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DeBoulle vs. Debeers: The Dallas Diamond War

A Dallas jeweler gives an international cartel a run for its money.
By Thomas Korosec |
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illustration by Phil Foster

One afternoon in February, a process server working for the diamond concern De Beers pulled up to deBoulle, the Preston Road jeweler. The server spotted a man peering around the corner of the chateau-like building. He looked leery. He also looked like Denis Boulle—exactly the person she was stalking.

Boulle’s red Ferrari sat in the parking lot, but the man who looked like him scurried away. Inside the opulent shop, where six-figure watches and seven-figure jewels glitter in their showcases, the process server didn’t get past the security mantrap behind the front door, a cage of forged metal bars. Boulle, she was told, was not in.

At a court hearing in early April, a lawyer for Boulle insisted that his client was not ducking service, despite 27 attempts to find him by going to his home and store; leaving calling cards with his staff, his wife, and his maid; and sending messages and e-mails through his lawyers. As for the Ferrari sighting, Karen Boulle, his wife, said in a sworn affidavit, “Because customers recognize his car, we sometimes park it outside the store when he is not in town so that customers will still come in and shop, rather than wait until he is back in town.”

Behind the high-toned ambience of serious Dallas jewelry, a bare-knuckle legal fight has broken out between Boulle, the 52-year-old court jeweler of the Park Cities, and De Beers, the 120-year-old diamond mining company that began opening stand-alone boutiques in the United States in 2005 in partnership with French luxury retailer LVMH. In 2008, De Beers opened a Dallas shop, an icy cave of etched glass walls just a precious-stone’s throw from Tiffany and Cartier in NorthPark Center. At issue is the use of the initials “DB,” although the substance of the trademark fight has been lost in a series of digressions and side skirmishes that have turned the case into the legal equivalent of trench warfare. The most recent front, taking up its own lawsuit in a Dallas federal court, concerned serving papers on Denis Boulle.

Despite being out of pocket for De Beers’ errand runners, Boulle is the plaintiff in this fight, the one who is supposed to be on offense. He moved in 2004 and 2005 to block De Beers from using trademarks employing the initials “DB,” which he claimed would be confused with his trademark, a lowercase “d” and capital “B.” The case, originally involving six such De Beers trademark applications, is being fought in obscurity before the federal Trademark Trial and Appeal Board in New York.

“Somehow, they think people will mistake De Beers for deBoulle,” says Darren Saunders, a New York lawyer representing De Beers. The “as if” tone permeates De Beers’ legal papers, which describe De Beers as “the world’s leading supplier of high quality diamonds to the diamond trade in the United States and throughout the world” and dismiss deBoulle as “a single-location jewelry store in Dallas.” They might as well have added how De Beers invented the notion of presenting a diamond ring to seal a wedding engagement, how in 1948 it coined one of the most successful slogans in advertising history (something about “forever”), or how the company came to be founded by a man, Cecil Rhodes, who is one of the few people in world history to get a country named after him, even if it didn’t stick.

But Boulle is unwilling to concede anything regarding his shop’s reputation and status. “DeBoulle is known around the United States. We have international clients as well,” says Pieter Tredoux, a Park Avenue lawyer representing the company in the trademark case. “We believe our customers will be misled by use of our trademark.” Boulle declined to be interviewed for this story.

Denis and his brother Jean-Raymond moved to Dallas from England in 1979. The older Jean-Raymond had just spent nine years working for De Beers in Zaire and Sierra Leone, where he learned the diamond trade. Denis eventually opened an 800-square-foot shop in Snider Plaza and started selling top-quality goods—diamonds, watches, estate jewelry—with an emphasis on service. Jean-Raymond went on to become a wealthy mining magnate. (He owned the $45 million, 43,000-square-foot Strait Lane mansion that burned in 2002.)

The mid-1980s real estate and savings-and-loan bust made Denis Boulle’s business. While his competitors were going broke, he was happy to buy the Rolexes, Patek Philippes, and Breguets his suddenly pinched clientele needed to unload for cash. He developed a network of outlets across the country for reselling the goods and has remained in the consignment and estate jewelry business ever since.

“Dallas is a very big city where people want to be treated like they live in a small community,” Boulle told Europa Star, a high-end watch industry publication, in 2006. The subject of the story was whether newly arriving brand boutiques—like those drifting up around Neiman Marcus in NorthPark—were a threat to retailers like him. “It takes a long time, years, for Dallas to accept outsiders … unless of course the brand is an extremely powerful one,” Boulle said.

By the middle of this decade, Boulle had moved to his current custom-built, free-standing 13,600-square-foot store on Preston. In a story last July in National Jeweler—a publication that put Boulle among 10 independent jewelers who do more than $10 million in business in a single location—he and others expressed their amazement at how well the market for big diamonds was holding up. “A 10-carat diamond for $700,000? A 5-carat for $300,000. It’s crazy,” he said. He boasted at the time of having 25 employees.

No doubt les bon temps are rolling slower now, with oil prices tumbling in the late summer and the banking crisis sparing few. Today, the Robin Leach-caliber excess of his marketing pitch seems out of step with the times. “Sometimes our best customers want more than a cappuccino,” he said in a self-authored piece about his and his staff’s attention to customers. “They call with unique requests: can we arrange a table at a hard-to-get restaurant in New York or London? Can we get a private jet during a heavily traveled time? Intuitively we know filling these needs is as much a part of the deBoulle experience as satisfying a request for a unique gem or a rare timepiece.”

Boulle seems to be winning his court fight. De Beers withdrew five of its six “DB” trademark applications after its lawyers told Boulle’s in the fall they were ready to make a deal. But De Beers declined an undisclosed settlement offer from Boulle this winter, after which he became unavailable for De Beers’ process servers, as the company tried to get the case moving again.

“This has been going on for years,” says Saunders, the De Beers attorney. “Now he’s digging in, holding his ground, and refusing to come to a settlement.”

At a hearing last month, U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Stickney ruled that De Beers could deliver Boulle’s subpoena to someone else, but not before two teams of lawyers debated such matters as whether Boulle lives behind gates.

“Your honor, Mr. Boulle does not live in a gated community,” Tredoux told the judge. “The court probably has driven through University Park. There is no gated community in University Park.”

“I don’t go up there. I’m not allowed up there,” the judge replied.

“Sorry?” asked Tredoux, an out-of-towner who seemed to miss the joke.

“I’m not allowed up there,” Stickney repeated, then moved on.

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Mary Suhm, City Manager

Dear Ms. Suhm: With the global economic crisis kicking everyone in the jeans, we appreciate that you are doing everything you can to save Dallas money. Obviously, it would be easier if you could get Mayor Leppert’s giant paws off the steering wheel every once in a while. We can’t help you there. Instead, we’ll offer some money-saving solutions that have helped us through these trying times. First, the city owns plenty of couches. That means a lot of couch cushions, and I think you see where we’re going. Jackpot. Second: swear jars. Put one outside the offices of Jim Schutze and Angela Hunt, and then the mayor becomes a huge asset. Finally, city-staff bake sale. We’re not alone in saying we’re dying to taste Elba Garcia’s cupcakes! —editorial staff