How Diamond Thieves Work

By: Julia Layton & Carrie Whitney, Ph.D.  | 

diamonds
Diamonds may be a girl's best friend, but thieves love them too. unaemlag/Getty Images

It was February 2008, and a woman in Milan complained to police about early-morning noise in her neighborhood. But there was construction going on nearby, and the police assumed the noise must be coming from there.

No one thought much about the fact that the woman lived near the world-famous Damiani jewelry showroom until four masked thieves showed up in the store. The building was secured with a high-tech alarm system and an armed guard at the front door. None of that really mattered, though, since thieves had been drilling a hole every morning through the 4-foot (1.2-meter) wall that separated the showroom basement from the basement next door. Because they were in the building, they bypassed guards posted at the showroom entrance.

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The timing was nearly perfect. Damiani had been preparing for a private showing, so there were no customers in the showroom; but there was enough staff to open the safe. The thieves were in and out in a half-hour, making off with millions of dollars' worth of diamond jewelry.

But why was this diamond heist just nearly perfect? The thieves would have made off with much, much more actually had they not robbed the showroom in February around the Oscars. Some of Damiani's most valuable pieces were on loan to Hollywood's A-list stars, including Oscar winner Tilda Swinton, who had been given Damiani's one-of-a-kind "Sahara Bracelet." That bracelet alone has 1,865 diamonds totaling more than 47 carats. Swinton also had been loaned Damiani's 4.21-carat "Mimosa Ring." The thieves missed out on those, although such famous pieces probably would have been nearly impossible to unload.

Diamond thieves — at least the ones who succeed — are smart. Stealing diamonds isn't like stealing cars. The security that protects high-value jewels is hard to bypass, even for the experts, and selling these gems is almost as difficult as stealing them.

In this article, we'll look at some of the world's largest and most famous diamond heists, including one in which the thief made off with $28 million in diamonds using nothing but charm. And we'll discuss what it takes the convert stolen diamonds into cash. How does someone sell a stolen 33-carat diamond, anyway?

In 1959, two men tried to do just that.

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The Diamond Theft: Quick and Dirty

diamond theft
Miners along South Africa's diamond coast are among those who steal the precious gems. Some slip the rocks into their mouths while on the job, while others stick them under their fingernails while guards aren't watching. ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/GettyImages

Most diamonds thefts are far less sophisticated than the 2008 Damiani raid (and far less brilliant). Vera Krupp, for instance, wore her 33-carat diamond ring everywhere, according to the FBI. Its blue-white center stone was about the size of a marble. When two men broke into her ranch outside Las Vegas in 1959, they had to literally pry it off her finger, drawing blood.

In 2021, a man stole a diamond from a jewelry store in Pennsylvania using the grab-and-run method. Just before closing time, he asked to look at some diamonds, and as soon as the employee placed them on the counter, he took them and ran. Surveillance video caught the robbery, and a staff member recognized him from an earlier visit.

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In 2016, a woman absconded with diamonds valued at $5.7 million by posing as a gemologist and engaging in sleight of hand. Lulu Lakatos walked into London jeweler Boodles calling herself Anna and claiming she was there to inspect the diamonds on behalf of an investor. Lakatos switched the purse of diamonds for one holding pebbles, then left the store, changed her clothes in a bathroom and hopped on the Eurostar. She was found guilty of stealing the diamonds in 2021, but the gems were not recovered.

Still, the most common methods of stealing diamonds often go unnoticed. There's a reason why lots of people insist on watching while a jeweler does repairs or resizes on valuable pieces: A jeweler can easily switch out a diamond for a cubic zirconia, or a perfect diamond for one that's flawed.

Jack Hasson, a jeweler in Palm Beach, Florida, was sentenced to 40 years in jail in 2000 for switching out real diamonds for fakes when people came in for repairs. In all, he stole more than $80 million in jewels from a wide range of victims (including famed golfers Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman). Hasson was convicted of fraud, money laundering and obstruction of justice.

However, unscrupulous jewelers can't steal anywhere near the number of diamonds as those working in the actual diamond mines.

According to reporting by The Atlantic, all along the South African coast, workers regularly walk off with millions of dollars in rough (uncut) stones. As they pull diamonds from the churned-up seabed gravel, they check to see if guards are watching, and if not, they slip one or two under their fingernails.

