By Lethbridge Herald on September 23, 2018.
When Rene Trudel, operational field manager of Korite International, looks down from top of the hill at his company’s mine below he doesn’t see the landscape as it is today.
Rather, he sees it as it was 70 million years ago when shelled, squid-like sea creatures, giant mosasaurs, and graceful long-necked plesiosaurs swam about at the bottom of the shallow but immense Bearpaw Sea, a body of water which divided North America in half in that time period and left its trace in the sediment 60 feet beneath our feet.
However, Korite International isn’t simply here at its mine south of Lethbridge to teach a history lesson — it is here to make money off one of the most unique and rarest gemstones known to humankind which emerges from that era: ammolite.
“Ammolite comes from fossils of sea creatures of the upper Cretaceous known as ammonites,” says Trudel in his still thick Quebecois accent.
“They were successful for a long time and then went extinct about the same time as the dinosaurs. An ammonite is a curl-shelled sea creature, kind of like a nautilus today, that lived between 69 and 72 million years ago. They were squid-like animals with six tentacles. They were very good swimmers and very successful to reproduce. When they died, their empty shell fell to the bottom of a tropical (Bearpaw) sea and was filled in with mud and got buried. And under tectonic pressure, the walls of those ammonite shells recrystallized to argonite.”
Ammolite wasn’t officially recognized as a gemstone until 1981, but is unquestionably one of the most beautiful in existence today. When Trudel and his partners first started prospecting for ammolite in the early 1980s, Trudel did most of the collection for the small company by hand from naturally exposed outcrops along the Milk River.
“Sometimes I would find 14 backpacks of 100 pounds per day,” remembers Trudel. “But eventually we needed to get into mining if we wanted to expand because you couldn’t find enough of good quality while surface collecting. When there is even a little bit of oxidization you get in surface finds, you can’t use it for the jewellery — so starting the mine was mandatory for growth.”
Korite International now mines about 90 per cent of the world’s jewellery-quality ammolite right here in Alberta, and has about 80 employees engaged in every aspect of the business from mining, to jewellery creation, to marketing. While ammolite is found in other parts of the world, no other deposit yet discovered matches the startling beauty and lustre of southwestern Alberta ammolite.
Trudel credits his partners and early company investors and supporters who believed in the potential of ammolite, and who worked tirelessly for decades to build up the business, for Korite’s success. Trudel says early supporters like Tompkins Jewellers in Lethbridge, for example, will always have a special place in his company’s history.
“I am sure Tompkins Jewellers is our oldest customer,” he says. “They were there right at the start, starting with Mrs. (Catherine) Tompkins. She loved it. She believed in it. And they really made an effort to promote it in Lethbridge.”
That mutual love and respect is returned to Trudel by current store owner Lisa Tompkins, daughter of Catherine. Tompkins Jewellers was the first retailer in southern Alberta to carry locally produced ammolite jewellery, she confirms, and the business maintains its strong relationship with Korite International to this day.
“Ammolite is very unique with its play of colours,” says Tompkins. “You are sort of getting a ruby, an emerald and a sapphire all in one. But the biggest factor is it comes right from beneath our feet here in southern Alberta.”
Tompkins says she has noticed a boom in demand for Alberta ammolite after Korite International obtained supply agreements with various cruise ship lines. Korite has also successfully raised its international profile in other aspects of its marketing by donating high-quality, ammolite fossils to institutions like the American Museum of Natural History and the Royal Tyrrell Museum, where millions of visitors every year now marvel at these fossils’ iridescent colours.
“Demand for it has remained steady, and is increasing a bit, as more people get educated on it,” says Tompkins. “I hope Korite can continue to find high-quality deposits so that we can continue to sell and promote ammolite locally and worldwide. It would be a shame if that high quality ran out one day, and that is part of its allure as well. There is a finite quantity as far as we know, and eventually it will run out.
“I would just say if you are interested in ammolite, and wanted to add something uniquely Albertan to your collection, you should start thinking about getting into it now.”
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