Polar Bear Battle Erupts in Canada

A fight is brewing in Canada’s Northwest Territories over a local icon-the polar bear.

The government of the Northwest Territories is suing local cutter Sirius Diamonds over its polar bear inscriptions, claiming they duplicate official insignia.

“We are preventing somebody from using our property,” Bob Bailey, assistant deputy minister of operations for the Northwest Territories, told JCK. He argues that the polar bear has been the region’s official symbol since 1968. “Canadian law prevents people from using government symbols,” he says.

Sirius, however, claims it has laser-inscribed its logo onto diamonds for two years without complaints and that the government only claimed the logo when it saw how successful it was. The company applied for a trademark for the inscription a year and a half ago, although press reports say the approval has been held up. “We spent $1 million promoting this brand,” says Stephen Ben-Oliel, the company’s president. He argues that companies in other industries use variations of the polar bear symbol without the government’s objection.

But Bailey says the government “has always been consistent. As soon as we heard they were using it, we asked them to stop. Now we’ve moved to the logical next step in that process.”

Ben-Oliel notes that his sideways polar bear is different from the government’s, which has three legs and faces east. The Sirius mark has four legs and faces west. But he says Sirius now has “common law rights” to polar bear diamond inscriptions and would sue any other company that inscribed its stones with a polar bear.

The government, however, thinks the inscriptions are fundamentally the same and wants to make the symbol available to all local cutters. “We’re not saying that we won’t let Sirius use it, but they need to use it with our permission,” Bailey says.

Ben-Oliel says he’s confident that his trademark is secure in the United States, but Canada’s National Post notes that the government’s official mark could trump that of Sirius-at least in Canada. “In Canada, we have a unique provision of the law that lets the government push ahead of you in line [for a trademark] even if you were first,” Ben-Oliel says. Bailey is similarly sure the government will eventually prevail in court in all jurisdictions.

The polar bear logo received widespread attention when the New York Times put it on the front page in an article titled “Canada Says Its Diamonds are Different.” The article said Canada was promoting its diamonds as “clean” in the wake of the “conflict diamond” controversy. Ben-Oliel says the fact that his stones are “conflict-free” has become a prime selling point: “It gives people peace of mind.”