During the summer months, as people opt for more revealing clothing, jewelry is on display. On the street corners of Paris, Barcelona, London, Madrid, Rome, thieves wait, alone or in groups, on foot or on motorbikes. You may not even notice them removing your chain or watch – or, if they’re unqualified, you could end up lying on the floor injured or worse.
Jewelery theft has become “democratized” in Europe: once the business of meticulous experts, it is now the work of common criminals. Last year, on the island of Ibiza, these thugs broke a record: they stole a watch worth 1.2 million euros. A private security company managed to recover it.
Barcelona. The images have spread on social networks like wildfire: a man was walking with his family in the old town when a thief violently approached him and snatched his watch. He claimed it was a Hublot worth €800,000, although police verified it was actually worth around €43,000.
Young thieves are generally recruited by international networks, which sell the stolen watches on the Asian market. The watch thieves get a good chunk of the money, though it’s meager compared to how much the end sellers make.
Police sources explain that ten years ago most watch thefts were committed by Italian or South American experts, usually on motorbikes. Now, crime is more endemic: watches account for more than 4% of violent robberies in Barcelona, in the Catalonia region of northeastern Spain. To combat it, the Catalan police have created a unit that examines the criminal structures behind each blow, to better recover assets and obtain judicial convictions.
The intelligence allowed the cops to trace the life of these luxury watches. Most are stolen in Europe. Then, recruiters hire people with no criminal record with a single mission: to travel to other cities with the stolen property on their wrist.
Majorca. In August 2019, the chief prosecutor of the Spanish Balearic Islands, Bartomeu Barceló, was walking near La Rambla when a young man pushed him from behind, causing him to lose his balance. His gold watch was ripped from his wrist.
The attacker fled with another young man who was waiting for him on a motorcycle. A few hours later, they were arrested as they were about to board a plane at Palma airport. According to Chief Inspector Eduardo Pérez, head of the theft unit of the National Police, the two belonged to a gang of Neapolitan origin, which has a monopoly on the theft of luxury watches in the Spanish archipelago. Wristwatches worth over €30,000 are stolen – with minimal violence – and flown to Barcelona or Rome, bound for Naples.
“Until a few years ago these were treated as isolated events… but now a more organized approach is being detected,” explains Pérez. The gang operates in luxury tourist areas, such as Portals Nous in Calvià or Jaime III in Palma. In 90% of cases, the victims are foreigners. Complaints accumulate between May and October. One of the most notorious was the theft of a €1.2 million watch from a young Azerbaijani tourist last June in Ibiza. It was a Richard Mille McLaren F1 50-03 model, one of only 75 units made worldwide. A private security company managed to recover it.
Neapolitan gangs are now recruiting common thieves. Most are young men of North African origin, unrelated to each other, who sometimes resort to violence. In winter, they travel to the Canary Islands to commit crimes, taking advantage of the good weather and tourism, according to the national police.
“In these cases, the watches have much less value,” says the chief inspector. He notes that, in the case of armed robbery, the police wait for the complaint before acting. In the case of specialized Neapolitans, however, they use intelligence work.
“Last time we managed to arrest the perpetrators before the theft was reported. We stopped them at the airport about to board the plane,” he explains.
Madrid. In February, a man went to the posh police station in the Salamanca district to report the theft of a watch worth €40,000. He explained that while he was inside his car at a red light, a motorcycle stopped next to him and the driver grabbed him by the arm until he pulled over. takes off his watch. In less than a month, police caught the thief red-handed: he was arrested after ramming a scooter on the sidewalk, after snatching an €80,000 Patek watch from a man he had pulled from his vehicle.
Four operations have ended in recent months with eight detainees – seven of whom are still in prison – for theft of watches worth almost half a million euros. The wealthy neighborhoods of Salamanca, Chamartín and Chamberí were their hunting grounds. Thieves did not hesitate to resort to violence, leaving wills on the wrists or on the heads of their victims.
