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We're trying to understand a crime spree that has broken out in Europe. Earlier this month, in central Paris, thieves, using axes and smoke grenades, broke into a Swiss luxury watch store and made off with nearly $2 million of loot. It's been a particularly good year for jewel thieves across Europe. Tens of millions of dollars in diamonds and other precious gems have been stolen.

Here's NPR's Jackie Northam.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: By European standards, this latest jewel heist in Paris is pretty small potatoes. Compare it to the $100 million worth of rings and necklaces that were snatched from Harry Winston, a premier Paris jeweler in 2008, or the $50 million worth of gems stolen from a plane waiting on the tarmac in Brussels earlier this year. And there's the whole string of high-profile jewel thefts in Southern France this spring, including one at a hotel in Cannes, where a lone thief made off with $136 million in diamonds.

Scott Andrew Selby, author of the book "Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History," explains what happened.

SCOTT ANDREW SELBY: A thief came in the morning, went quickly through some doors that were supposed to be locked, pulled out a gun and managed to get away with a fortune in diamond jewelry, and just hopped right back out onto the main promenade and disappeared into the crowd.

NORTHAM: The robbery took place at Cannes' luxurious Carlton Intercontinental Hotel, the same one featured in the Alfred Hitchcock classic "To Catch a Thief."

John Shaw is a managing director with SW Associates, a Paris-based loss adjuster and risk manager working on this theft. He says jewel heists are a boom industry in Europe.

JOHN SHAW: I think what we're seeing on a worldwide basis is the opposite of a treasure hunt, wherever the very wealthy go, there are people running after them with trays of jewelry.

NORTHAM: Spectacular jewel thefts are often romanticized in movies. Take "To Catch a Thief." In it, Cary Grant plays John Robie, a dashing former cat burglar pursued by a beautiful socialite played by Grace Kelly.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TO CATCH A THIEF")

CARY GRANT: (as John Robie) Who did you call me?

GRACE KELLY: (as Frances Stevens) Robie, John Robie, one of the world's cleverest jewel thieves, known as The Cat. I read all about you in the Paris paper.

GRANT: (as John Robie) You may have read about somebody called The Cat, but...

KELLY: (as Frances Stevens) I thought you said...

NORTHAM: Scott Selby says nowadays, jewel heists tend to be carried out by organized networks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "THE PINK PANTHER")

NORTHAM: Selby says one international gang is the Pink Panthers, a syndicate of professional thieves that come out of the former Yugoslavia. Subtlety is not their specialty, driving cars through storefront windows, smashing and grabbing, guns drawn. Selby says another network is called the School of Turin, thieves that come together for individual, low-key heists, developed over long periods.

SELBY: They tend to have day jobs that give them skills that are useful, as well as providing them cover in the community. So, for instance, one guy has an alarm company, one guy has a locksmith company.

NORTHAM: John Kennedy, the president of the New York-based Jewelers Security Alliance, a non-profit organization that compiles data on crimes against the jewelry industry, says jewel heists in the U.S. are much smaller than those seen in Europe. A couple million dollars in stolen gems here would be considered a very, very big hit. He says there has been a dramatic decline in jewel thefts in the U.S. since the late '90s. Still, Kennedy says there are a lot of hot gems on the market here.

JOHN KENNEDY: There's a huge international diamond trade. It's constantly going all over the place, back and forth and all over. Many of the diamonds that have been stolen in Europe and even in the Far East have shown up in New York.

NORTHAM: Kennedy says stolen diamonds can be re-cut. Identifying marks can be removed, and the gems can be resold by questionable jewelers. He says since the first of the year, thieves in the U.S. seem to be bypassing diamonds altogether and are going after high-end watches, worth upwards of $100,000 each.

Jackie Northam, NPR News.

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