PARIS - In one of the world's largest jewel heists, armed robbers wearing women's wigs and clothing have made off with diamond rings, gem-studded bracelets and other jewelry worth $108 million from a Harry Winston boutique in Paris.
As shoppers passed outside, the gunmen forced store employees to strip rings, necklaces and earrings from window displays and pull more out of safes, Isabelle Montagne, spokeswoman for the Paris prosecutor's office, said yesterday.
The robbery early Thursday evening took place in the presence of security guards and cameras in one of Paris' toniest shopping locales, just steps away from the Champs-Elysees. Besides Harry Winston, the fashion houses with boutiques on the Avenue Montaigne include Nina Ricci, Gucci, Chanel and Dior.
The robbers threatened 15 employees with handguns and hit some on the head, according to a police official who cannot be identified under agency policy. The robbers spoke a foreign language at times and appeared to know employees' names, the official said.
Montagne said that there was only one customer in the store at the time and that no one was injured and no weapons were fired. She called the incident "very well-organized" and said three of the four gunmen were dressed as women and wore wigs.
Investigators seized the store's surveillance tapes, and police said one group under suspicion was the so-called Pink Panthers, a ring of jewel thieves mostly from the former Yugoslavia. Interpol has blamed the group for jewel thefts in 19 countries in Europe, Asia and the Persian Gulf worth more than $150 million in the last 10 years.
Paris' Harry Winston boutique was targeted in a similar heist last year, when three thieves made off with $28.4 million worth of jewels. They were never caught.
French police called Thursday's robbery one of the world's costliest jewel thefts. Five years ago, robbers plundered 123 maximum-security vaults in Antwerp, Belgium, stealing $100 million worth of diamonds in what was then considered the biggest jewel theft.
The Paris robbers chose one of the world's most glamorous targets: Harry Winston jewels have adorned Queen Elizabeth, Elizabeth Taylor and Madonna. The jeweler is famous for its one-of-a-kind diamond-studded pendants and other items.