LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Rolex watches, gilded badges of wealth and luxury, have become an emblem of violence and death as robbers who covet the expensive timepieces are killing their owners for them, police say.

Sam Sabbah was meeting his wife and a painter in his new Beverly Hills home last June when an intruder fatally shot him and took his Rolex.

A few days later, west Los Angeles transmission shop owner Melvin Thompson broke with his usual routine and wore his Rolex to work, intending to take it to a jeweler. A robber hit at closing, taking the watch and cash and shooting Thompson to death.

This month, nursery owner Donald McKinsey hung on to his $10,000 watch during a robbery and was shot to death by gunmen who had posed as customers.

A Rolex watch can range in price from about $1,000 to more than $20,000. Some of the 18-karat gold timepieces are encrusted with diamonds. It's not the watch the robbers want, but rather the money it commands.

The police division covering Los Angeles' affluent west side dealt with 49 Rolex robberies from September to July. Beverly Hills has been averaging one a month, according to police Lt. Robert Curtis.

Police say no one individual or group is responsible. There have been arrests but watch robberies continue.

Sometimes the victims were followed home from a shopping mall or other public place where an expensive watch on a wrist could be spotted, police say.

In the McKinsey murder, however, the killers came to the nursery and discussed renting plants, then returned the next day to do the robbery.

Nursery office manager Ken Steller said later that McKinsey knew of the watch robberies but continued to wear the timepiece.

''It was his signature,'' Steller said.

Car salesman Bob Gordon of Santa Monica thinks similarly of his $17,750 Rolex.

''I love that watch. It's a sign of my success,'' he said. ''But I don't think I can wear it, certainly not to work. It's too dangerous.''

Gordon immediately handed the watch over to three robbers who entered his office Aug. 16. A gun was pointed at his heart but the trio left him unharmed. A police pursuit ended with three arrests and the watch was recovered.

Last week, the district attorney's office charged Eric Jones, 23, his brother Derrick Jones, 20, and Isaac Williams 21, with the Gordon robbery.

Williams was also charged with a similar robbery that occurred the day before in Beverly Hills. A Rolex watch and $140,000 in jewelry were taken.

Those were only the latest arrests. Los Angeles County sheriff's detectives and South Bay police seized two men in May in a probe of watch robberies in which victims were often approached in parking structures.

A Rolex robbery in December led to the arrest of two other men in Redondo Beach. The investigation encompassed similar holdups in affluent Rolling Hills Estates and Palos Verdes Estates.

It's not clear in every case the robber knew he was getting a Rolex. Los Angeles police Detective Dan Andrews notes there are other kinds of valuable watches, and that ''it's the money behind the watch that's the target.''

Andrews investigated the McKinsey murder as well as the killing a year ago of restaurateur Andre Coffyn at a westside bistro.

Coffyn was chatting with customers on a patio when a gunman barged in and demanded: ''Give me your watches.'' Coffyn handed over a gold Omega watch and wallet. The bandit shot him to death and fled.