It was the kind of LA crime story that was to make national headlines:
Teams of downtown gang members are preying on the wealthy in upscale public spaces and stealing their luxury goods, according to a report from an LAPD task force trying to stop the thefts.
As my colleague Kevin Rector has reported, thieves target people driving expensive cars and wearing high-end watches. Shots were fired several times and two people were killed.
As with many readers, the story generated an outpouring of feelings in me: horror at the violence inflicted, concern at the growing class divide in the city, and shock that so many brazen attacks could take place in broad daylight. in busy streets.
But the story also piqued my curiosity. What makes a watch worth more than what I’ve paid for the house I’ve lived in for the past 30 years? Who are these people walking around with the equivalent of $300,000 strapped to their wrists?
What does such an expensive watch look like? I imagine a chunky, clunky gold timepiece, studded with jewels and stuffed with obscure chronological functions.
But that, I am told, is an outdated view. Today’s high-end watches are no longer the fussy, understated, and overtly complicated styles revered by previous generations. “These are beautiful watches,” Times resident watch expert Daniel Miller told me. “Sleek and stylish with integrated bracelets…evoking a kind of 70s cool…It’s part of the uniform of the new affluent class.”
And that’s, I guess, what makes watch owners targets. But we shouldn’t blame the victims, or suggest that people should hide signs of their wealth. Nobody should have the right to walk around this town without having their watch stolen, whether it’s a Timex or a Rolex.
But the reality is more complicated and harder to grasp.
High-end watches seem to have become the equivalent of French bulldog jewelry theft in the world of stolen dogs. Consider Lady Gaga, who offered a $500,000 reward after her puppies were stolen and her dog walker was shot last year. They are a magnet for thieves, a source of pride for their owners, and a heartbreaking commodity on the black market.
Our watch story exploded as soon as it was posted on the Times website last week – as scared watch owners rushed to share it on forums and alert their watch dealers.
“It went viral within minutes,” recalls vintage watch dealer Eric Wind, who was immediately inundated with frantic messages from around the world. His Los Angeles clients “are very nervous about it,” he said.
But the criminal preoccupation with high-end watches isn’t new, and it isn’t specific to gangs or confined to Los Angeles.
Watch thefts have been on the rise for years, especially in big cities like New York and LA – and overseas in London, Paris and Amsterdam, cities where a victim who resists risks losing a hand or worse.
What is driving this outsized popularity and fueling such appeal? I posed this question to Miller, who recently spent a year recounting the centuries-old hunt for tycoon JP Morgan’s legendary missing watch.
High-end watches are “definitely having a moment,” Miller told me. The biggest brands are now pop culture icons, as many hip-hop stars include them in their songs.
When Cardi B raps that “Rollie’s Got Charms,” she’s talking about a Rolex watch.
Jay-Z and Beyoncé aren’t shy about admitting in their “Everything Is Love” outing that they spent “250 on the Robert Mille watch.”
And Young Thug raps in “STS” about the “[Patek] Philippe on my wrist.
This adds to their cachet, but it could also breed a kind of warped ambitious loyalty. I can’t help but think back to decades ago, when iconic sneakers were the luxuries hailed in rap music, and basketball courts were no longer safe places because armed teenagers could fly your shoes. But owning a Patek Philippe is a far cry from owning a pair of Air Force Ones.
Miller ticked off for me the forces that have made watches considerably more expensive, much harder to find, and lucrative targets for criminal burglaries – and why so many people are still determined to own them.
People “who were bored and needed to let off steam” started building their watch collections during the pandemic. But coronavirus lockdowns have stalled the creation and production of watches, cutting supplies and driving up prices – just as the wave of cryptocurrency has created a flood of newly minted millionaires eager to broadcast their status with insanely expensive bling on their wrists.
“There was all this money pouring into the watch market, and [the most important companies] haven’t been able to keep up with the demand,” Miller told me.
So the gold Rolex Daytona with the green dial might have been $40,000 in the store before it sold out, but its resale value is now over $140,000. This is what helps criminal enterprises and black markets thrive.
But there’s more than price at stake when it comes to the cachet of watches.
“The watches are a super interesting mix,” explained watch retailer Wind. “There’s the beauty element, the intricacies within, the science and the fashion side of how it looks.” So of course the owners “want to show it. You get your new watch and you’re instantly on Instagram.
Miller, who owns several vintage watches, agrees. “There’s a real magnetism in some people,” he says. And they won’t let fear get in their way.
“Men don’t wear a lot of jewelry, and it’s a way of expressing your own taste.”
“These are watches that show ‘I’m a baller. I can afford the best things. And they’re pretty darn good, well-made watches, too.
Too beautiful to lock up when you’re in town.
For the best or for the worst.