“Big girls need big diamonds," according to Elizabeth Taylor. If that's the case, these diamond thieves must have had some pretty big girls in their lives. But as diamonds are one the world’s few remaining and consistently high-valued rocks, any girl would be gushing at getting even a small one these days. These rocks' value and rarity are what have motivated some of the world’s greatest robbers and con-artists today: While cash is a commodity used by everyone on a global scale - increasingly traded electronically - diamonds and jewellery remain one of the world's most tangible demonstrations of wealth. And unlike cash, the diamond world is home to a select few, meaning that once you're in, you have a world of opportunity at your feet. Although a new market has emerged for diamonds in Dubai and the Emirate states, the diamond world remains firmly rooted in Europe as a niche, tightly-guarded industry.
Diamond heists are not an everyday occurrence, but when they happen they make big news: Firstly because of the audacity and planning required to carry a theft of such valuable materials and secondly because, even if the thieves are caught, the jewels generally remain at large - there is a large and profitable black market for both cut and rough diamonds. Add to this the controversy around diamond mines themselves and the reputation of so-called blood diamonds, and you have yourself a glamorous, wealthy, and slightly dark industry. All of this, of course, makes for a great story: For those who carry out diamond heists the risks are high, but the payoffs even higher. And as our list reveals, their tactics range from plain old charm and deceit to quick-fire violence. Whatever their methods, here are the top ten biggest diamond heists the world has seen.
10 The Hague: $12 Million of Jewellery
It may come as a surprise to hear that the centre of the diamond world is not the jewellery-lined Champs Elysees in Paris, or the royal district of London, but instead the lowlands of northern Europe. The diamond capital is Antwerp, where cut and uncut diamonds are stored, sold and occasionally stolen (more on that later). In the neighbouring country of The Netherlands, there are plenty of precious stones to tickle any thief’s fancy. In December 2002, The Hague’s Museum held an exhibition entitled “The Diamond- From Rough Stone to Gem” which caught the eye of some serious thieves. The displays contained pieces from the Dutch Royal Family as well as the famed Steltman jewellers in the city. The museum adapted the best security technology at the time, including CCTV, motion sensors, and cases made of reinforced glass to hold the jewellery itself. But all this did little to put off these determined robbers. No one knows precisely what happened as the CCTV footage does not reveal any clues but it appears the robbers entered the museum by breaking a small window then managed to target only the most valuable of jewels in the heist. Museum security and the Dutch police were left scratching their heads when the theft was discovered - a full 24 hours after it happened. No one was ever caught for the crime and it is presumed the $12 million haul of jewellery remains at large on the black market.
9 Milan: $20 Million in Jewellery
Milan’s Damiani jewellery showrooms are famous the world over for making some of the world’s most prized jewels and high-class watches. The store has been in Milan since 1924 and sells to the world’s elite. So when a neighbour of the store complained to the police about construction noise in the area, they probably should have taken her a bit more seriously. There was indeed a construction site near the woman’s apartment and the Damiani store, but there was also a major Great Escape-style heist underway....
A gang of thieves rented the basement next door to the jewellery showrooms and began the slow process of digging their way through the 4-foot thick wall that separated them from the store. Wearing police uniforms, the thieves broke in when there was only staff in the building and initially began requesting documents before tying up the majority of staff. They then had the remaining staff open the basement’s deposit boxes and made off with around $20 million worth of diamonds, rubies and other jewellery. The entire operation took around half an hour. Sadly for these thieves, however, much of the showroom's prized possessions were not in the vaults at the time: As it was Oscar season, some of their wares had been sent to Los Angeles where it adorned the rich and famous.
8 Antwerp: $28 Million in Uncut Diamonds
There's an old platitude that flattery will get you everywhere and here in Antwerp, Belgium, that's certainly the case. In 2007 a flamboyant man by the name of Carlos Hector Flomenbaum became a regular customer of the ABN Amro bank in the city’s diamond district. He said he was a successful Argentinian businessman and brought staff gifts, remembered their names and even brought chocolates along every so often as a 'thank you' for their services.
As we said, flattery will get you everywhere, and what it got Flomenbaum was access to the bank’s vaults used by several of the city’s main diamond dealers. As such a privileged account holder of the bank, Flomenbaum had 24 hour access to allow him to access his deposit box whenever he need - a common service for millionaires in the diamond industry. What the bank also gave Flomenbaum, however, was one too many access codes - without carrying out adequate background checks. Using the legitimate information the bank had voluntarily given him, Flomenbaum simply walked into the vaults sometime between the 2nd and 5th March 2007 and emptied the contents of five deposit boxes containing around 120,000 carats of uncut diamonds. Several blue diamonds were stolen as well as two particularly rare green diamonds. A total of 41 diamonds were stolen and never recovered. Charm's always a useful tool for a conman.
7 Cannes: $60 Million Worth of Jewellery
Cannes is without doubt a glamorous place. While the town most famous for its annual international film festival is actually much smaller than you might imagine, that doesn't mean that there's less wealth when the screen stars aren't in town: Cannes is one of several spots along the French Riviera that attracts the rich and famous all summer long. The result of this is that the southern French coastline sees all kind of precious stones, metals and cargo pass through its ports - the inhabitants of the region expect to see such riches on display. Case in point, the Carlton Hotel in Cannes. Like several upmarket hotels along the Rivera, it boasts its own jewellery store which in 1994 was targeted as one of the biggest thefts ever.
Close to closing time, three masked men entered the store with machine guns. They opened fire as the staff and customers ducked or fled in panic, and the robbers proceed to help themselves to all that was on offer. And what was on offer? Around $60 million worth of jewels, none of which were ever recovered after the raid. After the police examined the scene, they found no bullet damage to the store, meaning the men fired blanks to startle staff, but were effectively unarmed. No one was ever caught for this crime.
