If you’re a watch enthusiast who has even a passing acquaintance with the internet, you’ve seen the news. Watch-related robberies are up. And behind the headlines – “Luxury Watch Theft is on the Rise Across Europe“; “Luxury Watches Targeted in at Least 20 San Francisco Armed Robberies“; PSA: Don’t Wear Your Rolex on the Subway; watch theft up 50 percent in Los Angeles, 60 percent in London – are the cautionary videos that show the robberies.
Almost surely you have seen these, too, being circulated on WhatsApp and Instagram and YouTube.
There’s one that takes place in a bustling beach town. A younger man in red shorts and a black T-shirt strolls along a sidewalk – a cartoon yellow arrow alerts us to his presence. A bearded fellow of about 40, a trusting soul, is, through no fault of his own, advancing toward the Yellow Arrow Man. Suddenly the sound goes all wavy and distorted, and the scene unfolding before us slips into slow motion as Yellow Arrow Man pretends he is asking for directions and also pretends he is the kind of guy who loves humanity so much that he has to caress total strangers’ arms while asking for them. He relieves the bearded guy of his watch, and neither skips a beat as they continue on in opposite directions. The chap who used to have the watch smiles as if thrilled at the opportunity to help his fellow man.
We who have seen this video have many reactions. We admire the skill of the thief removing the watch, the way his hand reaches out in what appears to be a warm greeting and how, with a few deft twists, we see that greeting turn cold and tactical. We marvel at how impossible it seems to not feel a watch being slipped off. Perhaps most striking is the setting, a regular street on a regular day, everyone oblivious. The message is: Be careful out there. You can’t trust anyone.
Another takes place at Hot Wings Cafe in Sherman Oaks, California. A couple is seated in the dining area enjoying their hot wings when two figures in hoodies approach their table. One of the hoodie people then brandishes a gun (or what looks like one from the vantage point of the video) and within seconds the couple remove their watches and hand them over. Fellow customers five feet away continue to eat and talk and have no idea what is happening. The message is: These watch stealers are brazen. They will come at you when you’re eating your hot wings. You can’t prevent this from happening. The only thing you could possibly do is not wear your nice watch.
The reason I keep watching this one is not the robbery itself, but the way the couple behaves right afterward. The woman watches the robbers go with such nonchalance, it’s as if they were panhandlers who asked for money and she refused them, or she didn’t, and she’s observing their exit with mild interest. Now, of course, I don’t know what happened 10 seconds later. But based on the clip alone, one could say that the woman is unfazed – that she seems to have expected this.
This particular video appeared on Instagram, reshared by someone named @marine.gazaryan, and you hear a voice saying “Oh, my God” as the robbery ends and the hoodie people retreat. Clearly whoever uploaded this video wants you to not just see the footage – which looks like CCTV, which likely then was shared on the news – but to share the dismay. That “Oh, my God,” is like, “Hey, I’m not naive. I know the world is going to hell in a handbasket. You should know it, too.”
Another widely circulated video (I found it on the Instagram account of the watch influencer @watchmania) is of a guy on a scooter pulling up between a curb and a car, like he’s just trying to get himself and his little vehicle out of a tight spot. He knocks the car’s side mirror, seemingly by accident. He offers a quick wave, “so long, sucker,” masquerading as an apology, and when the driver reaches out to readjust the mirror, an accomplice materializes to grab his wrist and rip off his watch.
Watchmania shared this video with the caption “Another watch robbery. Ffs.” A few weeks before posting this video, he shared another widely circulated clip shot in the crowded streets in the posh Mayfair neighborhood of London. In this video, two motorcyclists attack a Bugatti with a tire iron or similar while the car is stopped in traffic. Reports later said that the driver was wearing a Paul Newman Daytona worth $130,000. The mugging was unsuccessful. Bugattis apparently have amazing windows.
I wrote to @watchmania on Instagram and we began chatting on WhatsApp. @Watchmania is a person named Ahmet, who told me his channel is the largest watch media in Turkey. Ahmet gave me his take on the increase in watch thievery: “Easy money is always tempting. And Instagram made watches famous and expensive, and thieves are using Instagram to locate watches.” He pointed out that big collectors protect themselves, hide themselves. “They have lots of watch pages, but no face that goes with them.” But of course, not every watch collector wants to hide. The joy of collecting is, at least partly, in sharing. For these reasons, Ahmet sees his posts as essential information. “I am posting these videos,” he wrote to me, “because I have a half million followers and I want them to be awake.”
If the victims of watch theft have a patron saint, it is Paul Thorpe. “I have the very sorry duty again to bring you news of two further watch robberies,” he speaks somberly into the camera on his YouTube channel. Then his screen splits to show a video of a violent robbery in London, which he watches alongside the viewer, where two masked men dressed in head-to-toe black leap out of a car and beat a man and woman, and then escape in a getaway car that sat waiting for them.
Thorpe is a British man of about 60, with a thick South London accent and a rose tattoo peeking out from the neckline of his paisley shirts. “Unless you’ve been robbed,” he told me, “you can’t really call yourself a proper watch dealer.” He has 64,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel, where he discusses the matter of watch thievery. He has used this channel to document the first time he was robbed, around 2012, the second time, around 2013, and the last time, in 2014. “Two were in the store, one in the street,” he told me. “The last video is probably the best one to watch.”
For him, watch theft happens in large part because the nature of watches makes them a very attractive thing to steal. “Watches are easily transported, and easily transferred into cash. My sources tell me the average price of a stolen watch is 50 percent of its value – whereas, for a diamond ring, it’s 10 percent.”
