Photograph by Cary Wolinsky, National Geographic

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Jewelry heists usually target diamonds like the one above or other precious stones.

Photograph by Cary Wolinsky, National Geographic

A Recent History of Diamond Heists

Jewelry heists happen surprisingly often, and few of the thieves get caught.

Swiss, Belgian, and French police carried out a series of dawn raids yesterday and collared 33 people in connection with one of Europe's most daring diamond heists—the theft last February of $50 million worth of diamonds from a Zurich-bound jet preparing for takeoff at the Antwerp International Airport.

Jewelry heists happen surprisingly often. What's less common is that the perpetrators get caught. Here's a timeline of some recent capers.

August 11, 1994

Where: Carlton Hotel, Cannes, France

Haul: $45 million

Thieves: A trio of machine-gun enthusiasts

Did they get away with it? Yes

Not the most subtle of heists, this. Three machine-gun-wielding bandits burst into a jewelry shop in the Carlton Hotel, an exclusive Art Deco hotel in Cannes, on the French Riviera. As an attention-getter, they sprayed the walls and ceiling with deafening bursts of machine-gun fire. While terrified employees and customers dived for cover, the trio scooped up an estimated $45 million worth of jewelry and fled. When the police arrived, they noticed a curious fact: There were no bullet holes in the walls. The thieves had been firing blanks. But whatever the robbers lacked in subtlety, they made up for in success—neither they nor their booty were ever found.

December 1-3, 2002

Where: The Museon, The Hague, Netherlands

Haul: $12 million

Thieves: Unknown

Did they get away with it? Yes

Throughout the autumn and early winter of 2002, the Museon at The Hague hosted a fabulous diamond exhibit of rarely seen jewelry from royal families and private collections around Europe. Given the value, rarity, and historical significance of the pieces, security was intense: 24-hour guards, closed-circuit television (CCTV) covering the entire display area, and motion sensors placed throughout the museum. The gems themselves were housed in thick cases of reinforced glass. Yet while the museum was closed, thieves managed to get in and empty 6 of the 28 display cases. Nothing showed up on the CCTV footage, no motion sensors were triggered, the guards saw nothing, and there was no sign of tampering with the locks on the display cabinets. The only indication of forced entry was a broken window at the back of the museum. After several years of fruitless investigation, the Dutch authorities closed the books on the case. The value of the missing jewelry was put at $12 million—a figure experts believe is very low, given the uniqueness of some of the pieces.

February 15-16, 2003

Where: Antwerp World Diamond Centre, Belgium

Haul: $100 million

Thieves: A gang from Turin, Italy

Did they get away with it? No

Labeled at the time as the "Heist of the Century"—even though the century then was a scant three years old—this caper saw an estimated $100 million worth of diamonds disappear from the vaults in the Antwerp World Diamond Centre in a robbery that was four years in the planning. An Italian gang from Turin, led by a man named Leonardo Notarbartolo, leased offices in the building and posed as diamond merchants to study the center's security routines, layout, and alarm systems. One weekend, they used their pass keys to let themselves in to the high-security vault. There they emptied 123 of the 160 safety-deposit boxes and discovered more diamonds than they could carry away, leaving the floor littered with sparkling stones. They also stole the CCTV footage that could identify them. This they unwisely dumped on the roadside as they made their getaway, along with a half-eaten sandwich that had Notarbartolo's DNA on it, twin mistakes that added littering to the gang's string of offenses and provided enough of an evidence trail to put their ringleader away for ten years. The diamonds, however, were not recovered.

February 25, 2005

Where: Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam

Haul: $118 million

Thieves: Unknown

Did they get away with it? Yes

More of a truck hijacking than a stylish heist, this theft involved two men wearing KLM airline uniforms who drove a stolen KLM cargo truck onto the tarmac at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport. Brandishing pistols, they hijacked another truck that was carrying an estimated $118 million in uncut diamonds to a waiting flight bound for Antwerp. After forcing the drivers out of the truck and making them lie on the ground, the robbers climbed in and drove away. The truck was later found abandoned, but the men and diamonds remain missing. If the estimated value of the diamonds is correct—being uncut, their precise value is hard to gauge—the theft would be the biggest diamond heist in history.

March 2-4, 2007

Where: ABN Amro Bank, Antwerp

Haul: $28 million

Thief: A beloved customer

Did he get away with it? Yes

The bank employees at the ABN Amro Bank knew him as Carlos Hector Flomenbaum, a charming and successful businessman in his late 50s who claimed to be from Argentina, spoke excellent English with an American accent, and thoughtfully brought his friends at the bank a box of fine chocolates whenever he returned from overseas. Over the year or so that he held an account at the bank, Flomenbaum became a beloved and trusted figure—trusted enough to have a VIP pass that gave him access to the vaults after hours so he could come and go as he pleased. One weekend he did just that, removing more than 120,000 carats of diamonds, including some extremely rare blue and green stones, for a total haul worth an estimated $28 million. Flomenbaum left behind some extremely red faces at the bank, whose $2 million high-tech security system had been foiled by a charming silver-haired gentleman with an assumed name and a stolen passport. Neither Flomenbaum nor the stones were ever seen again.

February 3, 2008

Where: Damiani Showroom, Milan, Italy

Haul: $20 million

Thieves: Unknown

Did they get away with it? Yes

For four weeks a woman who lived next-door to the Damiani jewelry boutique had complained to police about the sounds of drilling each morning. Nobody paid her any attention. They should have. The sounds she heard were a ring of jewel thieves drilling a tunnel into the jeweler's basement. At ten o'clock one morning, just as the staff were preparing for a private showing and the shop was conveniently clear of customers, the thieves pounced—tying up the staff and making off with an estimated $20 million in jewelry. They got away clean. The only hitch to the heist: Their haul could have been considerably bigger. Many of Damiani's best pieces were on loan to stars attending Oscars, including Best Supporting Actress winner Tilda Swinton, whose wrist flashed with his 1,865-diamond Sahara Bracelet.