Criminal Rolex Gangs and Traveling with Watches, Part I

Criminal Rolex Gangs and Traveling with Watches, Part I

In this week's Dispatch, we explore the massive uptick in watch-related crime and offer some tips on how to safely use your tools while traveling.

The Risks of Traveling With A Luxury Watch in 2022:

It’s a cool October morning and you’re sitting outside at a Parisian café in the Plaza de Vosges enjoying a cappuccino and a warm chocolate croissant. For a second, you visualize yourself as a character in ‘Ocean’s Eleven,’ or maybe even James Bond. You even brought your finest watch on this European vacation–a stainless-steel Rolex GMT-Master II, acquired after years of kissing your local Authorized Dealer’s ass.
A waitress returns to your table with a third cappuccino but accidentally spills it on your new linen shirt. She quickly leans over you in a feeble attempt to clean up the mess before offering a “pardon” and motioning that she was getting more napkins. You look up at your spouse, frustrated but shrugging it off, thinking, what would Bond do? Play it cool, of course.
Glancing down at the newly formed stain on your shirt, something feels different. You picked up a stain, but you feel like you also lost something–and your wrist is lighter. The GMT. It’s gone. The horror sets in. You panic, then you scan the café and see your waitress – the real one, not the one that spilled coffee on you – across the patio serving a customer, oblivious to what just happened.
Generic Paris Cafe (Not-Plaza de Vosges); Photo Credit: Lonely Planet

Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence in 2022. Almost daily, new stories emerge of a Richard Mille, Rolex Daytona or Patek Aquanaut stolen–sometimes violently–from the wrist of a tourist or businessman. Milan, Miami or Manilla–it happens all over. 

For decades, hard men traveled to hard places with luxury timepieces on their wrists. Saddle up to an expat bar in Nairobi, Mexico City or Bangkok, and you’d be sure to see NGO workers, mercenaries, diplomats, and spies wearing a Rolex GMT, Omega Seamaster or Breitling Emergency. In fact, many of these timepieces were developed with this exact customer segment in mind.

During my time at CIA, I spent most of my career living, traveling, and working in the “developing world” and regularly frequented Europe. Whether for operational purposes or family vacations, I did not consider the negative consequences of wearing a luxury watch and never had one stolen. It was a tool that I used to tell time, and that was that. 

But in 2022 a new normal has emerged. Soaring secondary market prices combined with a general increase in interest and awareness has led to an uptick in petty and sophisticated crime specifically targeting watches. This has led Law Enforcement to issue statements warning citizens to refrain from wearing luxury watches in public.

Some watch collectors and “watch personalities” (whatever that means) advocate for leaving watches at home during that next vacation or business trip, illustrating a growing trend, or groupthink. At Watches of Espionage, we are strong believers that watches should be enjoyed and used for their intended purpose–not left at home in a safe. “Use your Tools” is a common saying in our community and we practice what we preach.

However, now, given the emerging threat of theft, we must examine how to mitigate risk while using the tools that we love. The days of wearing a Rolex Submariner and packing in your carry-on a watch roll housing your Patek Phillipe and Jaeger-LeCoultre may be over.

What Has Changed?

Over the past few years, social media and pop culture have increased awareness of luxury watches. A decade ago, one would have to visit an obscure online watch forum or an even more obscure in-person meet up to learn about watches. Now, anyone with a smartphone is bombarded with algorithm-driven content fueling this once-niche hobby. The rise of @watchesofespionage Instagram is a perfect example of this. In 18 months, the account grew to over 85,000 followers, many of whom were not historically “watch guys”. But this proves that the interest is there. Could this have happened years ago? I doubt it. 

Watches Of Espionage Instagram
Watches of Espionage Instagram homepage; Photo Credit: James Rupley

A few months ago, I was in line to board a plane to Dubai when a 20-something noticed my early 1980s Rolex GMT 1675/3 “Rootbeer.” After a brief conversation in which he admitted that he was new to watches, I quickly learned that he was more knowledgeable about the watch on my wrist than I was. He was a junior consultant working for Deloitte, and he said he spent a lot of time scrolling through Instagram and going down the “Hodinkee rabbit hole.” 

Criminals have access to the same information.

Further, macroeconomic factors–a booming stock market, pandemic-driven stimulus dollars and surging cryptocurrencies– from 2020 to 2022 resulted in a significant amount of disposable income. One result is that watches–particularly steel sport models–that could once be found under retail are now unobtainable and selling on the secondary market for up to 2-3x times retail price. A new Rolex Submariner that costs $9,000 retail could sell for over $20,000: a significant sum by any measurement. Highly collectable models can quickly soar past the $100,000 mark. 

A map showing the increased number of watch thefts in July 2022 across London. In the space of eight days there were three watch robberies, a total of 621 total incidents from July 14 in 2021 to July 14 in 2022. (Photo Credit: Daily Mail)

Due to these factors, watches are an attractive booty for criminal networks. The price-to-weight ratio is exceeded only by precious gems, making it easy to physically transport a watch across international borders. The vast, unregulated and fragmented gray market makes monetizing the loot easy. Unlike vehicles, artwork and diamonds, there is no oversight or registration for timepieces. Anonymously reselling a watch is as easy as walking into a local dealer or listing it on Ebay.

