The gold snatcher, part of New York's newest crime wave, is only 16, a Brooklyn street kid dressed in bright new clothes and the requisite sneakers.

He's an expert in what he does because he's been snatching gold necklaces in the streets and subways here for nearly two years, ever since the price of gold went up.

He can't help but brag that when he was in the business (the police have recently retired him) he'd "never snatch gold-filled, only gold."

He knows the stations and the subways least protected by police and he knows the best areas of Manhattan. "Midtown . . . that big hotel over by Grand Central . . . rich white people with a lot of gold."

Rings? Too difficult to grab, he said. He'd never bother unless they had diamonds. Gold wedding bands? Certainly not worth the fuss. As for the antique silver bracelet a visitor is wearing, he gives it only the most disdainful look. He'd never snatch it if he saw it in the street.

"Ain't gold," he says. "Don't cost as much as gold."

The youth -- who prefers to be known only as Joe -- is one of a legion of criminals who are involved in what is New York City's most recent growing crime: the snatching of gold jewelry, particularly necklaces.

It's a crime, according to Transit Authority officials, that accounts for 35 to 40 per cent of the felonies on the subway. According to the subway statistics, it resulted in 2,000 reported thefts in the first eight months of this year.

But it is not merely a subway crime. It's taking place, police say, more and more often on the streets, often in daylight, and it often ends in brutal injuries or death.

Earlier this month, on a busy Saturday evening in the theater district, a young man was shot by a robbery attempt. In that incident, two men had been seen trying to snatch gold necklaces from two women theatergoers.

Three months ago, a 32-year-old Queens woman, Dora Papapanagiatou, was killed, in a gold-chain robbery attempt. In that incident, two men had called her to their car, grabbed the chain around her neck and dragged her two blocks when the chain did not break.

But even when the robberies don't result in shootings or deaths, the results can be frightening. Police officer Alan Berkowitz, an undercover member of the 30-member mobile task force of the city's Transit Authority, says that serious neck wounds and torn ear lobes are not uncommon. He credits the problem -- as do police spokesmen -- to the high price of gold and the easy resale of gold items. There are shops around New York, he says, not necessarily jewelry shops, that have signs in the window -- "We buy gold, no questions asked."

And he says that the crime, which usually occurs in warm weather when jewelry is both accessible and visible, is a young man's crime.

"These kids know that if they're 16 or over, they'll end up in criminal court," said Berkowitz. "So they'll work with the younger kids, the ones who'll end up in family court where the sentences for nonviolent crimes are nothing. They go up to a younger kid and say, 'Hey, man, I'll block you, you snatch."

That was the case with the young gold snatcher an informer. Picked up at 15 for snatching, he was sent to family court, where the case was dismissed.

"I didn't have no gold on me so they throwed it out," he says.

He is aware of the law and is careful, for example, to break the chain cleanly -- "You don't want to drag 'em, cause if you drag 'em it's robbery plus assault." He is also aware of the quality of the gold he sees.

"Me, I read up on it myself," he says. "Got some books in school -- so I know gold is the softest metal there is. I know how to test it. And my ma wears a lot of gold, so I take some of that, and I take a fake and if you look at it a long time, you're able to see the diffrence. . . ."

He learned the technique of snatching in the streets.It includes never approaching a victim from the front, only the side or back, and running in the opposite direction from the one in which the necklace was pulled. "They're be looking one way -- you running the other."

"The technique includes checking the subway trains for police, looking for victims wearing only, good gold pieces, sitting next to subway doors, which allows for a fast getaway.

It includes knowing the fences, local and midtown. "Up in Avenue Americas, 47th Street, they got this one man in one of them little stores, he sends you outside and tests it and sends somebody outside with the money," says Joe, speaking of a shop in the city's diamond district.

The morality of snatching jewelry does not concern him -- though he does take offense when he is asked if he ever had time for school. Of course he goes to school, he says, why do you think he snatched that gold?To get the money for clothes.

"Nobody wants to go to school lookin' like a bum," he says.

And what if one of his pals, also out of supplement his wardrobe, were to hit say on Joe's mother?

Joe shrugs. "I'd figure what I did just came back on me. What goes around, comes around. Like that."