The “Sleeping Beauty” of the Gemstone World

Calgary-based Korite International, the global leader in ammolite production. by Karen Rudolph Durrie

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The pendant at her neck glows like a burst of rainbow fire. Its blazing colors resemble the expressive handiwork of an artist. The gemstone in it – one of the rarest in the world – has been mined, cleaned, cut, polished, designed and set, all by hand.

It’s taken literally millions of years and the work of many dedicated individuals to bring this uniquely Canadian work of art to market. It’s available today thanks to the experts at Korite International, a Calgary-based company that created the ammolite industry 40 years ago.

The Korite pendant is made from ammolite, an organic gemstone that was given official gemstone status by the World Jewellery Confederation (CIBJO) Coloured Stone Commission in 1981. Its beautiful face is the result of an amazing voyage through time.

The journey began during the Cretaceous period, about 71 million years ago, in the waters of the Bearpaw Sea that once covered parts of southern Alberta. Each piece of ammolite began life as a squid-like creature called an ammonite. Ammonites were prolific in those prehistoric waters, and as the sea retreated, their empty shells were embedded in what’s called the Bearpaw Formation. The shells, ranging in size from tiny up to more than three feet in diameter, were transformed into brilliant ammolite thanks to the right combination of minerals, temperature, pressure and time.

Korite mines ammolite in the Bearpaw Formation, and is the world’s largest producer of ammolite gemstones and ammonites. Southern Alberta ammolite is the most uniquely colored anywhere, and the only variety that has official gemstone status. Ammolite is one of only two organic gemstones in the world – the other is the pearl.

The Discovery Channel, which produced a documentary on ammolite called it the “sleeping beauty of the gem world.”

Though ammolite is just hitting its stride as the world’s newest official gemstone, it has long been revered in different cultural legends. Ammolite is found in Blackfoot Nation medicine bundles, where it’s known as “iniskim,” the sacred buffalo stone. The legend has a few versions, but one tells of a freezing winter when buffalo were scarce and the Blackfoot people were starving. A woman heard singing in the trees and followed it to find a piece of ammonite fossil resting on buffalo hair. The rounded stone resembled a sleeping buffalo. The stone spoke to her and told her to take it back to her camp and pray for the buffalo to return. The next morning, a herd of buffalo appeared on the plains. Since then, the Blackfoot have used ammolite for good fortune in hunting, and for use in healing and ceremonies.

DIGGING INTO HISTORY
Korite’s mine is located a short distance from Lethbridge, just beyond flat-topped sweetgrass prairie dotted with peaceful farmland. Adjacent to the mining site is the Blood Reserve, home to the Kainai Nation, with which Korite has worked over the years.

The prairie’s edges give way to impressively carved sandstone escarpments and rolling hills as the terrain drop into the meandering St. Mary’s River valley. René Trudel, Korite’s wiry head of field operations, stands on a windy ridge overlooking the company’s humming mining operation, remembering his first fossil-hunting excursions with cousin Pierre Paré, one of Korite’s founders. “We found a notch on the bank. I saw a bright blue ammonite fossil and I had no idea what it was or what I was doing, but we hauled it in backpacks uphill,” Trudel says.

Paré and his friend, the late René Vandevelde, had decided to turn their interest in paleontology into a business. They purchased a young company from the Kormos family, keeping the name alive by calling it Korite. It was Vandevelde who lobbied to have ammolite declared an official gem. He began showing the vibrantly colored stone to shops in Banff and Jasper, and the souvenir market quickly developed a taste for it. Soon, the market seemed insatiable. It was apparent that if the company wanted to grow, it needed to mine.

When mining began in 1981, it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. Once the Alberta government realized the possibilities for ammolite, some policies changed. “When we started, the government said ‘wait a minute, this looks like the next gold rush,’ and took ownership of the mineral rights,” Trudel says. Korite now

has a renewable lease agreement with the province on the lands it mines. Almost four decades later, Trudel is still working the field, having traded hand digging and canvas backpacks for overseeing excavators and workers on land near the St. Mary’s River. Like mechanical dinosaurs, the excavators claw delicately at layers of soft black shale, sandstone, and bentonite – strata of waxy volcanic soil that indicate fossil riches are likely near. Spotters work alongside each machine, checking each new dig and the pile of scooped rock for flashes of color and the telltale curved shapes of ammonite fossils.

