managing director Gustave Jourdan has years of experience working with retailers to secure them against attempted robberies or hostage-takings. “Cameras and technology have evolved considerably. We help retailers review their entire security system, identify possible weak points, advise them on how they should reconfigure the store’s interior, etc.”
In addition to structural solutions, security guards, who are generally armed, are on duty at store entrances during opening hours, although no-one is under any illusion: “However well trained they are, a single security guard can’t do much against a heavily armed gang.” As part of its services, Sentinel Protection organises simulated attacks to train retailers in how to respond, always emphasising that the first priority is the safety of individuals: “Never allow a situation to deteriorate and always remember that people are more important than property.”
“It’s constantly at the back of your mind”
Antoine M. (not his real name) is the manager of a luxury watch store in Switzerland. He and his employees were the victims of several armed robberies in the mid-2010s. Years later, he hasn’t forgotten this profoundly traumatic experience. “We’ve all been marked in one way or another, for life. It’s constantly at the back of your mind. It’s changed the way I am. It doesn’t matter if I’m in a restaurant, on holiday or taking the train, I’m always on the alert.”
His employees have been similarly affected. “Some of them are still nervous when they open the door to a customer. Others preferred to leave. You’re always wondering when the next attack will be. In my case, all the robbers were caught but it’s still unbearable to see everything you’ve worked for destroyed in the space of a few minutes.” It’s a bitter pill to swallow for the young retailer who believes nothing has changed, starting with lenient sentencing and what he sees as inadequate resources.
“We’ve all been marked in one way or another, for life. It’s constantly at the back of your mind. It’s changed the way I am. It doesn’t matter if I’m in a restaurant, on holiday or taking the train, I’m always on the alert.”
“One gang was pulled over just a week before we were attacked with all the gear to commit a robbery: a crowbar, a fake weapon, everything. And they were sent on their way! There was no investigation, no checks, nothing at all. Some prosecutors refuse to tap Lithuanian phones because it costs too much, or they release people who take advantage of the system and our laws. The perpetrators of the first robbery in 2015 are already out. It’s a war without end, with no-one to fight it.”
He believes that strengthening security can be counterproductive: “If you don’t have a security system, you’ll get robbed. If you have some security, they’ll come back with a handgun. And if you have high security, six of them will come back with assault rifles. It doesn’t matter how much security you put in place, you’ll always be one step behind.”
“Imagine seeing everything you’ve worked for destroyed in the space of a few minutes.”
Tailor-made insurance coverage
How do Swiss insurers gauge the current level of threat facing professionals in the watch sector? “In recent years we have seen a slight decrease in the number of robberies and burglaries in the watch sector,” says Simona Altwegg, spokesperson for Axa Switzerland. “We attribute this to police operations against organised crime. However, we regularly observe periods when robberies and burglaries resume.”
“Given the insured risk, there are no standard solutions,” comments Jonas Grossniklaus, head of media relations for the Helvetia group. The company provides insurance for watch industry professionals exactly as for professionals in other branches, with policies that cover robberies and break-ins.
Like every other insurance company, Helvetia requires businesses to install specific and often draconian security measures. These are examined on a case-by-case basis and can include armoured safes and special cash registers, although insurers can make further demands as Simona Altwegg of Axa Switzerland explains: “Measures can extend to the premises themselves, such as reinforced windows, doors and display cases. We can also require installation of insurer-approved electrical alarm and security systems.”
These potentially costly measures are, insurers insist, essential if businesses are to obtain the right coverage for their situation. “When we advise companies, our aim is to offer them the best possible cover without unnecessary costs. We invite them to request quotes from different insurers which we then evaluate in terms of cost/benefit,” explains Simona Altwegg, adding that Axa customers are also offered training in how to react in the event of an incident. Insurers aren’t the only ones comparing costs and benefits. In European cities such as Lyon, Paris or Barcelona, some retailers have preferred to close their brick-and-mortar stores and move online, rather than spend what they see as prohibitive amounts. So far, Switzerland has been spared.
In European cities such as Lyon, Paris or Barcelona, some retailers have preferred to close their brick-and-mortar stores and move online, rather than spend what they see as prohibitive amounts. So far, Switzerland has been spared.