Endangered Species

Excepting ursine silhouettes riding truck bumpers, a polar bear sighting on Franklin Avenue is in the realm of fantasy, or hallucination – unless you wander through the retail wasteland of Centre Square Mall to Arctic Jewellers. Since 2009, when the last cutting and polishing factory on Diamond Row closed, the store owned by April and Nhu Tran has been the city’s only known habitat for polar bears, Canada’s first branded diamond.

The trademark came to prominence after a New York Times story on Canadian diamonds. Arctic gems were “clean” at a time when diamonds from conflict zones were flooding the luxury market. The polar bear laser-etched on the girdle and supporting documentation became important selling points, and the northern diamonds commanded premium prices.

A group of polar bears is known as an aurora, and the Trans have more than 200 of the rare branded gems, many of them cut and polished by Sirius Diamonds, the first company to use the symbol that the territorial government bought from a Winnipeg advertising agency and adopted in 1969.

Sirius lost exclusive rights to the trademark in a court fight. Company owner Stephen Ben’Oliel argued that the bears were day and night different: his has four legs and faces west, while the territorial government’s logo has three legs and faces east. The GNWT said that the law prevents individuals from using government symbols, and the court agreed.

The government wanted the polar bear symbol available to all gems mined and processed in the Northwest Territories. The brand languished after 2009. Then three years ago, in an effort to revive the local industry and its trademark, the government went hunting for a diamond manufacturer to buy the silent factories and return them to production.

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Deepak International Diamonds Ltd. was the only company to answer the request for proposals and was rewarded with exclusive rights to the polar bear brand. The real estate part of the deal closed in June, without sign from DIL when cutting and polishing would resume. Until the factories are humming, there won’t be any new gems wearing the prized polar bear symbol on their girdles.

The Trans stayed in the background, while sales associate Trisha Morland coaxed an aurora of polar bears from their den in a small round, numbered box and herded them on to a black background that seemed to magnify the dazzle and sparkle of cool fire refracted from their faceted depths. Morland is a friendly and outgoing Australian. Her husband worked at Ekati. When BHP sold its interest in the mine, it offered him a promotion in Australia, “but for family reasons we stayed. We love it here, we love Yellowknife, boating, ice fishing.”

Polar bears are no longer the only Canadian brand. Earlier this year, Dominion Diamonds adopted the CanadaMark, a tiny, diamond-shaped symbol captured by a stylized ‘C,’ for all gems mined at Ekati and Diavik. .Across the street from the Trans’ store, HRA Crossworks brands its stones with Forevermark, a four-pointed star within a box, the trademark of DeBeers.

Among the tourists and northerners who drop in to Arctic Jewellers, Morland finds that there is “much sentimental attachment to the polar bear diamond.” Often though, when people find out that other branded diamonds come from the same mine and the only difference is the polar bear logo, “they are quite happy to go with another brand. There used to be a premium on the polar bear diamond, but not any more. They go out the door at the same price.”

Morland likes “the idea of the polar bear on the diamond, but I’m just as happy with a northern diamond. That’s important to me, to know that it’s supporting the local community ‑ that it has been ethically mined. As long it looks pretty.”


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