Brittany Pearce doesn’t wear her beloved Rolex Daytona anymore. At least not in public.

The UK-based YouTuber, whose watch-focused channel boasts more than 40,000 subscribers, put away her $14,000 timepiece after an incident in which she was followed around a store by a customer who had clearly “clocked” her watch. Pearce feared she was about to become another victim of luxury watch theft.

“It’s just turned me right off the Daytona,” said Pearce, who moonlights as a youth minister for the Church of England. “It’s kind of sad because it’s a watch I really love.”

She’s not the only collector worried about unwanted – and potentially dangerous – attention. Reports of high-end watch robberies, many of them violent, are soaring in cities around the world. That threatens not only consumers, but also the roughly 100 blue-chip Swiss brands whose sales could take a hit if wearing one of their watches suddenly feels scary.

While there are no national statistics on watch theft, authorities in major cities have reported spikes. London’s Metropolitan Police Service launched an operation this summer to address the problem after the number of knife-point robberies surged 60% between May and June. In Paris, a police taskforce dedicated to stopping luxury watch theft has grown to 30 agents.

“This is a top priority for us, and we have already made a number of arrests,” said London Detective Chief Superintendent Owain Richards.

“No one should have to go about their day in fear of thieves,” he added.

In London, police data shows that 667 Rolex watches were lifted between January and September. And in an unfortunate twist on their slogan, “you never truly own a Patek Philippe,” 73 of the luxury Swiss brand’s watches were stolen in the English capital between the start of the year and September, up from 60 over the same period last year.

Robberies aren’t only happening on the streets. Last week, England football star Raheem Sterling rushed home from Qatar after an armed burglary at his house near London, where it seems a $365,940 (£300,000) watch collection was a target. English cycling pro Mark Cavendish also had two Richard Mille watches stolen during a burglary of his Essex home last year.

In a sense, watchmakers are victims of their own success. As social media influencers have made six-figure watches more recognizable, thieves have learned which high-end accessories are worth making off with. In 2022, the average price of a luxury watch stolen in London was around £9,000, up from between £4,000 and £5,000 in previous years, according to police data.

“When you have a watch like a Richard Mille or an [Audemars Piguet] Royal Oak, [thieves] instantly recognize it,” said Oliver Mueller, head of the Swiss watch consultancy group LuxeConsult. “They’ve seen it on Instagram.”

This lifestyle trend has played into a darker phenomenon: YouTube is now filled with security camera footage and bystander videos of people being violently assaulted for their expensive timepieces. In one clip, a robber rides a moped alongside a luxury car, then smashes the car’s window with a hammer to steal the driver’s watch. In another, a couple are attacked during the day in a posh part of London.

Collectors have taken notice. “It’s a very bad, very bad image. I don’t know if wealthy people will wear fewer watches, but they are getting more careful,” Mueller said.

So far, luxury watch sales have remained relatively strong, although prices for the most sought-after Rolex, Patek and Audemars Piguet watches have been falling sharply since March on the secondary market. Last year, Swiss watch exports rose to a record 22.3 billion francs ($24.1 billion), according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, and are on course to break records again in 2022.

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