Daring Diamond Heist in Downtown Paris

Thieves dressed in drag sped off with more than $100 million worth of jewels.

December 5, 2008, 10:17 AM

PARIS, France, Dec 5, 2008— -- Parisians are reeling today at reports of a daring, record-setting diamond heist yesterday involving armed gunmen dressed in drag looting a store in the center of town in broad daylight.

An estimated $107 million worth of jewelry was stolen yesterday from the renowned Harry Winston store in Paris, the largest jewelry theft ever in France and just slightly below the $127 million world-record diamond heist in Antwerp, Belgium, in 2003, according to reports from AFP.

At 5:30 p.m., four armed robbers, some reportedly dressed in drag, entered the store on the chic Avenue Montaigne, off the Champs Elysées in central Paris, a heavily patrolled area less than 330 feet from a police station. At the time, 15 or so employees and customers were inside the store, according to local press reports.

It took the gun-toting thieves just 20 minutes to swipe rings, necklaces and luxury watches from display cases and raid the store safes. The gang then casually exited and vanished without firing a shot, "discreetly, without screeching tires, without any agitation, nothing," a witness told France 2 TV today.

French TV showed pictures of just three remaining diamond-rimmed watches in one display case after the robbery, sorry remnants of the once sparkly window display.

"This is a perfect coup, which took place during the day in a very secure area of Paris, in a store which is supposed to be itself well secured. This takes a certain audacity, some nerve, a lot of calm and self-control," Christophe Gesset, representative of "Synergie Officiers" police union, told ABCNews.com.

According to preliminary investigations, some of the robbers spoke French, others an eastern European language.

"The robbers were well-prepared. They had surveyed the store before the attack. They're believed to have called some of the employees by their names," Gesset added.

The same store was hit in October 2007, when more than $12 million worth of jewelry was stolen. At the time, Harry Winston offered a $500,000 reward to the first person who could provide information leading to the recovery of the goods. More than a year later, the goods and the thieves are still on the run.

A couple of weeks ago, in the same area, a diamond ring estimated at more than $800,000 was stolen from a Cartier store. This time, a couple of alleged tourists from Qatar entered the store and asked to see several jewels of great value. Like a magician performing his trick, the couple succeeded in spiriting away a ring mounted with a 5.5-carat diamond and replacing it with a fake.

Amid these increasingly bold robbery efforts, gleaming storefront window displays will likely become scarce, Gesset said.

"More and more jewelers are already changing their sales methods," Gesset said. "There will be fewer stores in the future. Jewelry collections will be made available to the public virtually, via Web sites. And the actual sales will be concluded in a private environment."

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