Watch theft david von diemar jm6y2nhsatk unsplash scaled
Photo: David von Diemar on Unsplash

Opinion: Is the rise in watch theft a real phenomenon or a media panic?

Opinion: Is watch theft a real phenomena or a media panic?

Just because one doesn’t know personally any actual victims, is the wristwatch crime wave exaggerated? Is it merely fodder for the tabloids?

Naturally, we hear about celebrities who were targeted, as they are inherently newsworthy. In the past year, boxer Amir Khan was robbed at gunpoint for his £72,000 pavé Franck Muller.

More recently, F1 driver Charles Leclerc and Olympic cyclist Mark Cavendish both had their Richard Mille watches stolen – and not one but two for Cavendish. These carry six-figure price tags, an indication that the thieves, organised or not, are no longer satisfied with more plentiful, less costly Rolexes, Pateks or Cartiers.

Though less famous, the BBC reported last month Andrew Dinsmore, a Conservative member of Hammersmith and Fulham Council, had his watch stolen by a “machete-wielding thief on a moped in broad daylight”. Note that chilling phrase: “machete-weilding.”

The Corporation went on to add that, between January and July 2022, there were 621 high-value watch thefts in London. If anyone needs specific evidence of the growth of the crime, that figure is, says the BBC, “up by almost 300 on the same period last year”. As a percentage, their report states that such thefts rose by 65% in London from 2021 to 2022.

Whether or not one has personal experience, directly or by acquaintance, of watch thefts, the problem has gone beyond only the police handling the monitoring. Aware of the impact these robberies have on their clients, elements in the industry are addressing the situation.

Multi-brand corporation Richemont’s pre-owned watch division, Watchfinder, has partnered with the new watch registry service, Enquirus, which is supported by the police forces.

It is hoped that the data culled from the registering of watches and the reporting of stolen timepieces might discourage or prevent the resale of the latter, though now the resellers are so bold that they are using WhatsApp as a vehicle.


It is unlikely that the police exaggerate for dramatic effect, as the tabloids might, but their numbers are so shocking that the drama is inherent. One figure alone, collated from police sources is that over 100,000 watches have been stolen in the UK since 2015. In London alone, 6,000 watches were reported stolen during the past 12 months. As for value, again only for London, the value over the past five years is put at £162m.Watch theftTwo recent events have, for me, added weight to the notion that there really is a worrying epidemic of high-end watch thefts, and that it’s not just sensationalism on the part of excitable editors. It must be said that there are hugely respected members of this industry who are sceptical about the scale.

They included top-level retailers of pre-owned timepieces, two of whom told WatchPro that they are unaware of any of their clients having been targeted. If so, then they are the lucky ones.

Perhaps these two recent happenings might temper their doubts. One was fictional, the other the mugging of a close friend. Any thoughts I once had of “this only happens to strangers” are now dispelled, and I am more resolute than ever about not wearing costly watches in London.

As to the first, and why it matters even if it’s merely a plot device, it’s worth noting that there’s often a time-based disconnect between what happens in the real world and how long it takes to become a story-line in a TV series. In this case, it was on Blue Bloods, a successful American police show now into its 13th series and which averages on first transmission 10-13 million viewers.

Transmitted on 27 March in the UK, the episode “Life During Wartime” opened with a series of violent, armed robberies of watch owners targeted by thieves. Clearly, the writers know their watches, with Richard Mille, Patek Philippe and F.P. Journe name-checked, accompanied by accurate, current values – none of this simplistic/usual suspects/crack addicts/they-stole-a-Rolex stuff.

Set up to illustrate both the sophistication of the thieves and the elevation of the values, the stolen watch was an F.P. Journe Astronomic Souveraine. To make it ring even more true, the victim was a noxious putz, for whom no viewer would have any sympathy. Be that as it may, he didn’t deserve to have his watch stolen, let alone at gun-point. Other thefts were peppered through the program, but the ultimate conclusion added a new level of concern about the trend.

According to the storyline, it was an inside job, a corrupt salesman handing customer details to the thieves, making him complicit in their targeting of worthwhile victims. This may be entirely fictional, or it may be a fact of life in Manhattan, yet it does add not only to the drama but to the understanding of the scale to which watch theft has expanded, as well as the professionalism.

Watch theft bluebloods
Blue Bloods “Life During Wartime” episode.

It was the second incident which bothered me even more, because it happened to a friend who shall remain anonymous. Suffice it to say, he is both a senior figure in our industry and, to aggravate matters, a senior citizen.

In broad daylight, in the middle of Mayfair, surrounded by onlookers, while attempting to enter a taxi, he was accosted by two men. One grabbed his legs, the other his arm, the latter expertly knowing how to open the deployant clasp of his watch. It was over in seconds.

This friend knows categorically that he was targeted, that it was not an impulse theft by discerning opportunists. Despite this, he noticed how slickly and efficiently the theft took place, while still suffering post-traumatic effects. I repeat: this was a watch industry veteran, and a life-long Londoner – not an unsuspecting tourist.

This is, sadly, nothing new. One of the earliest examples of watch theft that alerted the mainstream to the crime wave was the mugging of former F1-supremo Bernie Ecclestone, beaten up for his Hublot Big Bang in 2010.

While this was famously turned into an advertisement for the brand, touting the Big Bang’s alleged desirability, the gravity of the matter was palpable, accompanied as it was by photos of a seriously bruised and bloodied Ecclestone. It was inescapably real.

Equally, and although fictional, the Blue Bloods episode taught me that the trend isn’t confined to what an online list from a couple of years ago identified as the places most likely where this will happen: London, Paris, parts of Italy, Barcelona, etc. To that, if Blue Bloods’ story was based on actual events, you can add New York City.

Why would I assume that this is now a reality in the Big Apple? Simple: I am an ex-pat Yank who is painfully aware of how parochial even the most sophisticated of my fellow countrymen can be. I doubt they’re au fait with street thefts in London or Paris. Their interest ends at Long Island. But as to which major city has it the worst, a number of articles touting London as rapidly claiming the title, though the honour is fluid.

Noted luxury magazine Robb Report ran a feature in December 2022, courtesy of news service Bloomberg, citing that Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department had seen “over 200 thefts involving at least one watch valued at $5,000 or more from January to mid-November this year.” They went on to reveal that it represented nearly a 30% increase in watch robberies over the same 11-month period in 2021.

One almost expects that of Los Angeles, given America’s gun laws. But we in the relative firearm-free UK cannot be complacent. Robb Report followed that revelation about LA with the London’s Metropolitan Police noting that between January and September of 2022, “nearly 700 Rolex watches and nearly 100 Patek Philippe watches were stolen within London city limits.” Compounding the horror? Knifepoint robberies in London were up by 60% just between May and June 2022.

For some years, this horrible trend has been regarded as something which only happens (if at all) to wealthy people, which – given the attitudes in contemporary society – usually has an undertone of “serves-them-right,” or “they can afford it,” or “they’re insured.”

That misses the point. It has become the more dangerous horological equivalent of the envy-driven low-life who keys luxury cars, though that is more of a political statement than a method of gain.

Watch theft is now a violent crime, and is, at the very least, robbing watch enthusiasts – your customers – twice. First it’s their watch that is stolen. Then it’s the joy of owning and wearing fine timepieces. And for this industry? That’s tragic.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *