Jewel thieves have always been considered to be a cut above ordinary criminals. Perhaps it’s because they tend to rely on brains more than brawn. Defeating an impossible security system and getting into, and out of, a locked vault holds many of us in awe.
And, of course, the jewel thief has long been a romantic figure in fiction. From A.J. Raffles, Edwardian gentleman and amateur safecracker, in the novels by E.W. Hornung to Alfred Hitchcock’s classic To Catch a Thief with Cary Grant as the devilishly handsome cat burglar, jewel thieves have always captured our imagination.
Here are ten jewel thieves who totally got away with their crimes.
10 The Thief Who Brought Chocolate
Antwerp in Belgium has been the diamond capital of the world since the 15th century. Most of the rough diamonds and around half of the cut diamonds in the world are traded through Antwerp. The district is protected by armed police and comprehensive CCTV, and it contains bank vaults with some of the most sophisticated security devices known to man.
But no security can defeat the irresistible charm of the thief who stole a fortune in diamonds with chocolate. Carlos Hector Flomenbaum (not his real name) opened an account at Amro Bank, and for a year, he behaved like a perfect gentleman. He brought the bank staff chocolates whenever he visited to make regular deposits into his safety deposit box. So regular was Carlos that he was given a key to the vault so that he could access it 24 hours a day.
Which he did. Over a weekend in March 2007, Flomenbaum, who spoke English with an American accent, opened five safe deposit boxes. He was estimated to have stolen around €21 million worth of diamonds. Though embarrassed staff were able to describe the man to composite artists, he has never been caught.
9 The Blue Revolutionist
Also known the Hope Diamond and on permanent display at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, the French Blue diamond was stolen during the French Revolution. The diamond was said to have been 112 carats and a lustrous, deep blue.
The history of the diamond is the history of jewel theft. Said to have originally been the eye in a statue of a Hindu god, the stone was supposedly stolen from a secret temple. Or, you know, it might have been mined in the 17th century in India by someone with a flair for marketing.
The diamond was passed down through the French royal family and was finally owned by Marie Antoinette. On September 11, 1792, a mob of revolutionaries and thieves stole the crown jewels, including the French Blue.
The French Blue was never seen again. However, in 1812 a similar, though smaller, diamond was sold to a British banker named Henry Philip Hope. The diamond was listed in his collection with no provenance, unusual for such a valuable diamond.
Scientists who have examined the Hope Diamond are convinced that it was cut from the French Blue. But the identity of the Blue Revolutionist, or indeed any of the thieves of the diamond throughout its history, have never been discovered.
8 The Pink Pearl Panther
Joseph Grizzard was every inch the glamorous Edwardian jewel thief. He was rich and debonair and liked to taunt the police with his cleverness. Knowing that law enforcement suspected him of being involved in a diamond heist, he still arranged a dinner party for potential buyers. The police searched his premises while the guests were eating the first course, and Grizzard welcomed them in with a smile.
The officers searched thoroughly but found nothing, to the amusement of Grizzard and his guests. As soon as they left, Grizzard returned to eating his soup and pulled a long string of diamonds from the bottom of the bowl. He was also rumored to serve punch from the Ascot Cup, which had been ordered to be made by King Edward VII before its theft from the famous racecourse.
His final exploit should have been his crowning glory. In 1913, he masterminded the theft of a string of flawless pink pearls, worth around $18 million. The theft itself was worthy of a Sherlock Holmes novel. The pearls were sent through the post, which was considered to the safest way to transport them. The jewel case was placed inside a mailbag, alongside 300 other identical mailbags. At some point, Grizzard identified the bag, extracted it from the rest, removed the pearls, and, for no good reason, replaced them with a string of sugar cubes, decoupaged with newspaper.
The theft was only discovered after the package was delivered. And that would have been that if one of his accomplices hadn’t had loose lips. Grizzard was placed under surveillance, and, with the net closing in, the accomplice threw the necklace away. It was found by a piano maker who, assuming the pearls to be paste, gave one to a child for a marble before handing the rest into the police. Though Grizzard was finally arrested, his charm never left him. The detective in charge of his case, Alfred Ward, even visited him in prison and campaigned for his early release, which Grizzard got.
7 The Gardener
In 1989, Thai gardener Kriangkrai Techamong was working for a Saudi prince when he scaled the walls of the palace, climbed into the second floor window, and opened a safe with a screwdriver. It wasn’t the most sophisticated of crimes, though hiding his loot in the dust bag of his vacuum cleaner and wheeling it out the front door was pretty inspired. Techamong then parceled up the loot, which weighed an astonishing 91 kilograms (200 lb), and posted it home to Thailand before himself jumping on a plane. The haul reportedly included a rare 50-carat blue diamond the size of an egg.
It was a simple plan, but the consequences of the theft were devastating. A Saudi businessman with links to the Saudi royal family, Mohammad al-Ruwaili, traveled to Thailand to investigate. He disappeared without trace, along with three Saudi diplomats who were shot in an execution-style killing. None of this was the work of the gardener.
The stolen jewels were sold, it seems, for a fraction of their value, and soon appeared around the necks of the wives of prominent Thai politicians. Incensed, the Saudi authorities threatened sanctions, and some jewels were handed in to the Thai police, but most of what was returned to the Saudi royal family were fakes, which added insult to injury. Relations between the two countries have never recovered. The blue diamond has never been found.
As for Kriangkrai Techamong, though he was convicted of the theft, he served only a short jail term, largely due to the number of prominent Thai people who benefited from his actions. He has since become a Buddhist monk.