Later, when it's safe, they swallow them, insert them into an orifice or load them onto homing pigeons. One thief in Namaqualand was caught when a guard spotted a homing pigeon trying unsuccessfully to take off. The man had loaded so many diamonds into his bird's harness, it couldn't get off the ground [source: The Atlantic].

In the workrooms, where the floor is strewn with small diamonds, employees wear glue-soled boots and walk right out of the mine with — yes — with diamonds stuck to the soles of their shoes. According to The Atlantic reporting, De Beers, the South African diamond conglomerate, randomly X-rays workers on their way out. Diamonds fluoresce when exposed to X-rays, but because of the risk of daily radiation exposure, De Beers can only scan periodically, so lots of pocketed diamonds make it out mines and workrooms.

Theft from the mines is just part of life on the Diamond Coast. De Beers spends millions of dollars every week buying stolen diamonds back so they don't flood the market and cause diamond prices to tank. The company has estimated that workers steal up to 30 percent of the mines' yield [source: The Atlantic]. In these mining towns, it's easy to sell a stolen diamond.

Even with hauls in the millions, it's not the quiet thefts that draw real attention. It's the big, glamorous heists — ones where thieves walk off with bags of diamonds in a brilliant show of patience and planning.

So, what's the most unbelievable diamond heist on the record books? Probably the one in which the thief charmed his way into the safe.

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The Diamond Heist: Months in the Planning

diamond heist NYC diamond district
Investigators in New York City dust for fingerprints following a 2014 diamond heist at a building on 47th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues. Two suspects entered the business where five people were working, beat one of the victims with a handgun and made off with an unspecified amount of cash and gems. Kevin Hagen/Getty Images

Real-world diamond heists are surprisingly like the heists we see in the movies. And they're not nearly as rare as you might think.

The largest diamond heist ever occurred in Antwerp, Belgium, one of the world's diamond capitals. The Antwerp Diamond Center building vault includes 160 safe deposit boxes in which diamond brokers leave their stones.

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In February 2003, 123 of those boxes were emptied of their contents by four people who had been planning the theft for at least two years. They rented office space in the building, analyzed the alarm system and learned how to bypass it, stole keys to the vault and made copies. Before leaving the building, the thieves even managed to take the security camera footage. One of the thieves and possibly the ringleader, Leonardo Notarbartolo, was later caught with 17 diamonds from the heist, but the majority of the $100 million worth of diamonds and other gems still have not been found.

It's an impressive heist, no doubt. So what can top a $100 million diamond theft that bypassed one of the world's most comprehensive security systems and took two years of meticulous planning? One that didn't even bypass security at all.

Diamond heists happen at least every few years. After all, diamonds are small, lightweight and valuable. and police dogs can't sniff them out at the airport. For the same reason, diamonds are protected by the best security systems available: infrared sensors, "unbreakable" safes, guards with guns and phones with direct lines to the police when they're lifted off the receivers. Antwerp even has special police patrolling the diamond center. But sometimes, even the best security doesn't help, especially when the thief is given keys to the vault.

That is what happened in another famous Antwerp diamond heist.

No one knows his real name, but people at the ABN Amro Bank in Antwerp's diamond center knew him as Carlos Hector Flomenbaum, a successful businessman who'd been frequenting the bank for at least a year. The bank's employees loved the guy. He brought them chocolates, chatted them up and was generally friendly, charming and honest.

At the diamond center's ABN Amro, trusted, top customers are given keys to the vault so they can access their diamonds at odd hours. "Flomenbaum" became one of these trusted key holders. Sometime between March 2 and March 5, 2007, he walked out of the bank with 120,000 carats of diamonds worth about $28 million — and they were not his.

The ABN Amro Bank had a $2 million security system, but "Flomenbaum" never had to deal with it. He used his pass card to get into the vault, went straight for the area that housed uncut diamonds, and emptied five of the safe deposit boxes. Some experts said the bank shouldn't have had multiple security deposit boxes in an area that could be accessed by a single box holder with a keycard. Each person should have only been able to get to his or her own box.

The Antwerp diamond district is obviously a major target, but there are others. In 2002, thieves robbed a museum in The Hague that was hosting a diamond exhibit and left with millions of dollars' worth of stones. No one knows how they did it, seeing as the exhibit had sensors and security cameras running 24 hours a day.

