By  on June 16, 2009

PARIS — Jewelers and watchmakers are facing tough times ahead, and it’s not just because of the recession.

After the high-profile armed heist that targeted Chopard last month, the Swiss-based jeweler and its peers are likely to face increased pressure from insurers to step up security against a series of increasingly daring robberies across Europe that have targeted illustrious names in fine jewelry and high-end watches.

Recent police statistics have revealed a marked increase in raids on luxury goods stores and jewelers across Europe, which is attributable to the economic downturn.

Still, robberies like the one at Chopard belong to a different league, experts said. These are professional jobs carried out by determined individuals who can depend on customers who don’t ask too many questions about the items’ provenance.

“You need to have a customer network at your disposal to buy jewels like these, which are easily recognizable,” said Nicolas Giannakopoulos,president of the Organized Crime Observatory and co-founder of Geneva-based InsideCO, a security consultancy.

Chopard’s jewelry store on Place Vendôme in Paris was raided last month on a Saturday afternoon by a lone man carrying a gun, who stole jewels worth up to 6.5 million euros, or $9.2 million, according to French police.

The heist took place over the Pentecost weekend, when the city center was packed with shoppers and tourists. It came after a gang of armed men stole gems worth 85 million euros, or $107 million, from jeweler Harry Winston in Paris last December.

The man, donning a fedora to match his elegant suit, passed himself off as a customer to enter through Chopard’s security door, before drawing his weapon and ordering staff to give him jewels from the window display.

No one was reported injured in the robbery, and it wasn’t immediately known whether the robber had an accomplice, as he disappeared quickly among the crowds of visitors on Place Vendôme.

“The hat was a classic diversion, like a magician’s,” Giannakopoulos said. “Closed-circuit cameras are usually placed on the ceiling, so they couldn’t record the robber’s face.”

Police investigators have declined to comment if the raid can be linked to a group known as the Pink Panthers, who are suspected to have carried out similar heists in the last six years. They were so nicknamed by British investigators after an $18 million heist in 2003 that targeted the Graff jewelry store in London’s exclusive Mayfair neighborhood. One suspect was later arrested after he was found in possession of a blue diamond worth $675,000, which had been hidden in a jar of moisturizer — a trick borrowed from one of the “Pink Panther” movies starring Peter Sellers.

Although some members have been arrested, the Pink Panthers have so far managed to elude the police because they are not a gang with a clear structure, but rather a network of around 200 individuals from the former Yugoslavia, often with a military background. They can rely on a network of customers they know well, many located in the former Soviet republics, Giannakopoulos said.

Chopard declined to comment for this article, as did Compagnie Financière Richemont, the parent company of Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels. Both jewelers, also based in Place Vendôme, seemingly stepped up security in the aftermath of the Chopard raid, placing two guards behind their double doors.

As well as increasing the number of security staff on patrol, the industry is looking at other deterrents to minimize the risk of robberies. For example, some houses have opted for a store layout that divides space into smaller areas, which don’t provide a clear and easy way out of the store. Securing jewels and watches on display in the window with steel cables or using smoke to disorient robbers in case of an attack are also among measures being considered by the industry.

But insiders acknowledge these can have limited effect against very determined robbers, such as the Pink Panthers. “These are groups of people in the former Yugoslavia who are ready to do anything to gain big sums of money,” said an industry source, pointing out that store staff are trained not to attempt heroics but to give in to robbers’ requests to avoid casualties.

And little can be done when robbers manage to gain insight from staff. In one case, a police investigation determined that a security guard who had been assaulted during a robbery turned out to be an accomplice, according to a senior executive of a luxury goods brand.

In the meantime, insurance experts said that as underwriters face increased losses, they are taking a tougher stance on risks and the premiums paid by their clients.

But, at the same time, some insurers are taking on an active role as advisers to the fine jewelry and high-end watch industry in a bid to make these raids more difficult, even for the most determined robbers.

“We work together with security specialists to advise our clients andbrokers on risk management and risk prevention measures they should take,” said Pascale Rauline, a senior underwriter for XL Insurance in France. “Taking appropriate measures is important not only for the protection of our client’ companies’ assets, but also to the security of their people and their customers.”

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