6 The Termites
On March 6, 2010, a gang of thieves tied up a security guard at the Credit Lyonnais branch on Paris’s Avenue de l’Opera before tunneling through a series of cellar walls up to 76 centimeters (30 in) thick before reaching the vault and breaking open around 200 security deposit boxes.
The building was lightly guarded due to ongoing construction work, which was intended to strengthen security systems. As they left the scene, they set fire to the vault, which triggered the anti-fire systems and flooded the building, removing any remaining any traces of evidence.
The value of the haul will never be known, but is estimated to be around €6 million. The robbers, nicknamed the Termites, have never been caught. However, two similar attacks on banks were foiled in the following weeks when the alarm systems were triggered by the vibrations of the drilling, and they narrowly escaped capture.
5 Men On Bikes
On November 6, 2012, three motorbikes sped through the upper floors of a crowded shopping mall in London’s Brent Cross Shopping Centre. While the three drivers kept watch, their passengers smashed into a high-end jeweler’s store and grabbed £2 million worth of watches and jewelry before jumping back onto the bikes and speeding away before security guards had time to secure the exits.
Though the robbery happened in daylight in a busy shopping mall and was captured on film by CCTV and on the phones of numerous bystanders, the robbers got away clean and have never been caught. No one was hurt in the robbery, though one elderly gentleman was treated for shock at the scene.
4 The Window Breakers
The Museon in the Hague, Netherlands, ran an exhibition during December 2002 which included necklaces, tiaras, and precious gems on loan from other museums and from private collections around the world, including jewels that were loaned by European royalty.
The exhibition had a number of stringent security measures, including 24-hour security guards, surveillance cameras, infrared sensors, and reinforced glass display cases for the most valuable pieces, which, on the face of it, seemed quite sufficient. And yet, it seems the thieves got in by breaking a window.
No one knows how they managed to avoid the security systems or why the guards weren’t alerted to the noise as the robbers broke into six of the 28 display cabinets. The value of the haul was estimated at $5 million. It is believed that the more identifiable stones would have been recut and jewelry broken up immediately after the break-in. Neither the thieves nor the jewels have been heard of since.
3 The Oscar Nominees
The Damiani showroom in Milan is one of the most exclusive jewelry stores in the world. In February 2008, thieves spent weeks tunneling over 9 meters (30 ft) into the cellar of the store from the building next door, which had been empty for construction work. Seven men came through the cellar wall, tied up staff, who were busy preparing the gems for a star-studded Academy Awards party, and made off with $20 million worth of jewelry in minutes. The thieves carried no weapons, wore police uniforms, and left by disappearing back into the tunnel. The burglars took advantage of the ongoing construction work to hide the sounds of their digging, which would have taken up to a month to complete.
Although at the time, Italian police said they expected arrests “rather quickly,” the theives have never been caught, and the jewels have never been recovered, possibly because of the rumors of involvement by the Sicilian Mafia. Luckily, at the time of the heist, many of Damiani’s finest gems were gracing the necks of movie stars at the Oscars ceremony. And, proving there is no such thing as bad publicity, Damiani’s profits rose as a result of the coverage of the robbery.
2 The Baggage Handlers
On February 25, 2005, two men dressed in the uniforms of the Dutch airline KLM walked into a high-security area at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam. They held up a luggage truck that was loading diamonds on a flight to Antwerp. The thieves tied up the luggage staff. No one was hurt, and they stole the luggage truck to make their getaway.
The details of the transport of the diamonds were highly secret, and police suspected that the robbers must have had inside information, but no one was ever caught. The diamonds were valued at over €72 million, although around €30 million worth of gems were left in the getaway vehicle.
In January 2017, seven people were arrested on suspicion of money laundering, but to date, no one has ever been charged with the robbery, and it is unclear whether any of the seven were the original baggage thieves. Interestingly, an almost identical robbery occurred in 2013 at Brussels Airport, when thieves stole $50 million worth of diamonds.
1 The Gentleman Thief Of Cannes
The Carlton Cannes hotel was once the setting for Hitchcock’s slick heist movie To Catch a Thief, a fact which must have seemed somewhat ironic in July 2013, when a lone thief managed to get away with over $130 million in jewels. Though the hotel staff swore that the doors to the terrace were locked, the thief still managed to somehow get through them.
The hotel was the setting for an exhibition of Leviev jewels, and the masked thief, who seemed to know exactly where he was going, was lucky enough to pick the most opportune moment, just before the gems were loaded into their high-security glass cases. He encountered no hotel guests or visitors to the exhibition, although he did have to deal with three unarmed security guards in the exhibition room. The thief threatened them with a gun before seizing a briefcase full of jewels. The haul included 34 “exceptional” gems which were high-carat and had unblemished clarity, brilliant color, and masterful cutting.
The heist was over in 60 seconds. Three days later, a Cannes jewelry store was held up by a thief and his accomplice. While one of the robbers filled a holdall with watches and jewelry, the gunman apologized to one of the sales staff, saying, “Sorry, it’s the economic crisis.”
While no one is sure whether the two robberies were committed by the same person, they do think that they may have been committed by members of the Pink Panther gang of jewel thieves, who are believed to have been involved in dozens of high-profile jewelry heists around the world. It may, or may not, be a coincidence that three days before the Carlton Cannes robbery, one of the alleged leaders of the Pink Panther gang, Milan Poparic, was broken out of jail. He was the third member of the gang to have escaped in two months.
Ward Hazell is a writer who travels, and an occasional travel writer.