But the perfect crime often falls to pieces when thieves try to unload their stolen gems. That's how the not-so-graceful robbery of Vera Krupp's diamond theft in 1959 ended. When one of the thieves tried to sell her 33-carat diamond, the FBI knew about it immediately.

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Selling the Rock

Elizabeth Taylor diamond
Elizabeth Taylor is seen here wearing the 33.19 carat diamond ring given to her by Richard Burton in 1968. The diamond was once owned by Vera Krupp and stolen right from her finger by thieves in 1959. Express Newspapers/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1959, the FBI didn't just recover Vera Krupp's huge, recognizable center stone, they also recovered the small side stones. There's a network that traces the buying and selling of diamonds — especially cut stones — around the world.

Diamonds aren't easy to sell — even when you actually own them. Jewelry stores will seldom buy back diamonds they've sold to people. But there are exceptions. Take two owned by Elizabeth Taylor.

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In 1979 Taylor wanted to sell her 69-carat Cartier diamond known as the Taylor-Burton Diamond. It had been a gift from her twice-husband Richard Burton, who paid $1.1 million when he purchased it as a ring in 1969. Taylor had Cartier suspend the huge pear-shaped diamond from a necklace mounted in platinum, because she said it was much too big as a ring. When she went to sell the diamond, a jeweler in New York paid between $3 and $5 million for it.

Incidentally, Burton also gave Taylor Vera Krupp's 33.19 carat Asscher-cut diamond ring after it was recovered by the FBI. Burton purchased it from Sotheby's in 1968 for $307,000 — a record-high auction price at the time. Renamed the Elizabeth Taylor Diamond after Taylor's death in 2011, the diamond was auctioned by Christie's and bought by a South Korea conglomerate for nearly $9 million.

So imagine what's it's like to try to sell a stolen diamond with no accompanying papers. There are unscrupulous jewelers and individuals out there who are willing to buy stolen gems. And there are enough of them to make a professional heist worth the risk. But the thieves had better identify the buyers beforehand, as shopping the jewels around is likely to get them caught.

If "Flomenbaum" ever tries to sell, say, the 133-carat uncut stone he stole from ABN Amro, he would be facing an uphill battle.

Consider John William Hagenson who was caught trying to sell a mere 33-carat stone. Hagenson's the thief who ripped the ring off Vera Krupp's finger in 1959, and the FBI tracked him from Las Vegas to Louisiana. They knew who they were looking for because Hagenson had committed a similar crime in California. And after they found Hagenson, they found the diamond, too — in New Jersey. The FBI has informants in the diamond trade, and one tipped off the Newark field office when a 33-carat stone turned up for sale. The FBI recovered the side stones from a jeweler in St. Louis. Krupp was able to put her entire ring back together and back on her finger.

While a 33-carat diamond isn't something you see every day, surely there's more than one in the world. So how'd the cops know it belonged to Krupp?

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Recovering the Loot

laser inscription of diamond
One way diamonds are tracked on the open market is with laser inscription. International Gemological Institute

It's pretty amazing how diamonds are recovered. There's a worldwide network that relies on two basic principles to get diamonds back to their owners. First, diamonds are uniquely identifiable. Second, it's in almost everyone's best interest to recover a stolen gem.

The latter is easy to understand in terms of insurance. It costs an absolute fortune to insure diamonds. Liz Taylor's 69.42-carat ring originally belonged to publishing heiress Harriet Annenberg Ames, who put it up for sale because it was costing her $30,000 a year just to keep the thing in her safe — and that was in the 1960s [source: Edward Jay Epstein].

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Insurance companies stand to lose millions of dollars when a diamond is never found, and everyone's premiums go up as a result. Plus, jewelers rely on their name to make the big sales. Trust is essential in the business. If a jeweler receives a stolen diamond and gets a bad reputation in the industry, their sales will suffer.

The recovery network is huge. The diamond business is a small world that spans the globe. TV shows often show the police sending out bulletins to pawnshops when jewelry is stolen. This is real, except the news goes out to everyone in the diamond world — jewelers, pawnshops, diamond traders, diamond cutters and anyone else who might come into contact with a stolen stone.

