Diamonds in the ruffians

Traveling salesmen who still sell diamonds door-to-retail-door are being targeted by organized gangs of robbers.

Avraham Eaton takes three black cases out of his leather satchel and places them gently on Gina Rupiper's desk. He unzips one case, known as a sleeve, plucks out a folded square of oil-free paper, and sets it down in front of Ms. Rupiper.

She unfolds the paper onto a cloth. Out drops one of the most precious stones on earth – a diamond. Rupiper, a buyer for Iowa Diamond, a retail jewelry store here in Des Moines, holds up the stone with a pair of tweezers and examines it through a loupe. "Yes, on that one," she says, placing the stone back in the paper.

It's another sale for Mr. Eaton, one of the last of a dying breed – the traveling salesman.

In this case, Eaton, a trim man with a wide smile, isn't peddling aluminum siding or vacuum cleaners. He's selling one of the most coveted – and expensive – items still hawked door-to-retail-door.

In an age of PowerPoint presentations, telemarketing, and Internet everything, jewelry salespeople still think the only way to sell their goods is with shoe leather and a satchel full of stones. "Maybe I'm crazy, but these stones talk to me," says Eaton, who has spent 40 years in the business. "My son, he goes on the computer and looks. I want to see the stone."

Rupiper concurs. "Diamonds are just like people – there are no two identical," she says. "The only way to buy is to buy in person."

Yet this can be a dangerous proposition for the one carrying the cargo. Salesmen like Eaton are being stalked and robbed with alarming efficiency by organized gangs. Eaton himself now travels with an "escort," a burly ex-soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces. The FBI, too, has become more involved in trying to curb the thievery.

Since December, four jewelry salesmen have been robbed in the Salt Lake City area alone. In one case, assailants accosted a salesman while he was unloading his luggage in the parking lot of a hotel. When he refused to give up his case, police say the men stabbed him in the hands.

"It's a very dangerous business to be in," says John Kennedy, president of the Jewelers' Security Alliance (JSA), an industry trade group. "Even when they're home, there's no relaxation – these guys have families, they have kids."

***

Eaton never lets his satchel leave his side, for good reason. On this trip, he is carrying almost $1 million worth of diamonds – hundreds of stones he's brought with him from his cutting firm outside Tel Aviv.

That alone probably explains why some robbers have been targeting jewelry salesmen as opposed to, say, banks. But there are other reasons as well. Unlike bank robbers, diamond thieves don't have to worry about armed guards or transporting large amounts of cash.

Diamond sellers typically travel unescorted and their merchandise is compact. A flawless one-carat princess cut diamond, which weighs one-fifth of a gram, can be worth up to $28,000. Diamonds are also almost impossible to trace.

In the past, diamond salesmen often felt safer because of their anonymity: Dressed casually in jeans and sweaters, they were not easily identified as carrying hundreds of thousands of dollars in stones. In the late 1990s, their sense of security became more tenuous. Gangs, made up mostly of Colombians, started casing jewelry stores to identify the sales representatives.

Security experts say they watched for people entering jewelry stores carrying briefcases and then tailed them on their sales routes. The minute a target got sloppy – locking the bag in the back seat of a car, for instance – the thieves snatched the satchel and fled.

Another common tactic is to follow a salesperson's car and let the air out of one of his tires when he goes inside the store. When he tries to change the flat, the gang robs him.

One result of all this targeting is fewer salespeople on the road. Adam Cline, a baby-faced Midwesterner, got into the jewelry business after he married the daughter of Iowa Diamond's owner, Chuck Kuba. Between September 2005 and May 2006, Mr. Cline spent weeks on the road. During one trip to Denver, he thought he was being shadowed when approaching a downtown retailer. He saw men positioned around the entrance. He just kept walking. "It just didn't look right or feel right," Cline says.

Traveling brought other pressures. "It's easy to lose track of time [during a sales call]," Cline says. "Staying with a jeweler longer than you should, you come out, and it's dark. That is a feeling of dread." Ultimately, he decided to get off the road. "Having two kids, I made the determination the risk wasn't worth it."

By 2001, the industry was plagued by some 300 thefts a year, adding up to almost $100 million in losses. "It was open city, there was practically no [law] enforcement," says the JSA's Mr. Kennedy. "You couldn't get an FBI agent to respond if you stood on your head."

The FBI says it was unclear that federal laws were being violated. It's only when the thieves transport stolen goods across state lines that the Feds have jurisdiction. "In the past, most of the people who were stealing were your local thugs," says Brian Nadeau, the FBI special agent in charge of the major theft unit, which investigates jewelry crime.

The FBI did take notice when the South American gangs began engineering the heists. "They're moving across the country because they know the more they move the less chance they have to get caught," Mr. Nadeau says.

To help catch the gangs, the JSA started sharing detailed information with the FBI and local police. "We have the best database on jewelry crime in the world," Kennedy says. The JSA now issues bulletins describing theft patterns, like the recent robberies around Salt Lake City. The partnership between the FBI and the JSA has put pressure on the gangs. In 2006, the number of robberies dropped to 152.

***

Even with the risks that remain, the industry isn't likely to pull salespeople off the road. For one thing, a good seller can earn $15,000 a month. "There's always going to be someone who's willing to take the chance," says Charlotte Cody, who runs a jewelry industry employment agency from her home outside Atlanta.

Salespeople, for their part, are taking added precautions. Eaton gives retailers little advance notice when he's coming. Usually, he'll call the night before and tell them he'll be there the next day – but gives no specific time.

He makes sure his route follows no discernible pattern. For his stop in Des Moines, the last sales call of a 17-day trip around the country, he flew into Omaha (with his escort), rented a car, and drove two hours here. Eaton enjoys the job despite the risks. He considers the retail stops "like visiting family." "It's not just a business," he says.

There's also the thrill of the big sale. During a call in Tampa, Fla., he sold a five-carat diamond for $54,000. Now he's working to get Rupiper to buy a pair of two-carat diamonds for earrings.

"I think we're OK," she finally tells him, smiling.

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