A diamond hidden in a jar of face cream. Heists carried out in broad daylight. Mission Impossible-style makeup used as disguise and limousines crashing through store windows.
It's the work of the Pink Panthers, a network of criminals suspected of pulling off some of the most brazen diamond heists in history. They are seemingly untouchable and vanish without a trace. And they are suspected of stealing more than $100 million worth of diamonds in just the past month.
Their methods are daring and quick. In July, a lone thief walked into a diamond exhibition at a luxury hotel in Cannes. In just 60 seconds, investigators say, he walked out with $138 million worth of jewels. The heist was carried out during the day, and, incredibly, the robber fell down when he jumped out of a hotel window but still managed to hold on to the loot and escape.
The wild move happened at the same hotel featured in Alfred Hitchcock's film "To Catch a Thief."
Days later, a jewelry store on the French Riviera was targeted. Investigators believe it could be the work of the Pink Panthers.
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FBI Special Agent Dan McCaffrey, a diamond expert who tracks Pink Panther heists, said some of the diamonds taken in the Cannes caper are extremely rare and valuable. More than 20 jewels were 30 carats.
McCaffrey said the Pink Panthers are known for attention to detail and planning every step of the job—including how they will unload the stolen goods. He added that their goal is to get rid of diamonds as quickly as possible, and in past Pink Panther thefts, FBI agents have recovered stolen diamonds in the United States just days after they were lifted from jewelry stores in Europe.
According to McCaffrey, the resale diamond business is huge, and New York City is the epicenter for the diamond trade. There are more wholesalers and retailers on 47th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues than anywhere else in the country—with billions of dollars flowing through the area at any given moment. He said many stolen diamonds have surfaced in New York—some of which are sold to unknowing customers.
The international network of thieves got the name Pink Panthers from police, after the diamond in the film comedies starring Peter Sellers.
But investigators say the glamour romanticized in film is very far from reality.
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McCaffrey describes the Pink Panthers as violent criminals who target and hurt people.
When members are caught, he said, agents are always shocked to see how tawdry their lives really are. Many live in small apartments without contact with their families. Most don't own cars and are always on the run from authorities.
Jeff Pohlman is a senior producer at CNBC. Andrea Day is a reporter at CNBC, covering crime and punishment.
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First published August 8 2013, 2:24 PM