“These thefts began to be detected less than a year ago. In these neighborhoods, it’s unusual, but I’m very afraid that it’s starting to be a constant thing, ”says a police source who works in the wealthy neighborhoods of the Spanish capital.
Some of the inmates lured the victims by getting them drunk. A band of Venezuelans preferred to search the terraces of cafes in wealthy neighborhoods, observe the wrists on the armrests and attack the victim with the most ostentatious watch. They hit them on the head with gun butts.
Paris. In the luxury capital of the world, street watch theft began to skyrocket a decade ago and in recent years has “become more democratized”, as the local newspaper explains. The Parisianciting police sources.
First, The Parisian tells, there were gangs of Neapolitans or Algerians, professional thieves capable of stealing watches with a minimum of violence and a thorough knowledge of the market. But now, a new generation has joined them, made up of young people from the suburbs, petty criminals with a superficial knowledge of the sector.
“Attacks can be extremely violent,” Commissioner Julien Herbaut, the French capital’s territorial security chief, told the aforementioned newspaper in May.
These cruder thieves target Rolexes worth around €15,000, which they resell immediately, according to the French press. “They know two or three models, no more,” Herbaut said. The Parisian.
Thefts of luxury watches in Paris have increased by 31% since the start of 2022, according to figures published by the Sunday newspaper. On May 22, the BFMTV channel recorded up to three robberies in less than four hours in different Parisian districts: a Rolex worth €25,000, another worth €8,000 and a Richard Thousand worth €400,000.
Times have changed, methods too. Neapolitans, as Herbaut explained, have a tendency to detect a luxury car, hit the rear view mirror of a motorcycle and, when the driver reaches out to reposition it, rip the watch off a second motorcycle. The Algerian method consists of approaching the victim in a group, joking with her and taking the opportunity to steal her watch without the owner noticing. The younger, more brash new generation method is simply to grab the victim from behind by the neck; an accomplice will then snatch the watch.
London. After Jack The Ripper, there have been many more rippers in the UK. The latest case is that of the Rolex Rippers: a gang of young women, speaking English with soft Eastern European accents, who approach older men. As soon as they see an elderly gentleman driving an expensive car, or leaving a gourmet supermarket, they look at their wrist, in search of a coveted luxury watch. They pretend to engage in some kind of investigation or collection that allows them to approach unsuspecting men.
These ladies operate in the wealthiest parts of England: Dorset, Hampshire, Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Surrey or Sussex. So far this year, according to police, they have made more than 60 hits. Some speak of just a few women, but authorities suspect there are more, part of a criminal organization similar to those operating in other parts of Europe. It is estimated that in 2011 alone, luxury watches worth €600,000 were quietly stolen.
Rome. The theft of luxury watches is very common in Italy. Naples is where most European policemen refer to when they talk about thieves specializing in luxury watches. Across the country, some of the most notorious recent successes include a €39,000 Patek Philippe that once belonged to French actor Daniel Auteuil, in Naples, or the theft of €50,000 worth of watches from a collector in Rome.
These gangsters also operate abroad, Luca Esposito recently told authorities. Esposito is the son-in-law of capo Patrizio Bosti, a prominent member of the Neapolitan Contini clan. For their tubes, the Neopolitans choose destinations frequented by more affluent people. In summer, Ibiza, Mykonos, Cannes, Barcelona and the Côte d’Azur; in winter, Milan, Turin and Rome.
The value of a stolen watch – in good condition – is reduced by 30% in value when it is resold on the black market. The coins are mainly bought by Neapolitan stolen goods dealers with contacts in East Asian markets, mainly China and Hong Kong. Russia is also a big buyer. Before the sale, an expert broker examines the watch and takes care of the shipment.
Since the pandemic, however, the refinement of this process has crumbled. Specialists now compete with a new breed of thieves, who have increased the level of violence in their heists.
With reports by Lucía Bohórquez, Patricia Peiró, Rafa de Miguel, Marc Bassets, Lorena Pacho and Rebeca Carranco.