Photo by Kim Alani.
A 16-second video shows two Audi sedans — one white, the other black — parked in Dubai’s Wafi Mall. One of the drivers honks and three armed men, wearing all black and carrying approximately $3.4 million in jewelry, leave a store and rush into the cars. Tires squealing over tiles and broken glass, the cars then speed off. Before the clip begins, the drivers had rammed their cars into the front of a jewelry shop. Elapsed time for this heist and for others just like it: under 90 seconds. The strategy is called vol au belier, literally “flight ram,” also known as smash and grab. For the Pink Panthers, it is the method of choice.
With around two dozen members in prisons throughout Western Europe, the Pink Panthers remain some of the most audacious and successful jewel thieves in the world. Wartime chaos and sanctions in the Balkans created fertile ground for criminality, birthing both war criminals and jewel thieves. Hailing mostly from Nis, a decaying industrial town in Serbia with both an abundance of high-rises and farm fields at the floors of mountains, the Panthers are composed, authorities believe, of somewhere between twenty to thirty core thieves. Throughout Europe are logistics masterminds, who aid them in their heists. Other estimates number the membership upwards of 150 Balkan men and women. On radio talk shows and tabloid websites in their native Serbia, the Panthers are hailed as heroes, their brute force a mask for their fierce intelligence, their sophisticated logistics a testament to their rise from the woods and wars of the region.
The final destination of the stolen diamonds is as much a mystery as the scale of the thieves’ membership. One diamond, among a group stolen from Graff Diamonds in London by Predrag Vujosevic in 2003, found its way from Europe to Israel before continent-hopping to New York. Some of the stolen jewelry travels by hidden car compartment to Russia and Serbia.
Largely responsible for unwittingly unearthing the jewel’s path was a diamond grader named Ivy Cutler, among the most talented diamond graders in the New York office of the Gemological Institute of America, who realized, while examining a diamond that had been brought in by a client two weeks earlier, that she was staring at the same diamond she had seen years ago. Consistent with standard industry practice, the buyer’s identity remains confidential.