How many big diamond heists can Antwerp afford?

How many big diamond heists can Antwerp afford?

Bank robber "Slick Willie" Sutton famously – maybe apocryphally — said that he robbed banks because "that’s where the money is."

Sutton’s principle is worth keeping in mind when considering the latest massive heist to hit the diamond trading center in Antwerp, Belgium. On Monday, some $50 million (Update: The Wall Street Journal is reporting it may have been up to $350 million) in diamonds en route from Antwerp to Switzerland were stolen from the cargo hold of a plane at Brussels’  international airport. The robbery may have been "one of the biggest" ever, as a source at the Antwerp World Diamond Center said, but it’s actually at least the fourth heist on this scale to hit the Antwerp market in the last decade.

The most audacious heist was probably the 2003 theft from the safes at the Antwerp trading center itself. 123 out of the center’s 160 safes, protected behind 10 layers of security, were hit by an Italian gang known as the "School of Turin." In a highly entertaining 2009 Wired article on the theft, one of the robbers speculates that the heist may have been part of a larger insurance fraud scheme.

The scale of the 2003 job was matched by the 2005 theft of approximately $99 million in Antwerp-bound diamonds and jewelry from an armored car at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. There was also a $28 million diamond heist from an Antwerp bank in 2007 by a man who had spent more than a year posing as a wealthy diamond merchant under the amazing name Carlos Hector Flomenbaum and had gained the bank staff’s trust to the point that he was able to walk into the vault with a key and help himself to the rocks.

The problem probably isn’t so much that Antwerp’s security is bad. But even with "2,000 surveillance cameras, police monitoring and countless identity controls," Antwerp and the shipments that come in and out of it will continue to be targets for thieves because that’s where the diamonds are: about 84 percent of the 118.5 million carats of uncut stones mined in 2011 passed through the city.

The biggest threat to Antwerp probably isn’t thieves but globalization.  In recent years, the city’s diamond cutting monopoly has been facing competition from emerging competitors like Mumbai, Shanghai, Dubai, and Tel Aviv. Last year, Antwerp took a major blow when De Beers – the world’s largest diamond producer – moved its sorting and trading facility from London to Botswana. (Antwerp’s proximity to London had been one of its main competitive advantages as a trading center.)

These rising alternative diamond centers have yet seen robberies on the scale of the recent Antwerp jobs. This is a bit surprising given the lax security Jason Miklian described at the diamond polishing center in Surat, India in a recent FP article. The fact that the big-game robbers seem to still focus on Antwerp suggests either a vote of confidence for the city’s place in the industry or lack of imagination by the criminals. (Or it could lend credence to the conspiracy theory that many of these thefts are inside jobs, as the jailed School of Turin robber suggested to Wired. Smuggling and embezzlement aren’t exactly unheard of in Antwerp, so insurance fraud doesn’t seem beyond the pale. )

As Slate‘s Matthew Yglesias suggests, the seeming ease of the thefts doesn’t really help Antwerp make the case for its relevance in an increasingly crowded marketplace. When cutting, polishing, and trading can be done for a fraction of the price in India, why ship diamonds to Belgium when security’s not guaranteed?  

India and Dubai do have some big diamond heists now and then, but we’ll probably know these markets have really arrived when they have their first $10 million job.