On Monday night, an estimated $50 million worth of diamonds--both cut and uncut--were stolen from a tarmac in Belgium. We have very few facts about what actually happened in this heist; we know that a van and a Mercedes sedan drove onto the tarmac with screaming blue police lights on their roofs. We know that a group of about eight heavily armed men leapt out and took control of the sizable shipment of diamonds. We know they did not fire a single shot, and that nobody was hurt. We know that they then turned around, sped off, burned the van, and that, as yet, their whereabouts are unknown. A Belgian police force member called the job "highly professional."
That's one way to heist a crapload of diamonds. Here are some others.
The Pink Panthers are probably the most successful jewel thieves working today, having stolen upwards of $500 million in jewels--although they are sometimes caught, there seem to always be more of them waiting to swipe more jewels. The group consists of dozens or perhaps hundreds of thieves, mostly of Serbian and Montenegran descent, pulling jobs all over western Europe as well as Japan and Dubai (the latter of which is the second-most-important city in the world for the diamond trade, after Antwerp). The Pink Panthers did not name themselves; after jewels were hidden in a jar of face cream, just like in the movie The Return of the Pink Panther, Interpol gave them their name.
It's not a gang in any kind of real sense, just a loosely connected network of thieves, many of which are ex-military and some of which are violent. There doesn't seem to be much of a centralized organization, either.
The Pink Panthers are smash-and-grab artists. They have been known to lob tear gas canisters through doors, drive limousines through walls, and more seemingly amateurish techniques. But the group is much smarter than they appear; given modern security, a sudden and aggressive show of force is often the best way to surprise and overcome security. And the Panthers do sometimes show a bit of finesse. In Biarritz, a Panther-affiliated team painted a nearby bench with a particularly good viewing angle of their entry point, so as to stop anyone from taking a seat. The New Yorker published an amazing story about the Panthers a few years back--highly recommended reading.
The Pink Panthers seem clumsy and stupid, with their quick and violent tactics, but are actually quite clever. The Bling Ring, a group of thieves in the Los Angeles area in 2008 and 2009, were the opposite--they seemed like competent, talented crooks, but actually turned out to be a group of dumb teens.
The Bling Ring was a group of teenagers from the San Fernando Valley, a suburban area near Los Angeles. Over the course of nearly a year, they stole about $3 million in jewels, clothes, and cash from celebrities including Paris Hilton, Rachel Bilson, Orlando Bloom, Lindsay Lohan, and Audrina Patridge. The alleged ringleader was one Rachel Lee, who was allegedly obsessed with reality TV. Lee and a gang of friends repeatedly burglarized celebrity homes, stealing just about anything they could--though in the case of Paris Hilton's house, they tried to tone it down so they could make repeat visits (and in fact, Hilton didn't notice until she had been burglarized a few times).
Stealing from private homes is much easier than stealing from the diamond exchange or a jewelry store; the Bling Ring thefts only seemed competent until we learned just how simple it was. The Bling Ring found out where the celebrity targets lived via the internet and Star Maps, and simply lurked around until they found unlocked doors or a sloppily hidden key (under the doormat, that kind of thing). They were eventually caught due to impressive stupidity: two were clearly visible on security cameras, and a few of the girls actually wore jewelry and clothes they had stolen to school.
The Bling Ring is the subject of two notable accounts. Pretty Wild a reality show, aired for one season on E! (and can now be seen in its entirety on Netflix), focusing on one of the more minor thieves in the ring. Sofia Coppola is currently set to direct a film called The Bling Ring, starring Emma Watson and Leslie Mann.
Gerald Blanchard, a Canadian national, once parachuted onto the roof of an Austrian palace and replaced the famous Star of Empress Sisi, a diamond-and-pearl piece of jewelry, with a cheap replica he had bought in the palace's gift store the day before. The theft wasn't even discovered until weeks later; when the (now fake) Star was unveiled the day after the theft, Blanchard was there to see guests gasp in amazement. Then he tucked the Star inside a scuba respirator and flew home to Canada.
Blanchard also stole $500,000 from a CIBC bank in Winnipeg and several other financial institutions. He's described as an unassuming man who happened to be "uncommonly gifted" at what he does--a savant who saw the tiniest flaws in any security system and was able to exploit them. In the Star of Empress Sisi theft, Blanchard could tell by sight that the motion detectors were flexible and would not sound the alarm if he moved very, very slowly--so that's exactly what he did. Blanchard was the subject of a great profile in Wired.
Many heists aren't quite as elegantly planned and executed as in the movies. None of the Pink Panther thefts would make for much of a story individually; they're typically not any more complex than a brick and a gun. But sometimes, the truth really is that extravagant. Take the Antwerp Diamond Heist, valued at $100 million--one of the biggest in history.
Antwerp is the world center of the diamond trade, and the Antwerp Diamond Center houses much of the actual gems. In 2003, one Leonardo Notarbartolo and his crew stripped the Center of diamonds, gold, and other jewelry to the tune of $100 million. Notarbartolo planned the heist for years, renting a small room, passing himself off as a regular jewelry dealer, earning the trust of everyone at the Diamond Center. The heist was executed perfectly, and given that the team had to overcome a ridiculously complex, alarmed vault door, plus heat and pressure sensors and cameras, that's no small task.
You can read the depiction of the entire crime here, but it involved an aerosol can of ladies' hairspray, a careful and mysterious print of a foot-long key, heat-blocking polyester shields, a custom-made magnetic alarm disabler, re-routed electrical alarm pulses, and, oddly enough, a salami sandwich. An example: to overcome those thermal sensors, Notarbartolo sprayed them with regular women's hairspray. The oil in the spray served as a temporary mask of body heat--providing just enough wiggle room to pull off the heist.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.