6 London: $65 Million in Jewellery
One of London’s most revered jewellers is the Graff Diamond house on the exclusive New Bond Street. On the 6th of August 2009, two men in suits entered the store close to closing time. The pull out handguns and forced staff to open the store display cases, making away with around 40 items of jewellery valued at a cool $65 million. They fired a warning shot as the fled the store, made away in a getaway vehicle which they then abandoned and changed for another car. But that’s not all: the descriptions of the men given by the staff did not come up with any matches and it later transpired the men had visited a professional makeup artist to alter their skin colour and facial appearance. But the men made one shocking blunder; they left a phone on the seat of one of the getaway cars which eventually led to police tracking them down. The thieves and their accomplices received sentences ranging from 16 to 23 years for the robbery although the jewellery was nowhere to be found. That was, until 2012 when one of the particularly valuable pieces of the hoard turning up in a pawn shop in Hong Kong. The 16 carat yellow diamond was handed over by the pawn shop to the Gemological Institute of America, who confirmed it was indeed a Graff diamond. It is not clear how the diamond made it’s way to Hong Kong.
5 Antwerp: $100 Million in Diamonds
As already mentioned, Antwerp in Belgium is the diamond capital of the world, with more than 80% of the world’s uncut stones passing through the city. The diamonds are stored in massive and intricate underground vaults in the city, managed by the Antwerp Diamond Centre. Needless to say, access to these vaults is strictly limited. In February 2003 however, a major heist took place at the centre with a massive 123 of the vault’s 160 safety deposit boxes emptied of their contents.
As you may have guessed, this was an inside job: Fake CCTV tapes were used to conceal the group of thieves, who are known as the School of Turin, while the operation took an incredible four years in planning. The security systems used by the Diamond Centre were analysed in detail by the group until they could safely bypass it and empty the vaults of their contents. All this, however, was not enough to evade capture. The DNA of one suspect was found within the Antwerp vaults while DNA from another was found on a discarded sandwich found near a diamond bag recovered near the scene. While the thieves were caught, the diamonds were not.
4 Paris: $107 Million in Jewellery
One of the more bizarre exploits on our lists features the celebrity favourite, Harry Winston jewelers in Paris. In December 2008, four men - some of whom were dressed as women - entered the store shortly before its scheduled closing time. To this day it's a mystery why these men decided to dress as women to disguise their identity, but the plan clearly paid off. The thieves pulled out handguns and cleared out the store of most of its contents - none of which has since been recovered. The thieves had evidently been watching the store for some time, as they reportedly knew the layout of the private back room as well as the general customer area and called staff members by their names. Amazingly, the jewellery store is also only a stone’s throw away from a police station but that didn't deter these robbers. When they loaded up the $107 million worth of jewellery from the store, they calmly got into their car, and drove away from the scene.
3 Amsterdam: $118 Million in Uncut Diamonds
If your image of a diamond heist is heavily influenced by many a Hollywood movie on the issue, then you probably have a lot in common with these crafty thieves. In 2005, Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam was the setting for one of the boldest heists ever. Approximately $118 million in uncut diamonds were due to arrive in on Dutch airline KLM before being transported to Antwerp. It's generally presumed that someone at the airline let slip that such valuable cargo was on the way, which set the wheels of this plan in motion. The thieves did a dry-run of the plan two weeks before the diamonds were due to arrive, that involved stealing KLM workers uniforms and then hi-jacking a KLM truck used in the transportation of cargo. When the diamonds touched ground at Schiphol airport, the thieves approached in plain sight. They held the ground staff in charge of the stones at gunpoint and made their getaway with the hoard. No arrests were made and the diamonds' owners blamed the airport’s lax security for the theft.
2 Cannes: $136 Million in Jewellery
Some people just don't have any luck, and clearly that is the case for the owners of Cannes’ exclusive Carlton Hotel, which already featured on our list. 19 years after the theft from the hotel’s jewellers, thieves pounced on the hotel again. The hotel was holding an exhibition entitled “Extraordinary Diamonds". Diamond encrusted jewellery, watches and a variety of precious stones from the revered Leviev diamond house were on show - and were emptied out by a lone assailant in broad daylight. The perpetrator entered the hotel from Cannes’ main thoroughfare and brandished a handgun at security. He then emptied over 70 pieces of jewellery into a bag and escaped on foot. Reports initially put the value of the stolen goods at around $53 million dollars, but it was later revealed to be more than double that. Not a trace of the jewels or the thief have been seen since.
1 London: $700 Million in Diamonds... Almost
Our number one spot goes to by far the most ambitious of diamonds heists - which is also one of the most spectacular failures. In 2000, London’s Millennium Dome was set to host a massive diamond exhibition to the public, with precious gems from around the world featuring in the spectacle. While the display did feature some items of jewellery, the most valuable pieces were massive uncut diamonds, owned by the diamond conglomerate De Beers. This hoard included the world-renowned Millennium Star diamond which weighs over 203 carets as well as twelve blue diamonds totalling 118 carets.
Attracted by such a glittering array of jewels, a group of robbers concocted what was essentially a smash-and-grab job. The robbers wore gas masks to disguise their identities, broke into the exhibition on the day before it was due to open to the public and used sledge hammers to steal the jewels. Or at least that was the plan. The police received a tip-off and the thieves were caught red-handed. And if that wasn't enough of an embarrassment, there was a further twist in the tale: The $700 million worth of diamonds had been switched with very high quality fakes to protect them from such attacks. So even if the robbers had succeeded, they would have merely made off with some seriously over-priced glass.