A spate of robberies in independent New York City jewelry stores in recent months has some owners on edge, as they try to safeguard their employees and businesses.
The most recent incident occurred at gunpoint at Diamonds by Direct in Queens on Feb. 23 and led to the hospitalization of a 79-year-old female employee, who had been kicked and beaten by two thieves. The retailer had more than $1 million worth of merchandise stolen, according to the victim’s daughter Eva Chen, who helps run the family-owned store.
Earlier this week the New York City Police Department requested the public’s assistance in finding the suspects, including a third man. As has been the case with a few other jewelry store robberies, the Diamonds by Direct incident occurred in broad daylight — shortly after 2:30 p.m. One of the two suspects had posed as an Amazon deliveryman and the day prior to the crime, a woman who identified herself as an Amazon employee phoned the store twice about a delivery for the following day, according to Chen, who said her mother was recently released from the hospital. In addition to the NYPD, officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation are working on the case.
Last year, commercial robberies in New York City reached 2,237 — nearly a 65 percent hike compared to the annual total for 2021, according to the NYPD. In late December, New York City Mayor Eric Adams hosted a summit to create a citywide strategic prevention plan to combat retail theft, which is supposed to be released this year in a report. Leveraging technology and physical security measures to deter theft and surveillance were a few of the issues that were discussed.
Several stores throughout New York’s five boroughs have been targeted. In January, Facets Hand Crafted Jewelry’s Park Slope store had more than $2 million worth of merchandise stolen in an armed robbery, and last month, Melissa Joy Manning’s Cobble Hill store was robbed one afternoon. Their respective owners detailed the crimes during recent interviews with WWD.
In addition to the Diamonds by Direct theft, NYPD officials are also seeking the public’s help in finding suspects in several other incidents. One is being sought for stealing $355,000 worth of goods from Imperial Jewelry and Trading on West 47th Street Feb. 20 before fleeing in a gray Mercedes Benz with a New Jersey license plate. Another stole three rings — valued at a total of $17,400 — from a West Village jewelry store at 308 Bleecker Street on the afternoon of Feb. 14. Two other suspects are being sought for taking $7,000 worth of jewelry from a store in the Bronx.
The Council of Fashion Designers of America flagged the problem of “recent robberies (and dangerous assaults)” in fine jewelry stores including Manning’s in its newsletter last month. The CFDA advised storeowners to be on higher alert and to report any suspicious activity immediately. If anyone inquired about selling old jewelry, they were advised to contact Manning, who would share information with the detective working on her case.
Just as some major retailers like CVS Health and Target have secured more merchandise to prevent shoplifting, independent jewelry stores are taking added precautions, as a result of thefts or as a preventive means. A few have posted signs outside their store entrances, advising mask-wearing shoppers that they will need to remove their masks for a photograph before being allowed to enter the store.
Organized retail theft and shoplifting became more of a concern for many big-box, department and specialty stores during the pandemic. There were 63,000-plus shoplifting complaints filed last year — a 45 percent increase compared to 2021, based on NYPD figures. While that presents its own set of challenges, robberies, including a few that involved threats of bodily harm, have ratcheted up concerns.
Diamonds by Direct has yet to reopen, since the store is still a crime scene and an insurance assessment is planned. Chen said she will replace the store’s broken glass but she definitely will relocate, fearful that the criminal would return. Speculating that the thieves knew what they were after, Chen said they took trademarked merchandise that did not have traceable serial numbers and left behind the more valuable GIA-certified loose diamonds, which have lasered inscription numbers.
In business for more than 10 years, the by-appointment retailer has relied primarily on word-of-mouth referrals. In the event a stranger inquires about shopping there, Chen routinely asks specifically how they heard of the business before arranging a time. Referring to the two calls she had received from “a very professional woman, who claimed to be an Amazon employee,” Chen said the caller ID number read “Amazon.com,” which was why she picked up the call, mistakenly assuming it was a legitimate Amazon employee. “The next day they dressed up like Amazon employees, acting very professionally. My mom told them to drop it in the front of my store and they even waved good-bye to her. They waited in a dark corner until she came out to pick up the parcel [and pistol-whipped her.]” Chen said. “They drove away in a Mercedes.”
Chen continued, “Everyone orders from Amazon. I want to warn all of the people that this could happen to anybody. It could be parents at home, other relatives, people with kids — they will answer the door for Amazon.”
Retail theft has increasingly become a problem with many stores nationwide in recent years, “which includes many of these brazen, potentially violent incidents, where people are coming in and very openly stealing merchandise without any regard to the safety and security of the customers,” according to the National Retail Federation’s vice president of asset protection and retail operations, David Johnston.
Having seen some surveillance video footage of the recent “smash-and-grab” incidents in New York jewelry stores, and heard from NRF jewelry members about overnight break-ins, he said, “This is just part of a larger national issue.”
On average, retailers saw a 26.5 percent increase in organized retail crime incidents in 2021 and eight in 10 retailers surveyed report that the violence and aggression associated with ORC incidents increased in the past year.
Johnston noted that in many states, the current laws are not structured to take aggregated acts as a larger crime. The NRF is a supporter of the Combating Organized Retail Crime Act, as well as state organizations that are trying to enact new laws for stiffer penalties for thieves. Such issues were openly discussed and challenged at the New York City Chamber of Commerce’s Anti-Crime Summit in January. Johnston said, “Law enforcement is strapped with resources. The law enforcement and the district attorney said they were hampered by changed laws with regards to bail reform, felony thresholds and even evidence discovery.”
