Sunday, February 25, 2024

Rise of the ‘Rolex rippers’: How luxury watch thieves operating in London’s West End are putting wealthy owners off flaunting their wrist candy – and sending price of secondhand timepieces plummeting

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A spate of luxury watch muggings in London is putting wealthy owners off flaunting their wrist candy – and may be contributing to collapsing demand for high-end timepieces.  

The value of secondhand watches, as tracked by the Bloomberg Subdial Watch Index, is down more than 40 per cent since its peak in April 2022. 

Major UK retailer Watches of Switzerland has seen its share price drop by 53 per cent this year after announcing it expects revenue to be 10 per cent lower than forecast, while Richemont, owner of Cartier has said half year sales are down by 17 per cent. 

While the malaise comes amid a broader slowdown in the luxury market, dealers and luxury experts admit ‘Rolex Rippers’ are a problem. 

Paul Thorpe, a former watch dealer who now runs a YouTube channel dedicated to luxury watches, told The Times: ‘People are just worried right now. They see their luxury watches as a potential mugging waiting to happen. Why would you put your life on the line in the big cities? Theft is not the biggest factor to falling demand but it’s a contributing factor.’

Roshan Clark, 18, poses with two stolen Rolex watches. He was part of a gang of London watch robbers 

Footage of a watch robbery sting was revealed last month with street crime in the capital rising

Footage of a watch robbery sting was revealed last month with street crime in the capital rising

Danny Pizzigoni, owner of The Watch Club in the West End, said crime was prompting owners to sell up. 

‘People come in and they say, ‘I want to sell this gold Day-Date [Rolex] or this yellow gold [Philippe Patek] Nautilus because I’m too scared to wear it,’ he said. 

More than 6,000 luxury watches were stolen in London in 2022, although the Met claim say incidents have halved since officers began conducting undercover sting operations in the West End last year.

Plain-clothed officers volunteered to go out wearing valuable timepieces after analysis showed thieves tend to target well-heeled victims leaving pubs and clubs between 11pm and 4am on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights in Soho, also part of the Westminster district.

Over two operations, which ran from October 2022 to December 2022 and March 2023 to October 2023, 27 people were arrested and subsequently charged. 

Of these, 21 were convicted – with 14 sentenced to a total of 26 years in prison. 

Last year a gang responsible for a series of terrifying robberies at knifepoint in South West London were convicted after police recovered a phone showing them posing with stolen Rolexes. 

The group used a stolen BMW with false plates to carry out their crimes, threatening their victims with large knives and machetes before stealing items including watches and bags. None of the stolen property has been recovered.

Roshan Clark, 19, was sentenced to three years and nine months for his role in the gang. Michael Malik Ahmed, 29, Kaijuan Henry, 19, Jessy Ouma, 18, Zakariah Yusuf, 19, and Joseph Opoku, 19, were sentenced to more than 20 years in total. 

Muggings of all types have tripled in the West End over the last two years, threatening to put off wealthy tourists.  

New figures show the number of thefts from a person in the area around Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square increased to 2,806 last year, compared to 796 in 2021.

Theft, which includes pick-pocketing and shoplifting, currently makes up around 60 per cent of crime in the West End. The figures were compiled by the Heart of London Business Alliance, which represents 600 local retailers, restaurants and property owners. 

Ros Morgan, chief executive of the group, told the Telegraph: ‘Retail crime in the West End is not just a threat to businesses but to the entire community and luxury goods are no exception.

‘There was a significant spike in shoplifting and a rising number of thefts across the West End in 2023. We have long called for a greater police presence to deter criminal activities and instill a sense of security.’

Plain-clothed Metropolitan Police officers posed as victims to catch watch thieves in London

Plain-clothed Metropolitan Police officers posed as victims to catch watch thieves in London

Footage of a watch robbery sting was revealed last month with street crime in the capital rising

Footage of a watch robbery sting was revealed last month with street crime in the capital rising

Nickie Aiken, the MP for the Cities of London and Westminster, called for more police on the streets – as she warned the situation had worsened since the pandemic. 

High-profile businessman Devin Narang recently used a summit with Labour’s shadow foreign secretary David Lammy to warn that Indian executives are putting off visiting London due to their fears about falling victim to crime

Mr Narang said: ‘People are being mugged in the heart of London, in Mayfair – all CEOs in India have had an experience of physical mugging and the police not responding.’

The warning came as British and Indian officials continue to deliberate over a long-delayed new trade deal following the UK’s 2016 decision to quit the European Union.

London’s street crime epidemic last year saw theft from a person offences soar by 27 per cent compared to the previous 12 months.

Metropolitan Police figures show there were 72,756 of those crimes reported in the year to 2023, up from 57,468 in 2022.

Moped and e-bike gangs have been identified as prolific culprits.

Mr Narang told the Financial Times: ‘Indians do carry expensive things, but the police not responding is a matter of concern.

‘London is a walking city – you don’t want to look over your shoulder all the time. You don’t want to go to a city where you’re likely to be mugged in the streets.

‘It doesn’t make you feel comfortable. You can walk anywhere in Delhi and you won’t be mugged.’

He claimed the police were often uninterested in such crimes or were slow to respond.

Business leader Devin Narang has warned of Indian CEOs' fears about crime levels in the UK

Business leader Devin Narang has warned of Indian CEOs’ fears about crime levels in the UK

In April 2022 former British boxing champion Amir Khan was accosted by a gunman who made off with his custom-made £72,000 watch as he left a restaurant in east London.

And last July a machete-wielding teenager also targeted broadcaster and former chorister Aled Jones, taking his £17,000 Rolex.

Scotland Yard revealed last month how a squad of undercover officers posing as victims carried out an unprecedented sting to capture the so-called Rolex Rippers responsible for a spate of violent watch muggings across the capital. 

The Mayor of London’s office said: ‘The Met have stepped up their response to robberies – which are rising nationally – and have specialist teams out proactively targeting the most prolific offenders and robbery hotspots.’

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