There is a complex and hidden geography to the jewellery quarter of Hatton Garden, unknown even to those who have been working there for decades, that is sure to receive more attention since it became the scene of the biggest heist recorded in British history.
A labyrinthine network of subterranean spaces exists deep below the area: abandoned railway platforms buried far underground, decommissioned bunkers, ancient passageways rumoured to be built by the monks of Ely, and the remains of London’s second-largest river – the Fleet, which still flows through Joseph Bazalgette’s sewers underneath Farringdon Road.
“It amazes me the place doesn’t cave in,” said Mitzy, a former ring-maker from Hatton Garden. “With the weight of gold and heavy metal above and all those ancient, watery passageways honeycombing the ground underneath.”
Just above these underground spaces there is another level of concealed rooms – heavily guarded underground vaults filled with safety deposit boxes and stores of gold and silver; workshops lined with steel where specialist items are painstakingly made to order by master craftsmen; secure basements where goldsmiths work using methods and tools that are centuries-old; small locked rooms where precious-gem dealers operate and Hasidic diamond merchants sit examining glittering stones; as well as state-of-the-art offices with the latest hi-tech equipment and security systems.
On Hatton Garden itself there are over 60 retail jewellery shops. There are hundreds of other small workshops and offices dotted around the area. These places can only be accessed by those in the trade. Dark stairwells lead to tiny rooms above. Security to get into these places is tight. If you are recognised on the CCTV monitor, the first of three steel doors might open; each has to lock shut before the next can be accessed.
Inside these rooms, deals are still often sealed with a handshake and the Yiddish words “Mazel und broche” (luck and blessing). This is the way business has taken place in Hatton Garden for over a century. It is a hidden world that operates according to unspoken laws based on trust.
There is a village atmosphere within “the Garden”. Everyone knows each other within this tight-knit community, still reeling from the news of the recent robbery – particularly as this is not the first time a major heist has taken place at the safety deposit premises on Hatton Garden.
In 2003 diamonds and jewels worth over £1.5m were stolen from there. At first this theft appeared to have been conducted by a Jewish diamond dealer. The imposter, who went by the names of Goldberg and Ruben, spent months integrating himself into the Orthodox Jewish diamond community, opening up safe-deposit boxes, acting like the other dealers, slowly gaining their trust until they began to deal with him, buying and selling stones.
One Saturday this man entered the building and CCTV footage shows him leaving the vault shortly afterwards, carrying a black holdall. The robbery was not discovered until the Monday morning when a customer found his strongbox glued shut.
Alongside many other hidden security measures, a network of constant electronic contact exists now between the guards, the shops, the trading floors, vaults and workshops. Anyone or anything that looks out of place and everyone in the Garden will know about it in seconds.
One of the elderly dealers I spoke to, who did not want to be named, told me: “Things have changed so much already and now security will become much tighter again.” He remembered a different time, before the war, when diamond deals would be conducted openly on street corners or across tables in the many little kosher cafés that once existed in the area. “That would never happen now.”
He was concerned about the small craftsmen still working in the area, people like Mitzy who operated from a dusty attic room near Clerkenwell Green. My father remembers visiting his workshop before he died: “It was at the top of a steep flight of stairs and very run down. You could barely move in there because there was stuff everywhere: files, papers, boxes, rolls of gold thread, tools.”
20th century's biggest art heists
20th century's biggest art heists
1/10 20th century's biggest art heists
Leonard Da Vinci's iconic Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre by employee Vincenzo Peruggia on 21 August 1911. The thief hid overnight in the Parisian art gallery before emerging to lift the famous muse off the wall, strip the painting of its frame and shove it up his smock. Peruggia's crime has been described as the greatest art theft of the 20th Century, but he and the painting were discovered in Italy two years later.
2/10 20th century's biggest art heists
Works by renowned Norwegian artist Edvard Munch have been stolen three times in separate heists. In 1994 his most famous work The Scream was lifted from the National Gallery in Oslo, but was recovered later that year. In August 2004 another version of The Scream was stolen along with Munch's Madonna from the Munch Museum, also in Oslo, by a gang of gunmen. The paintings were recovered two years later and three men convicted, but the gunmen remain at large. Another three Munch paintings including the recognisable Blue Dress were stolen from a hotel in Norway but recovered the next day in March 2005.
3/10 20th century's biggest art heists
Russborough House, a large estate belonging to Sir Alfred Beit, has been robbed four times since 1974 and works worth millions are yet to be recovered. Robbers and members of the IRA bound and gagged the Beit family in 1974 in order to steel nineteen paintings worth an estimated £8 million, all of which were subsequently recovered when the criminals were apprehended. Twelve years later another gang of thieves stole paintings thought to be worth £30 million in total. Sixteen were recovered but two remain missing. Gainsborough's Madame Baccelli, which had been stolen in the previous raid, was stolen again in 2001, along with a Bellotto. The two paintings were recovered and returned to the Beits, but just days later the house was robbed for a fourth time and another five paintings were taken. The latest hoard were returned just months later. Let's hope they've installed burglar alarm since then...
