This 88-Year-Old Grandmother Was an International Jewel Thief

Doris Payne’s life is now the subject of an upcoming film starring Tessa Thompson, and a new book

Courtesy of Doris Payne’s family

IInternational Jewel Thief. Granny Gem Thief. Heist Master. These are some of the nicknames media outlets have used to describe 88-year-old Doris Payne. But don’t ever tell her that she steals, an action that is carried out through artifice and lies. To her, acquiring a piece of jewelry is a matter of business, to take care of herself or her family, a skill that she has developed and honored over six decades and across continents.

In a time where it seems as if the United States has a fascination with “scammers,” whether it’s Elizabeth Holmes, Anna Delvey, or Billy McFarland, Payne undermines these archetypes in that she is Black, a woman, and older. Even further, she does not consider what she does a con — though her story of undermining the law across the world has spawned a documentary, a forthcoming movie with Tessa Thompson as the lead, and now a book, Diamond Doris: The True Story of the World’s Most Notorious Jewel Thief.

In this memoir, Payne begins with her humble yet proud upbringing in a cloistered West Virginia town, then the hustle and bustle of Cleveland, and eventually whisks us away to jewelry stores in Europe and Asia. Throughout her love affairs, the deaths of loved ones, and brushes with the law, Doris remains the anchor. Hers is a voice that’s in control of her own narrative and a connoisseur of every diamond cut as she connects her life’s work to the power structures of who can and cannot afford this life — and at what cost.

I spoke to Doris Payne over the phone in an interview that’s been condensed and edited for clarity.

ZORA: I wanted to ask you about your upbringing in Slab Fork, West Virginia. You write about how everybody mingled with everybody — Whites, Blacks, Native Americans. Is that why you were able to keep your cool when you went into these extremely White jewelry stores?
Doris Payne: I did not know that I was supposed to be inferior or less than my little White girlfriends. Most people leaned on each other. I guess that’s why I developed the persona that I did. Not knowing caused me not to have that impediment in my coming up and in my thinking. I never felt like because I’m Black, I have to cross the street or something like that. I didn’t know.

Love never entered my mind. All that was on my mind was getting the jewelry and getting my clothes right.

In the book, you write about the abuse that your mother suffered at the hands of your father and its impact on you throughout your life, especially with the men you entertained as an adult. You only mention two prominent love affairs, one with Babe and another with Kenneth, but you make it clear that they could not take up too much room in your life. Was love secondary to your work?
I wasn’t thinking about love. I was thinking about my father, how he behaved and how maybe most men behaved. I was not going to accept that. I would’ve ended up on death row. I never lived with a man. Just because I had babies don’t mean I was shacking up. I remember one time Kenneth left some dry cleaning at my house. When I discovered that he forgot it, I put it in my car and took it to the pool room that he frequented every day. I told people to hang it up there because he might need it. When Kenneth figured out what I did, he bust out laughing, telling me, “You sure don’t let a nigga in yo’ house.” He knew that about me and I think he admired it.

With Babe and Kenneth, I needed protection. I didn’t need a penis. Love never entered my mind. All that was on my mind was getting the jewelry and getting my clothes right.

Besides your romantic relationships, what about your friends?
I had a lot of friends, respectful ones. We used to hang out at the speakeasies. But I never ever told anybody what I did. I never had a buddy who I discussed that with. Nobody asked and it wasn’t their business.

There’s a pivotal moment that happens when you’re a kid. You go into a store full of watches. A White man named Mr. Benjamin shows you a few and when he sees a White visitor watching him, he starts to mistreat you. Take me back to that moment.
I was 14 years old. This is important. The White man came in the jewelry store and he spoke with Mr. Benjamin in a familiar way. Remember, I had a limited vocabulary at that time. I sensed that Mr. Benjamin was uneasy. He started putting the watches back and what have you. For a while, I couldn’t figure it out but I was wounded by it. I thought he treated me mean. I knew Mr. Benjamin did not want this big ol’ redneck to see him being decent to me. I knew that, which is why I said to myself, “I ain’t gonna give it back to him now. I’m going all the way over to the door and shout back at him, ‘Oh Mr. Benjamin, you forgot this one!’’ And just when I felt that he would react, he did. I kept thinking about getting even. I figured that if he forgot this time, I could get a whole lot of money and help my mom if I prepared myself.

Your mom was worried about you a lot, though. Didn’t you two get into a bit of an argument?
My mom was worried about what I told her (laughs). That being that I could do it. I was explaining to her that I knew how to get money and she politely told me that was stealing and it wounded me (laughs). I didn’t want to steal. She went in the house, said I’d gone stark crazy mad and thought I had lost my mind. She came back out, looked me in the eye, asked me if it’s not stealing then what is it? I said, it’s not stealing because I’m only going to keep what the White man wants me to have. Exact words.

