The cinema box office has shown us that the spectacle of elaborate jewelry heists will always draw in excited audiences. Entire film subgenres and lucrative franchises have been dedicated to this type of crime-filled fantasy. Ocean’s Eight is a popular movie that falls under this category, with the thieves targeting a necklace worth more than $150 million. Lupin, a popular Netflix series set in Paris, is another example of a heist-related film that involves a jewelry heist at an auction in the Louvre.
Hollywood has glamorized jewelry heists, but they're actually not that uncommon in the real world as well. According to one article from the Smithsonian, "In 1963, when a U.S. gem heist occurred on average every 32 seconds, crooks stole $41 million worth of insured precious and semiprecious stones." The beauty and allure of jewelry is what attracts thieves to these coveted gems. In this blog post, we explore some of the most famous jewel heists throughout history, including one involving pearls.
The Great Pearl Robbery of 1913
In the early 1900s, natural pearls were extremely rare - and therefore difficult - to acquire. A beautiful necklace composed of 61 flawless, blush-pink pearls was being transported from Paris to a British jeweler named Max Mayer. The exquisite necklace was well known and dubbed as the "Mona Lisa of Pearls". However, upon receiving the necklace, Max Mayer found the pearls were missing and instead discovered lumps of sugar in their place.
The mastermind behind this shocking crime was Joseph Grizzard. While the necklace was being transported, he stole the pearls and replaced them with lumps of sugar that weighed the same as the pearls. After a long investigation, Grizzard was arrested at the Chancery Lane tube station, empty handed and without a trace of the pearls. Luckily, a couple of weeks later, a piano-maker was walking to work and saw something suspicious. He saw a man dump something in the gutter before quickly scurrying away. The piano-maker took a look in the gutter and saw a broken string of pearls. He took them to the police and was rewarded for the return of the precious pearls.
The InterContinental Carlton, Cannes
The Carlton Hotel is one of the most famous hotels on the Boulevard de la Croissete in Cannes on the French Riviera. The hotel was featured in Alfred Hitchcock’s film, To Catch a Thief in 1955. Celebrities and wealthy people from all over the world come to stay at this beautiful and historic hotel.
The hotel’s first heist happened in August 1994. Thieves entered the jewelry store of the hotel, firing machine guns and stealing diamonds and other gems worth between $43 and $77 million. Luckily no one was injured, as it was later found that the thieves were firing blanks. The heist has been recounted by countless news outlets as one of the most daring and costly heists in the world. This was an iconic story that continues to be repeated. However, the most interesting thing is that no one can find a record that the heist happened.
In the summer of 2013, the most shocking theft in Cannes history occurred. The hotel was hosting a temporary jewelry exhibit called “Extraordinary Diamonds” featuring diamonds from the prestigious Leviev diamond house. Unfortunately, the diamond exhibit lacked security and resulted in an estimated loss of $136 million in precious stones by a single gunman. It supposedly took the thief less than a minute to gather a duffle bag full of jewels and escape through a window.
Antwerp Diamond Centre, Belgium
The Antwerp Diamond heist was known as “the heist of the century.” More than $100 million worth of loose diamonds, gold, silver, and other jewelry was stolen in 2003, making this one of the largest robberies in the world. Notarbartolo was arrested for heading a ring of Italian thieves known as the School of Turin, but the diamonds have never been retrieved.
Harry Winston, Paris
Known for Rare Jewels of the World, the Harry Winston store in Paris was robbed of $102 million in jewelry in 2008. The thieves walked through the front door of Harry Winston, with some of them dressed as women wearing wigs and heels. The thieves even addressed the employees by their first names. They entered with a hand grenade and gun, exited the store, and escaped with a car waiting for them. Eight men were later convicted of this heist, with one of them being a former security guard at Harry Winston.
American Museum of Natural History, New York
In 1964, two men from Miami snuck into the American Museum of Natural History in New York City while a lookout drove around the block in a white Cadillac. The men scaled a fence and were able to sneak into the J.P. Morgan Hall of Gems and Minerals. They gathered 24 gems in total, including the Star of India (the world's biggest sapphire, weighing 563.35 carats); the DeLong Star Ruby (100.32 carats, and considered the world’s most perfect), and the Midnight Star (the largest black sapphire, at 116 carats). The men fled the scene in separate taxi cabs. The museum's bookkeepers valued the stolen jewels at $410,000, which would equate to about $3 million today.
Shortly after the theft, an informant told detectives that the men were staying at the Cambridge House Hotel on West 86th Street, which is just a short walk from the Natural History Museum. After obtaining a warrant to search the room, the detectives discovered that the men had fled to Florida with the gems. After a lot of drama and questioning, the authorities were finally able to find nine of the gems in a locker at the Northeast Miami Trailways bus terminal. One of the outstanding gems - the DeLong Star Ruby - was recovered at a later time, but 14 of the gems have never been found.
Doge’s Palace, Venice
In 2018, Croatian police arrested four suspects who stole precious Indian jewels from the Al Thani Collection, while they were being displayed at a Venetian palace. This amazing collection includes 270 pieces of Indian and Indian-inspired jewelry and precious stones from the Mughal period to the present - four centuries worth of adornment. According to a report from the Associated press, "one of the arrested suspects is believed to be linked to several major heists in Europe and the notorious, multinational “Pink Panther” gang of thieves. He is also sought by Switzerland over a 2011 jewelry heist…". We could not find any information about whether or not the jewels have been recovered, but they certainly can't be sold due to their well-known status.
The Museon Museum of Science, The Hague
The Museon is a museum for science and culture in The Hague, Netherlands. In late 2002, the museum hosted a diamond exhibit of rare jewelry from royal families and private collections around Europe. The security was intense, given the rarity and historical significance of the pieces. However, while the museum was closed, thieves managed to get past the 24-hour security and leave with an estimated $12 million worth of diamonds. They were able to empty six of the 28 cases the museum had on display, with the only indication of forced entry being a broken window at the back end of the museum.
The Damiani Showroom, Milan
The Damiani Showroom was preparing for a private showing, so there were no customers at the time. The thieves were dressed in police uniforms and entered the showroom asking the staff for store records. Soon after, the thieves seized the moment, tying up the staff with electrical cables, sealing their mouths shut with tape, and leaving them locked in the bathroom. They took millions of dollars worth of jewelry, including diamonds, rubies, and gold, from the safe-deposit and left the same way they entered, to avoid triggering the alarms. The robbery took place in broad daylight and took approximately 40 minutes. Luckily, some of the firm’s most valuable jewels were not in the showroom as they were being lent out to celebrities for award shows in Los Angeles.
The Millennium Dome, London
In November 2020, a group of thieves infiltrated London's Millennium Dome in broad daylight. These thieves had their eyes set on an exquisite collection of gems with the 203-carat flawless Millennium Star diamond as the piece de resistance. The diamonds they intended to steal are worth approximately £350 million. Surrounded by families and schoolchildren, the thieves started throwing smoke grenades and using nail guns and sledgehammers to complete their crime. Fortunately, they were unsuccessful in their efforts. A 2020 documentary called The Millennium Dome Heist with Ross Kemp recaps the entire story in great detail.
The allure of gems and beautiful jewelry has inspired many crooked people throughout the years to compromise their lives and reputations for the chance to possess these legendary treasures. However, acquiring beautiful and meaningful jewelry doesn't need to involve an elaborate heist. Instead, you can build your own memorable Add-A-Pearl cultured pearl necklace and enjoy a special and sentimental object for many years to come. To start creating your necklace, visit this page.