4/10 20th century's biggest art heists
Armed thieves broke into the National Museum of Fine Art in Stockholm, Sweden in 2005, robbing it of one Rembrandt and two Renoirs. The robbers fled by boat and it took five years for all three paintings to be recovered.
5/10 20th century's biggest art heists
Canada's Montreal Museum of Fine Arts was cleaned out by thieves in September 1972 when 18 paintings, jewellery and sculptures worth a staggering (for the time) $2 million were stolen. The works, which included a rare Rembrandt landscape and paintings by Delacroix and Gainsborough, have never been recovered.
6/10 20th century's biggest art heists
Panels from the Ghent Altarpiece, painted by masterly brothers Jan and Hubert Van Eyck, were stolen in 1934. The left panel has never been recovered as the presumed thief, who had sent a demand for a ransom, died before it could be issued, taking the secret of the painting's whereabouts with him to the grave.
7/10 20th century's biggest art heists
Three armed men used a crowbar to break into the Pinacoteca do Estado Museum in São Paulo in June 2008, making off with five extremely valuable paintings including Pablo Picasso's The Painter and the Model and Minotaur, Drinker and Women.
8/10 20th century's biggest art heists
Monet's Poppy Field at Vetheuil was among a host of impressionist paintings pinched from the Emile Bührle Foundation in Zurich in February 2008 by thieves in ski masks. The total hoard, which also included Edgar Degas' Ludovic Lepic and his Daughter, Van Gogh's Blossoming Chestnut Branches and Cezanne's Boy in the Red Vest, had a combined value of $163 million at the time of theft. The Monet and Van Gogh were recovered from a nearby parked car shortly after.
9/10 20th century's biggest art heists
Rembrandt's Jacob de Gheyn III has been stolen four times, earning it the nickname of the "takeaway Rembrandt". It was initially stolen from the Dulwich Picture Gallery in 1981 by four men who made off with it in a taxi. The painting was returned to the gallery soon after, only to be nicked again two years later when a burglar broke in via a skylight. The painting went missing for three years before it was discovered in a luggage rack of a train station in Münster, Germany. The painting has been nabbed twice more from the Dulwich Picture House since then, but no thief has ever been apprehended. Each time the picture has just turned up: once under a bench in graveyard and another time in the basket of an abandoned bicycle. Mysterious!
10/10 20th century's biggest art heists
On 18 March 1990 thieves disguised as policemen handcuffed security guards and stole 13 paintings worth a collective $500 million from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, USA. It has been described as the biggest art heist in the world and remains as yet unsolved. Vermeer's The Concert, three Rembrandts and a series of drawings by Edgar Degas were among the valuable artworks seized.
Solo traders like Mitzy, developed their skills over decades, starting as 14-year-old apprentices sweeping up the shavings of gold left on the floor at night, before moving on to work at the benches, eventually becoming master craftsmen. Most of those who remain cannot afford to have a safe on their premises. Many of them would have kept their valuables in the safe deposit boxes. “The footballers and wealthy jewellers who had their goods insured will be OK,” said the dealer, “but these other characters will be the real ones to lose out. Their businesses will never recover.”
Rachel Lichtenstein’s ‘Diamond Street: the Hidden World of Hatton Garden’ is published by Hamish Hamilton
The History of Hatton Garden
Once a rural idyll outside the city walls, the area developed from the medieval period onwards, firstly as a grand palace surrounded by orchards and gardens, which later became the private estate of Elizabeth I’s favourite courtier Sir Christopher Hatton, before becoming a purpose built residential estate for the gentry in the mid 17th century.
Descendants of Huguenot clock and instrument makers who had settled in nearby Clerknewell ran some of the first businesses in the street in the early 1800s. During the same period skilled Italian artisans moved into Hatton Garden living above their premises, where they manufactured and sold telescopes, optical equipment and other fine precision instruments. Together these French and Italian craftsmen paved the way for the predominately Jewish run diamond and jewellery industry that followed.
From the 1870s onwards, diamonds began to arrive in Hatton Garden from the newly discovered diamond fields in Kimberely South Africa, which were mostly owned by De Beers. In 1893 De Beers sold their entire production of rough diamonds to the London Diamond Syndicate, which was made up of 10 Jewish firms located in and around Hatton Garden.
London immediately became the most important diamond-trading centre in the world, attracting the best international craftsmen to work there. By 1895 there were more than 100 diamond merchants and brokers operating in the street. Other trades moved into the area to support the industry: cutters, polishers, engravers, gold-chain makers, jewelers, lapidaries, pearl and precious-gem dealers.
Although Hatton Garden is no longer the centre of the world jewellery market, it remains a major player and still remains the largest hub of jewellery shops and businesses in the U.K.Reuse content