Thorpe sees watch crime as mostly a Rolex situation, but Ahmet pointed out that it is also a Richard Mille and Audemars Piguet situation. All three brands produce instantly recognizable luxury items, and indeed their instant recognizability is part of the point, yet none have publicly available databases for stolen watches – which means it’s difficult to track yours down even if you still have the serial number.
Thorpe cites other reasons for the current watch crime wave: inexperienced dealers, rapid price increases, the fact that “COVID gave people a lot of time to sit at home and plot,” and the simple fact that increasingly hot weather in England means more short-sleeve shirts and more exposed wrists. Finally, of course, one can blame the social platforms – or at least the way users behave on them. “We live in a world where social media means people are flexing what they’ve got. And then people want what they see. A lot of people are thinking with their eyes.”
It’s interesting to note that Instagram is both the place where robbers go to find watch owners and watch owners go to be warned about robberies. It would be convenient, certainly, if Instagram were the entire problem. But it’s not that easy.
My colleague Jeff Hilliard, HODINKEE’s Director of Limited Editions, had his father’s gold Day-Date stolen off of his wrist in a Manhattan bar in 2014, a robbery captured by the bar’s security cameras. Miraculously, Jeff managed to find his watch with Google Alerts that let him know it was up for sale on Etsy. He used insurance money to buy it back and he still has the watch, though he rarely wears it now.
He had not seen any of these watch-stealing videos, so I suggested he watch the scooter one when we were on the phone together. “Damn, it looks like they just break the bracelet,” he said. We watched another @watchmania video of a woman, somewhere in Spain, screaming on the ground as an assailant tugged mercilessly at her wrist, ultimately taking off before he could succeed in removing her watch. “Damn,” Jeff said again.
“Obviously these videos are more aggressive and violent than what happened to me,” he said, “and that alone is upsetting, to see people assaulted like this.” For him, the anguish of losing his watch was mental, and it’s this part that he most empathizes with when he hears the stories he hears, which are mostly about people losing their watch or getting it stolen from a hotel room. “I know the pain that you can feel when it happens, how upset people are because of how much a watch meant to them, or how it had some connection to a family member, and how much that loss can impact their lives.”
Jeff’s video is far too grainy to see much. You can track the assailant making his approach, then getting closer, and then Jeff discovering his watch is gone, but you really only know these things because the written story tells you what’s happening. Otherwise, you’re just kind of watching a crowd in a bar. Reading this story, particularly since the watch belonged to his father when Jeff was young, the only person you care about at all is Jeff.
Theft videos with crisper, more cinematic footage turn the crime into a movie. In Ocean’s Eleven and other heist flicks, you side with the thief as much as you do the victim. The criminal is, after all, the protagonist, who usually has good reasons for wanting to pull one over on someone richer. The videos offer no such noble motivation.
Still, it’s a strange reversal to see luxury-watch collectors – who are, by definition, privileged to own multiple examples of wrist-borne jewelry that nobody can be said to actually need – claiming victimhood. We observe this in comments posted to the videos: “A terrible world we live in”; “The story now in every city”; “It’s awful that people would rather take from someone than earn that stuff themselves.” Many of these comments have a grain of truth to them, but they also tread on hoary stereotypes about urban crime and ignore the overwhelmingly long odds against bootstrapping your way to a perpetual calendar.
To my mind, the questions and contradictions orbiting these videos are more compelling than the videos themselves. It’s disquieting to see how nominally civilized gestures or even just neutral ones – a handshake from a stranger, people pretending to choose a table in a restaurant, the scooter guy “brushing” the mirror and waving to the driver – are not what they seem, and how quickly they turn menacing. It’s like a supernatural horror movie, when a friendly face turns suddenly demonic.
“Something has to be done,” Thorpe says in one of his videos, “to help protect the watch community and watch owners and watch owners across the country.”
In a broader context, Thorpe could be anyone talking about anything. Something has to be done about coronavirus, something has to be done about climate change, something has to be done about the floods in Pakistan and Kentucky, the fires in Spain and France and California, and the famine in East Africa. And with this much going on in the world, it’s a safe bet to say that the calvary is spread pretty thin and, therefore, probably not on its way to any of these situations in abundant numbers.
My friend Tom Sexton’s entire family lost absolutely everything they own in the recent Kentucky floods. His sister was almost swept away and was saved by Sexton’s nephew; the story was written up in the The New York Times. “People think they own things, that objects belong to them,” Tom told me. “But when you see a river take everything you own out of your house and give it a slick of propane and leave it on the banks in a town five miles away, you get it real fast that no one really owns anything.”
Despite his recent misfortune, he hasn’t stopped dreaming about “a Rolex Explorer 124270, you know, the regular stainless steel one with the black face?”
Like pretty much anyone who reads HODINKEE, Sexton believes watches are complex and beautiful objects. “But the reason they’re so hugely popular is because – much like sneakers, cars, and many other consumer goods whose value has inflated in the last few years because of scarcity both real and imagined – people can make more money now off reselling these items than ever before.” He adds to this the fact of the world’s increasing financial, ecological, and institutional instability. “Watches are a way of taking what’s yours and strapping it right onto your body.”
He wonders if watch-stealing videos resonate with us because they tap into our latent terror that even the possessions we hold closest – maybe even especially these – aren’t safe. He points out that in so many watch-stealing videos – and this is true of both the Bugatti video and the scooter caper – viewers aren’t even sure what got stolen. “They’re like, ‘it was a cell phone. No, it was a wallet!'” It’s not just watch ownership that people fear may be under assault, but ownership of anything.
Then again, none of this has not stopped Sexton from getting in touch with his local authorized dealer, in Cincinnati, and putting his name on the waiting list for his grail Explorer.
Video credits: @marine.gazaryan, @simonzzo, @watchmania, and from Jeff Hilliard’s HODINKEE story