Buying stolen gems can also be a serious crime. Plus, without a certificate of authenticity to prove the diamond is not from a conflict area like Sierra Leone (a "conflict diamond" or "blood diamond"), it's too great a risk for a jeweler to have it in their collection. People caught trading in blood diamonds face significant legal ramifications.

Stolen diamonds can also be positively identified. There are characteristics of each diamond that are entirely unique, and people have come up with various ways to record these characteristics. When you get a diamond certified, that's what you're doing — subjecting the stone to a series of tests that can identify it. A few of the tests that can identify a diamond include

  • Finding the serial number: Some diamonds have numbers engraved on them by the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) with a laser. The serial number identifies the characteristics of the stone and matches the number on the diamond's certificate. The number is tiny and won't show unless you're looking for it with a high-magnification lens.
  • Refer to a plotting diagram: Every diamond is unique, and a plotting diagram of its inclusions can help identify it.
  • Hitting the stone with X-rays: Each diamond responds to X-ray beams — reflecting and refracting them — in unique ways. This creates optical fingerprints as well.

If a jeweler switches out your stone while doing repairs, these tests can let you know that the diamond in your ring after the repair is not the same one that you took in. If your ring is stolen and it turns up at a jewelry store, this certification tells police whose diamond it is.

However, identifying numbers can be removed when a diamond is cut and polished. An Oxford researcher has been working on a way to engrave inside the diamond instead. Reducing their size lowers their value, but it's a way for thieves to keep them from being identified.

Even when no one calls the police, and a diamond thief is successful in selling the gems, it's seldom much of a success. While one must assume that some big-time thieves have black market connections that will let them sell a huge diamond for huge payback, most thieves must settle for the small-time fences (receivers of stolen goods) that pay nowhere near what a diamond is really worth.

In 1979, when New York City police recovered $50,000 worth of stolen diamonds from a fence, it turned out he'd paid the thief $200 for the stones. And the thief was turned in by one of the many jewelers he'd approached when he was looking for a buyer. For your everyday thief, stealing a diamond hardly seems worth the effort.

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Originally Published: Apr 15, 2008

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Barry, Colleen. Milan Thieves Make Off With Jewels. ABC News (AP). Feb. 27, 2008. http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory?id=4354511
  • Brown, Katie. Two charged in diamond theft. Bismarck Tribune. Oct. 4, 2005. http://www.bismarcktribune.com/articles/2005/10/04/news/local/103162.txt
  • Diamond theft haul worth 100M. CNN.com. Feb. 28, 2003. http://www.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/europe/02/27/belgium.diamonds.ap/
  • Castle, Stephen. Thief woos bank staff with chocolates - then steals diamonds worth £14m. The Independent. March 18, 2007. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/europe/thief-woos-bank-staff-with-chocolates--then-steals-diamonds-worth-16314m-440755.html
  • Cowen, Mark. Diamondthief's not a sparkling intellect. Birmingham. Oct. 4, 2006.http://icbirmingham.icnetwork.co.uk/0100news/0100localnews/ tm_headline=diamond-thief-s-not-a-sparkling-intellect&method=full&objectid=17868497&siteid=50002-name_page.html
  • Epstein, Edward J. Have you ever tried to sell a diamond? The Diamond Invention. http://www.edwardjayepstein.com/diamond/chap20.htm
  • Farah, Douglas. Al Qaeda Cash Tied to Diamond Trade. The Washington Post. Nov. 2, 2001. http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A27281-2001Nov1
  • Hart, Matthew. How to Steal a Diamond. The Atlantic. March 1999. http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/199903/steal-diamond
  • Jeweler Steals From the Rich. About.com. http://jewelrymaking.about.com/library/weekly/aa022800.htm
  • The Case of the Disappearing Diamond. FBI.gov. Nov. 17, 2006. http://www.fbi.gov/page2/nov06/diamond_byte111706.htm
  • Thieves make off with diamonds worth millions. The Society of Mineral Museum Professionals (AP). Dec. 2, 2002. http://www.agiweb.org/smmp/museon.htm
  • "Tilda Swinton, Nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Actress in a Supporting..." Reuters. Feb. 24, 2008. http://www.reuters.com/article/pressRelease/idUS17305+ 25-Feb-2008+PRN20080225
  • Belgium Hunting Suspect in $28 Million Diamond Theft. Bloomberg.com. March 12, 2007. http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601085&sid=agKMLbpRLleI&refer=europe

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