Theft And The Fear Of Watch Ownership: When Watch Collecting And Crime Both Increase
The horror stories are everywhere. Someone’s watch is snatched in a city here, someone violently assaulted on video there. If you look for it, there’s enough terror regarding theft of luxury watches to keep you and your watches securely locked indoors. But is it as bad as it seems? And are there ways to prevent what seems to be an international trend in watch thievery from happening to you? It’s true, watch theft is bad, but the news around it certainly makes it worse.
What started as anecdotal stories or CCTV footage shared among friends on forums and YouTube has spilled into the public’s consciousness. Theft of watches and other luxury goods has now been featured by many major news outlets. It’s no surprise either. Watches have surged in popularity since the pandemic and are still going strong. Property crime has existed since the invention of the concept of private property. Is crime surrounding our interest and hobby actually increasing, or are there just more people that care about it?
The anecdotal stories regarding watch theft paint a bleak picture. It doesn’t help that news media trends toward amplifying sensational stories, usually bad ones. And so we hear of watch robberies in Los Angeles where the thieves drive off in a Rolls-Royce. Or we see stories about the fast-paced scooter robbings in London that take less than a minute. And everywhere, all the time, it seems Richard Mille watches are being stripped off the wrists of just about everyone that owns one. So what is actually going on?
Painting an entirely accurate picture is difficult. Statistics on crime do not differentiate theft of wristwatches from any other personal property. Official data hasn’t been updated to reflect trends from the past year yet either. Furthermore, each city’s law enforcement agency publishes crime data differently, if at all. For an international problem, there’s no one-size-fits-all explanation to what’s actually happening. That said, there are some stats we can look at to get an idea.
Watch theft in Europe
Per reporting done by Spanish publication El País, “luxury watch thefts in Paris have increased by 31% since the beginning of 2022”. That’s a significant increase, but Paris may be an extreme example. The combination of being a tourist hotspot and the fashion and luxury-goods capital of the world creates a perfect storm of unwitting tourists in possession of some very nice souvenirs.
Other countries are not as extreme, but the phenomenon is still noticeably present. London’s street theft comes from various sources, including the aforementioned scooter gangs, but also now with the “Rolex Rippers”, a group of young, English-speaking women that target elderly men coming from nice cars. The London police have issued a warning regarding watch theft after a rise in robberies at knifepoint in some of the most affluent areas of the city. Per Metropolitan Police of London statistics, “Theft from person” has basically consistently risen from an anomalous low of 680 incidents in April of 2020 to 5,271 incidents in March of 2022. Interestingly, “Robbery of person” has remained mostly unchanged. That is, it bounces all over the map during that time period without a clear trend, ranging within 1,500 to 2,500 offenses. Keep in mind, robbery is violent theft.
Luxury watch theft is a big problem across Italy as well, orchestrated by organized crime syndicates. Naples is the hotspot of the action, but criminal arms have reached out beyond Italy’s borders to places like Ibiza to capitalize on other nearby areas ability to attract affluent individuals.
Watch theft in the United States
Watch theft comes from both lone-wolf thieves and gangs in the US, both presumably with connections to channels to move the stolen goods through. In Los Angeles, high-profile muggings have dominated social media feeds and news outlets. In New York, both small players and large gangs participate. Hodinkee reported last year on the arrest of two men for the stealing of almost two million dollars worth of watches over eleven incidents. The most prevalent brand of choice for the two thieves? Richard Mille, with Audemars Piguet as a close second.
How things have changed
The watches that thieves now target point to a major shift from simple crime acts to highly organized operations. Rolex is recognizable to almost everyone and has long been a target of petty thieves looking to flip a stolen watch for quick money. But the watches making headlines are not $10,000 Submariners (though those still get stolen too). Watches that retail for $100K, $200K, and $500K are being ripped off of wrists in Europe and the US alike. Brands like Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, and Richard Mille are the new darlings of the criminal underground watch “enthusiasts”.
A high-dollar wristwatch heist is not a simple robbery — it’s a business model in action.
The watch thieves are highly educated about watch brands and models. They know what they’re looking for and what to do with it once they get it. And, surprise, these watches aren’t being pawned off on the other side of town or kept for personal gain. It’s believed that behind these thefts around the world are highly organized gangs and crime syndicates with the necessary channels for moving these high-dollar goods. Where do these watches go? Russia and Southeast Asia are the suspected destinations. Places where demand for luxury goods is high and regulation and policing are either low or corrupted. A high-dollar wristwatch heist is not a simple robbery — it’s a business model in action.
How did we get here?
Many forces are to blame for how we ended up here, too many to name in their entirety. I can offer my own guesses, for what it’s worth. The ever-increasing wealth gap is a big contributor. Stacked alongside a few global environmental, economic, social, and health catastrophes, there are a great many people who are struggling more than ever. That combined with growth in social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram that glorify having and flaunting wealth creates unrealistic expectations with a treacherous terrain to navigate. It’s a recipe for brewing unchecked resentment and aggression towards the wealthy or those perceived to be “on top” amongst an ever-growing disillusioned population.
The sentiments regarding wealth inequality have palpably shifted in the past decade. I’ve seen the relatively benign “Occupy Wall Street” bumper stickers from ten years ago quietly shift to “Eat the rich”, a much more direct and chilling call to action. The pervasiveness of unrealistic luxury lifestyles amid an environment that makes it ever-more bleak to obtain them has nurtured a toxic love/hate relationship with glamour. In many geographic areas, as conditions across many metrics worsen, we are seeing an emergence of individualistic survivalism.
But why steal watches?