Knife wielding criminals on mopeds, a common tactic used in London and other European cities. (Photo Credit:

Organized Crime:

Crime has adapted. While petty crime has increased globally due to the rise in wealth inequality, sophisticated criminal gangs have evolved. “Rolex Rippers” in London, the “Rolex Gang” in Johannesburg and unnamed syndicates in large metropolitan cities in the United States and Europe are now a fact of life. These groups are on a spectrum in terms of sophistication and savviness, with the higher echelon targeting not only certain brands but even specific references with a higher return on investment (ROI). They operate as an organized business, taking orders and sourcing watches to feed into an underground network to launder the watches back into circulation.

Similar to transnational terrorist groups, watch thieves follow an attack cycle with Target Selection, Pre-Attack Surveillance, Planning, Rehearsal, Execution, Escape and Exploitation followed by the three steps of money laundering: Placement, Layering and Integration. A single Audemars Piguet heist could result in a $200k+ windfall, making weeks of casing on social media and physical surveillance worth it. After passing through the hands of middle men (Layering), it is difficult to differentiate between stolen and legitimate watches on the secondary market. I often wonder if any of the pre-owned ones I have purchased were once stolen, but unfortunately there is no reliable database to find out.

Attempted Armed Robbery of Rolex wearer in Amsterdam, July 2022; Screenshot of the CCTV of the terrace — Image by Algemeen Dagblad

So What Do You Do About It?

As a watch enthusiast, you have three real options: you can stick your head in the sand and hope for the best; lock all your watches in a safe and only take them out on special occasions; or you can make informed decisions on when, where and how to wear specific timepieces. At W.O.E. we’re of the strong opinion that you can take certain steps to mitigate the risk while still enjoying the shared experience with watches that transition them from inanimate objects to meaningful heirlooms. It is important to note that we use the term mitigate–not eliminate– risk.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Blanket oversimplified statements such as “never wear a Rolex in London” or “always wear a G-Shock when traveling” are unhelpful. At CIA, the answer to every question is, “it depends,” and that vague but meaningful phrase applies here. Like any tool, you must match the right tool to the job, depending on outside factors:

  • Destination: Someone recently told me that they would never travel to Italy with a Rolex, which is a naive statement considering how large and diverse Italy is. In general, tourist areas may cause a larger threat than rural or semi-rural areas, but even this is an oversimplification. Regardless, you must first have a general understanding of the threat landscape of your destination.
  • Lodging: An AirBnB in a low crime residential area is different from a 3- or 5-star hotel in a major city's tourist center. A security-conscious friend’s home with a safe is also different.
  • Activity: What will you be doing once you arrive at your destination? Are you walking around tourist attractions, sitting on a public beach or stuck in a conference room at a corporate headquarters?
    Man robbed of Rolex valued at $12,000 in Chelsea, NYC, August 2022 (Photo Credit: CBS News)
    Man robbed of Rolex valued at $12,000 in Chelsea, NYC, August 2022;(Photo Credit: CBS News)

    There are plenty of articles online on “How to travel with a luxury watch,” and while I encourage you to read these before your next trip, there is no standardized answer. This type of knowledge can only truly be gained through experience; you can’t learn to ski by reading a book.

    Here I will offer a few pointers:

    • Have some affordable watches (sub-$500) in your collection that are perishable – i.e. you would not be heartbroken if they were lost or stolen.
    • Insure and document your watches: make sure it will cover replacement at fair market value.
    • Practice situational awareness: be aware of your surroundings and how you may be perceived.
    • Consider storage options: if you carry more than one watch, where are the others while you are at your destination? There are times when the hotel safe is a better option than in your backpack, but in general this should not be considered secure storage.
    • Be mindful of what you are wearing: a simple jacket or long-sleeved shirt in a tourist area could be enough to limit your profile.
    • Travel with only one watch. But if you do decide to bring two watches, at least one of them should be easily replaceable.
    • Some watches have a higher profile than others: a steel Seiko may stick out more to the petty pickpocket than a PVD BlackBay on a fabric strap, even though the BlackBay is more valuable than the Seiko.
    • Be careful what information you post on social media and do not post your location in real time. Criminals have been known to screen open profiles as a form of digital surveillance.
    • Finally, if you are a 6 wearing a Richard Mille and are approached by a 10 at the hotel bar, be skeptical (this goes for men and women). Taking strangers to your hotel room might not be the best idea with a half a million dollars on your wrist.

    Lastly, it is important to note that this applies to domestic travel as well: that dinner date in Chicago may pose higher risk than the two-week trip to Amman, Dubai or Tehran.

    Read Part II to learn what watches W.O.E. took on a recent trip to Africa and why. Timepiece Crime and Traveling with Watches, Africa Watch Loadout, Part II

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    This Dispatch has been reviewed by the CIA’s Prepublication Classification Review Board to prevent the disclosure of classified information.


    1 comment

    Great article. Thank you.

    Simon Meachin

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