First and foremost, retailers are prioritizing their employees’ and customers’ safety, and in the event of an incident they are advised to let it happen versus risk any injury. While some stores are hiring security officers and implementing better camera systems, the problem needs to be examined on city and state levels considering law enforcement, prosecution and legislative means, Johnston said. “We’re going to continue to see these events happening until action is taken at the local, state and national level. It will only be when the penalty or the threat of penalty outweigh the act itself will we see these things start to level off.”
In the months ahead, more small and national retailers may close select locations as has been reported to the NRF in various metropolitan areas of California, Oregon and Washington, due to extreme theft and crime.
Facets Fine Hand Crafted Jewelry’s Park Slope store was robbed on Jan. 8, shortly before 5 p.m. Owner Irina Sulay, who was there with an employee and a client, said “three armed men walked in, one at a time, smashed the cases and robbed it. They said, ‘This is how you use a hammer,’ and they started smashing the cases.”
After the suspects saw Sulay and her employee move and attempt to call 911, they swore at the three women and threatened to shoot them, she said. “It happened really very fast — in 38 seconds. We just stood still to not create a bigger deal. We just wanted them to get the hell out of here,” Sulay said.
The retail value of the stolen goods was $2.5 million, said Sulay, who has had the store since 2001. She speculated that the thieves had been hired, and had not been in the store before. But an advance person may have, as the suspects bee-lined it to the cases with the most valuable jewelry. Noting her handmade, often antique designs, she said the loss is “greater than just the value of money.”
Facets now has daily on-site armed security, installed a camera, upgraded its door locking system, installed panic buttons for each employee and other precautions that have totaled several thousand dollars. Sulay said the crime was a first for her, but not for the neighborhood. As for what other store owners can do, Sulay said not being out late [at night] could be a precaution, but she does not believe in that type of lifestyle either.
Determined to not let the robbery “bring them down,” Sulay, who designs all of the jewelry in the shop, has created several new pieces for a curated line. “What we’ve learned from this is that obviously things are temporary in the world. We just do the best that we can to go and be positive. Our goal is to serve our community for decades to come.”
After hearing from concerned storeowners in Cobble Hill, the Atlantic Avenue BID’s executive director Kelly Carroll and the local precinct’s newly installed detective John Condon visited multiple stores in the neighborhood. In addition to checking on their security measures and asking how they were feeling, Condon provided his cell number so that they can contact him directly in the event of any further concerns, Carroll said. At a press conference Tuesday, NYPD officials encouraged business owners to request free security assessments from the department and to make mask removals a condition for entry to stores.
Manning was in her SoHo store when her Brooklyn store was robbed last month. She said the suspect wearing wraparound sunglasses, a surgical mask and hat, first cased the store at 196 Court Street, telling a sales associate that he wanted to spend about $8,000 for an anniversary gift and inquiring where all the diamond rings and necklaces were. The salesperson “immediately flagged it as super suspicious. A signal for us is not being able to see someone’s face at all, and they’re asking questions in relation to price, and not about what the piece is,” said Manning, whose salesperson contacted her as soon as the person left the Brooklyn store.
Manning said that she immediately called her newly installed neighborhood community officer at the NYPD to inform them of the concern at the Cobble Hill store, who offered to call her back. Manning then sent one of her male employees to the Brooklyn store, but when he stepped out later, “the suspicious person took the opportunity” to come back to the store, said Manning. The employee texted her as soon as the suspect returned.
“At that point, I knew exactly what was happening. I called 911 right away and ran across the street to where a police car happened to be parked [to say] ‘I’m having a robbery at my other store,” said Manning, who rode with the police officer to the store.
In the meantime, the suspect told the sole Cobble Hill employee that he had decided on a piece of jewelry, pulled a knife on her, pushed it into her back, told her, “‘This is an armed robbery. Be calm. Don’t make any noise. I won’t hurt you. Take everything out of the case and put it in my hands.’” Manning said.
After emptying the fine jewelry case, he requested more necklaces from another case, made the employee lay on the ground, opened another case and took another shelf of jewelry, Manning said. “He was smart enough to take the key that he had fetched before running down the street and into the Bergen Street subway station,” she said.
More upset that her employee was traumatized by the experience than the stolen jewelry, which was insured, Manning posted about the crime on social media the following day and a few other retailers DMed about similar incidents. After asking those store owners for photos of their respective suspects, Manning said she shared them with the NYPD.
As a designer who does not use GIA-certified stones, the street value for her pieces is “scrap,” she said.
In response to these incidents, some independent retailers are rallying together to create a network to share any updates or concerns via text. As an added safeguard, some like Page Sargisson have posted signs, advising shoppers that admittance is contingent on not wearing masks, sunglasses and hoods, and/or they will be photographed before admittance. The retailer also increased its insurance coverage after the Facets robbery. Sargisson and a few employees had a scare on Feb. 2 at her 347 Atlantic Avenue store after a masked man wearing a hoodie on his head entered the store and asked what the most expensive item in the store was. Although the store has a buzzer for admittance, someone had reflexively used it.
“It’s just sad. I did not sleep at all that night. I was thinking about my staff. I don’t want anyone to be held at knifepoint or to have that kind of trauma,” said Sargisson, who has been in touch with a NYPD detective about the incident. “I told my staff, ‘Your safety is more important than the jewelry.’ I just don’t want them to engage with anyone physically.”
As a small business owner who employs five people, she wants to keep her business alive and does not want to run the store by appointment only. The designer no longer works late into the night in her design studio, which is in her store. Encouraged by how independent stores have come together to stay informed about the thefts, she said “that was all anyone was talking about at [fine jewelry trade show] Melee the Show” last month, including resources in San Francisco, where similar issues have arisen.