Watches make excellent targets for someone looking to affect the biggest financial gain with potentially the least amount of time and effort. Unchecked hype and demand for luxury watches have driven gray-market prices up well above retail with many of the top names. A watch is accessible on the wrist and visible, and thus, it is recognizable (and the value is appraisable). Ask one of these criminals if they’d cut someone’s hand off for $150,000. It rarely even comes to that. If one doesn’t mind the criminal element (or, in fact, relishes it), watch theft is a no-brainer.
Furthermore, a hyper-luxury wristwatch is perhaps the ideal metaphor for unchecked wealth in the face of a host of global turmoils. It’s expensive, (essentially) useless, and — regardless of the intent behind ownership or choice to wear it — an eye-catching badge of wealth and status. To the disenfranchised and disgruntled, that watch might read more like a slap to the face or challenge than just someone enjoying a piece from their collection. Of course, that’s their problem, until they make it yours.
Not the whole story
Look, we don’t have the full picture. Aside from the bits and pieces that we can get, most official data and statistics regarding theft haven’t been updated since 2019 or 2020. The good news is that in both the EU and the US, property theft was on a downward trend since 2015. But a lot has happened since 2020, and the world just feels like a crazier place.
The watch industry is also still going strong, recession (at least in the US) or not. The value of Swiss watch exports increased almost 12% over the first six months of 2022 compared to last year. Actual watch-production numbers continued to decrease, pointing to a shift in producing fewer but higher-value pieces. But every year, there are still more watches in the world, and other evidence suggests that the watch bubble may be turning. This is good news, except for flippers, because it points to a stabilizing market. If there is less crazy demand for watches, if the resell value of watches is going down, then watch theft becomes a less profitable crime.
How we feel about it
But that doesn’t change how we feel about what we’re hearing, reading, seeing, and even experiencing. RJ’s article on a watch-robbery-turned-murder in Amsterdam brings it close to home for Fratello. Watch owners are concerned, to put mildly.
The last time I flew, I spotted that unmistakable gold and steel of an Oyster bracelet on the man next to me while we waited for our airport food. I asked if that was the new two-tone Rolex Explorer. He nervously told me it was a Daytona, and then quickly added that it was a fake that he got in Chinatown. Once it came out that I write about watches, he confided in me that it was, in fact, real.
Navigating what watch to wear out in public and how to wear it is a tricky thing now. Owners of recognizable, high-value pieces are torn between a love for their watches and not feeling safe enough to fully enjoy them. And that’s not a good feeling. Each person is figuring out their own balance of risk versus enjoyment.
What you can do
If you are concerned about protecting yourself and your watch from theft, there are a number of things you can do. It’s up to you to determine the appropriate amount of security for your tastes. Costlier solutions include investing in a good safe. Bigger, heavier, and more secure is typically better. Bolt-down is a must. That’s the first line of defense when your valuable watches aren’t on your wrist.
A watch that can’t be seen can’t be targeted.
Other peace-of-mind tactics include watch registries and insurance. The Watch Register is a service that records your watch’s details so that if it is stolen, pawnbrokers and other potential buyers from the thief can check to see if it’s hot (stolen). Insurance is another added service. It won’t replace the specialness a watch had for you, but at least the monetary value is secured.
Less costly options
Whether or not you decide your watches merit the above options, there are still habits and practices you can adopt that will deter theft:
- Most importantly, gauge what you’re wearing with where you’re going. You don’t wear a tuxedo to a football match. Don’t wear your fanciest watches to places that aren’t appropriate (or safe) to do so.
- Sleeves are your friend. A watch that can’t be seen can’t be targeted. I know the world feels like it’s on fire this summer, so that might not work right now, but a shirt or jacket sleeve is visual security for your watch.
- Put your watch on a strap. Watch bracelets are flashier than leather, rubber, or fabric straps. If you’re concerned about visibility, switch the bracelet out for something more muted. (Pro tip: put that Patek on a NATO!)
- Speaking of metals, white metals are safest. Yellow or rose gold looks like, well, gold. (Another pro tip: DLC-coat your Patek black before putting it on that NATO. You’ll never have to worry about theft — or resale value — again!)
- And finally: stay aware and stay wary. I think most of us tend to be most at ease on our home turf. Also, for some strange reason, when we’re in completely new places on vacation. It’s only when we’re in unfamiliar areas not on vacation that we act cautiously. No matter where you are, if you’re wearing a watch worth stealing, it’s a smart move to act like you’re in a place where you might be robbed. Because the sad truth is that, whether you’re down the street from your home or on the nicest vacation, you really could be.
Of course, acting scared will make you a target. Be cautious and aware, and keep cool. Staying calm and keeping your wits about you is your best defense against getting robbed. It may also help you if you do.
Will watch theft touch you?
And, realistically, you’re not going to get robbed. Most of our readers are not wearing half-million-dollar Richard Mille pieces out on the street or otherwise. And while Rolex has always been a target, the actual number of thefts is small considering Rolex is up to producing one million watches per year now. If you’re wearing brands and models that aren’t recognizable trophy pieces, even if they may be expensive, you’re at significantly less risk of targeted robbery. Wear the watches that make you smile and bring you joy, but do so safely and within reason. You’re much more likely to be approached by a fellow watch enthusiast than a criminal.
Let’s help each other out!
This was not a lighthearted, fun article about watches. It’s unfortunate that it needs to be written. But let’s not shy away from the topic. What can you add about staying smart and safe while owning and wearing watches? Is it even a concern for you? And what do you think we can expect from a (hopefully) cooling watch market? Let us know in the comments below. Stay safe out there!
You can find more of me on Instagram @watchingthomas.