What do you mean by that?
Well, he (the employee) brought the jewelry out for me. I did not want it to be stealing because of the way I got it.

So there’s a distinction. You don’t call it stealing because you only took what you needed?
(laughs) Something like that.

I want to talk about the first time you were arrested. You write that sometimes you were scared but the way in which you spoke to the officers, you were calm, like, “Oh, I just forgot I had it on my finger.”
I never worried about getting caught. I worried about being kept. I never ever put a piece in my bag, in my mouth, hid it. I had it on my finger when I went out of a store. That gave me a legal ax to grind if I got caught. I wasn’t stealing, I forgot it. He (the employee) forgot it. That’s important. There’s a law amongst big insurance companies, jewelry-wise, that says that you’re not supposed to have more than five jewelry pieces at a time. They don’t know I know that. I didn’t have to worry about that.

In the jewelry trade, there are some unwritten rules. An example: If they have more than five pieces out, they are moving and shuffling and putting things back. You see what I’m saying? The insurance company and law enforcement work together. A fine shop does not want it spread all over the newspapers that anybody can walk in and walk out with expensive pieces. The first thing they have to do is to get their insurance. Not catch me. Get that.

The first thing a store employee has to think about before they call the police is that they have to find the owner of the store. It’s important. Do you know why? The insurance has to be protected. How did it come up missing? And so sometimes an owner of a jewelry store lives in London (laughs). You see what I’m saying?

So it might be hard to contact the owner?
That’s not on my plate. I’m only thinking of the real, not the concept. If you can’t find the owner, there’s nothing you can do because the owner has to be and is aware of protecting his insurance, not catching me.

What do you mean the real and the concept? Because for someone who worries a lot, like myself, and thinks of all the ways it can go wrong, I’m stunned.
The reality is one thing: they got to call their boss, the owner. I’m thinking of the time consuming things they got to do. The time they consume to get the boss then call the police allows me enough time to get to Tokyo. All I have to do is get out of the store. That doesn’t mean I had to run to the airport. I played it like it came.

There’s 45 minutes to an hour before a store will call the police. You can’t call ’em and say you think something is stolen. I didn’t think about, “Oh, I only have 45 minutes,” young lady. I just did it. I did what was necessary based on where I was. When I was in Paris, I went to the Louvre. I checked in hotels where the police were not going to come in and disturb all those White people.

I don’t have to run and hide. (laughs) You got me? Nine times out of 10 they change what happened when a piece goes missing. It’s not because they’re lying, they just don’t know! I go into the store to get a piece of jewelry. All that other bullshit don’t count. Stick with the real.

If you worry about getting caught, you’ll spend all day thinking about that. I don’t take jewelry to get caught so getting caught is not on my mind.

That’s probably why you were cool as a cucumber then, right? If you’re sticking with the real and you know the order of operations and you know that you’re not worried about being caught, then you can maintain composure. If you worry too much you won’t pay attention to when an employee sets the rings out.
Yes. You’re absolutely correct. Take a moment: If you worry about getting caught, you’ll spend all day thinking about that. I don’t take jewelry to get caught so getting caught is not on my mind.

What was your most memorable place?
Oh, I have two that are equal: Monte Carlo and Garrard’s in London. I had read about Garrard’s from great novels. When I went to London, I wasn’t thinking about Garrard’s until I looked up and saw an ad in bold, gold whatever, “Garrard’s, Jewelers to the Crown.” I’m in there now. At that moment it was the most elegant place I’d ever been. They had the best diamonds in the world too. Monte Carlo was hilarious. Think about it: to walk out the store with what I did, huh. They’re gonna track me down. I almost came apart because I had no idea but I did know where I was. It was about $500,000 worth of jewelry. I went everywhere that there was great wealth.

Did you always want to write a book?
I remember that I was sitting in a restaurant near a courthouse and an FBI agent told a reporter that he oughta write about me. And from then on until now, that thought stayed in my mind.

I always knew that there would come a time when I was worth a book. I knew the whole thing was unique. Let me tell you something, a judge in Colorado gave me 12 years and I stayed for nine days. I think they didn’t want me to talk about it or be talked about. There was so much coverage and the case was a $50,000 piece.

Where are you based now?
I’m in Atlanta. I wanted to be where some of my people got a shot to play, work, and make money. I just ordered a pair of shoes — Chanel. I have an unusual, high arch. I can damn near step on an egg and don’t crush it. I have to buy shoes that are well constructed. I only buy Chanel for shoes. No one has really asked me the questions you have.

I hope that’s a good thing!
Go with hope.

Morgan Jerkins is the Senior Editor at ZORA and a New York Times bestselling author. Her debut novel, “Caul Baby,” will be published by Harper in April 2021.