December 1, 2013
By Jacquie De Almeida
One semester of university was all it took before Shay Basal knew the diamond business was his calling and his dreams of being a dentist a thing of the past.
Although he grew up watching his father, Baruch, run Basal Diamonds, he had other ideas in mind for his career path. At some point along the way, though, his worlds collided.
“If you think about it, it’s the same thing. I like people to wear nice jewellery and I like people to have a nice smile,” Shay says. “Dressing someone up in jewellery is like giving them a nice smile.”
It took a few conversations with his dad to convince him it was a good move, ‘move’ being the operative word. It wasn’t long before Shay found himself on a plane to Israel to learn the diamond business at his family’s cutting facility. Day after day, Shay cut his teeth, so to speak, at the diamond cutting wheel, shaping everything from three-pointers to 15-pointers. His training also included sorting thousands of melee.
“I learned the old-school way of looking at diamonds,” says Shay from the company’s head office in Montreal. “The most important lesson I learned was how to grade a diamond. A diamond should speak for itself, not its certificate or appraisal.”
Shay’s lessons in Israel back in 1990 helped set the scene for his place at Basal Diamonds, a company with more than 40 years’ history behind it.
Going back two generations, the Basal family called Russia home, although they lived for a time in Afghanistan, where Baruch was born. Settling in Israel 12 years later, Baruch and his brothers supported the family when their father became ill. Barely into his teens, Baruch honed his merchant skills by selling a wide range of products on the street. In 1960, he entered the diamond business, sawing rough stones and learning to cut diamonds. Four years later, Baruch and his brothers opened their own cutting and polishing factory. By 1980, he and his wife and children had emigrated from Israel to Canada and Basal Diamonds was born.
In 1990, their eldest son, Shay, joined the business, helping to grow its reach nationwide with its supply of loose diamonds as small as one-pointers and cuts that also included fancy shapes. After his sister, Karen, came on board in 1998, the company expanded to include Basal Jewellery. Karen’s husband, Moshe, also works for Basal Diamonds.
Following Canada’s diamond rush, the family’s name became synonymous with Canadian diamonds—Basal Diamonds owned the Polar Ice brand name, while Shay’s younger brother licensed the Polar Bear brand name from the Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT) and the Polar Ice brand name from Basal through his company (4114159 Canada Inc.). Both brands were cut at Arslanian Cutting Works, a facility in the Northwest Territories owned by 4114159 Canada Inc. By 2010, however, Polar Ice Diamonds and Polar Bear Diamonds—the latter of which listed Shay’s brother as its vice-president—went into receivership. The fallout was a loss to unsecured creditors, which included Basal Diamonds.
Shay describes that period in the company’s history as its darkest, and stresses his brother’s venture was a completely separate entity from Basal Diamonds and that he is not a part of the family diamond business today.
“It almost killed us,” says Shay, adding many considered Basal Diamonds “guilty by association.”
Rebuilding its reputation since that time has been the company’s primary focus. The first step in doing so was taking back control of the Polar Ice licence to maintain the level of representation the brand offered its clients.
Shay credits the relationships he built with retailers on the road in his early days and over the years since for helping to restore the company’s image.
“I am grateful every day that I maintained good relationships with my clients and industry friends. This allowed me to still be in business,” Shay says.
While some companies facing the same challenge would be inclined to offer deep discounts, better terms, or other perks to woo clients, Shay says he and his family took a very different tactic, relying instead on one of the jewellery industry’s basic fundamentals—customer service.
“When you hit the ground hard and you know where you came from and want to climb back up the ladder, you have to understand that it all starts with service,” Shay says. “What did we do different from everyone else? Nothing that we didn’t do before, but we were paying more attention to the service we offered. Whether you were the biggest store or the smallest, you got the same service from us. If you needed a one-pointer driven to Ottawa, I would drive it to you from Montreal.”
Relaunching the Polar Ice brand is at the heart of Basal Diamonds’ marketing efforts. In addition to being strategic in its dealer base, the company is using social media channels like Facebook to create awareness among consumers and drive traffic to retailers.
Having cutters on staff is another method Basal Diamonds is using to meet its customer service standards. Five in Montreal produce the larger-carat stones it sells, while a subcontracted facility in Armenia cuts its smaller production stones. Most of the stones Basal sells are Canadian.
“You have to build yourself the proper lines, the proper team, and the proper sales reps to help you advance,” Shay explains.
Besides cutting big diamonds, Basal Diamonds is banking on another niche—re-cutting them. “I brought a lot of people back to the table because of this cutting service,” Shay adds.
The issue of local diamond cutting has been back in the headlines, but for a different reason. In January, the GNWT announced it had awarded licencing rights of the Polar Bear brand to Deepak International Ltd (DIL). The news elicited a round of congratulations at the Basal offices.
“We were all very happy to hear somebody had picked up the brand,” says Shay, adding he personally called Deepak Kumar, the company’s owner. “We wish him the best of luck. Of course, he will have competition from our Polar Ice brand.”
Who doesn’t like a little friendly competition?
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