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
International 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…