If these are spotted, excavation is halted and the rock is sorted through by hand. Fragments, flakes, flattened whole shells, and the most prized pieces of all – whole, three-dimensional ammonite shells that filled with sediment after landing on the sea bottom – are pulled out, bagged and set aside in aluminum buckets. Finding even small amounts of this gemstone is painstaking and expensive work. The mine’s machines use 7,000 liters of fuel every two weeks. Some days, the labor barely fills a bucket. But other days, the miners strike paydirt. One of Trudel’s most memorable days with Korite occurred when a group of jewelers visited the mine. “As everyone was watching, a big chunk of shale slid out of the shovel and three absolutely perfect, side-by-side ammonites were within it, all whole with no cracks,” he says. But in an average year, Korite only mines enough top-quality ammolite to produce about one cup per day of top-quality gems.

Korite takes pride in its environmental stewardship that leaves the mined areas looking like the company was never even there. After mining activity is done, each layer of the land is replaced in order. The area is reclaimed to its natural topography and seeded with native grasses. To date, Korite has mined about 45 acres of land, averaging about two to three acres per year.

TAGGING TREASURES
From the mine, the buckets of ammonite fossils, fragments, and flakes go to a curious place: an unassuming patch of land with a farmhouse, barn, and warehouse, where Gary Nilsson, Trudel’s operations assistant, sorts through each day’s finds. Gary’s puzzles pieces together categorize ammolite and stabilize it with a proprietary substance before packing it into barrels. Nilsson, a soft-spoken, mustachioed man, has been with the company for 24 years. This is a common theme at Korite – people stick around.

Nilsson recalls an exciting day at the mine a few years back. “We found a juvenile hadrosaur curled along the river, and it had shark’s teeth along its spine,” he says. The land-dwelling duckbill was likely swept out to sea, where it became a snack.

Korite’s mining has unearthed a number of dinosaur fossils over the years, and the second that a specimen is spotted, mining ceases. The world-famous Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology is called in, and archaeologists head to the site to recover the remains. Korite assists in whatever way possible, on its own dime, so that operations can resume quickly.

In a market where not everyone plays by the rules, Korite adheres strictly to all the regulations around the disposition of fossils, including ammonites. “We’re honest people dealing the right way, and we mine in a way that makes sense. This business can give rise to unethical practices like poaching and illegal trafficking. Our ammonites are ethically mined, abiding by all Canadian laws and regulations,” says Martin Bunting, Korite’s President, and CEO. Bunting is a staid man with a wry sparkle in his eye, who took on leadership of the company three years ago as part of a new ownership group.

The Historical Resources Act, passed in 1978, declares all fossils public property and requires every fossil to be numbered, cataloged and photographed for inspection before being released back to the finder. Anything extraordinary or of scientific interest may go to the Tyrrell Museum for a closer look. “The Korite mine and the museum maintain a very positive relationship, which has led to the recovery of a number of significant fossils,” museum executive director Andrew Neuman told the Canadian Press in an article about the discovery of a mosasaur at the mine.

The company works with both the Tyrrell and the Department of Canadian Heritage to advance consumer awareness of ammolite’s Canadian history. “I think ammolite is more than a Canadian treasure; it’s a world treasure,” says Roy Kormos, one of the people who formed Canadian Korite Gems, which later changed hands and became Korite International. Because of its excellent reputation with Canadian Heritage, Korite has a general Cultural Property Export Permit that allows it to ship its products immediately, without having to submit cumbersome paperwork that can take weeks to be processed. “Because that permit has been granted to us, we could ship 500 pounds of rough (ammolite) today,” says Amarjeet Grewal, Korite’s executive vice-president. “That integrity is a big deal to me, and it’s a big deal to Korite.”

RESPECTFUL ENVIRONMENT
Grewal sits in her office, long dark hair framing her friendly face, impeccable clothing accented by jewelry – naturally, some is Korite ammolite in beautiful hues. She is fiercely proud and protective of Korite’s reputation and its respectful working environment. She started at Korite 28 years ago as a junior accountant and is now part owner.

Over the years, she has done gemstone grading and inventory management, eventually creating her own position, overseeing production, working in sales and marketing and heading up operations and merchandising. She travels extensively to tap new markets for the product. Like Grewal, employees at Korite are incredibly engaged and loyal. There is very little turnover. There are stonecutters, a goldsmith and fossil production technicians who have put in more than 20 years at the company, too. All have their own unique histories and stories about Korite. John Issa, a 20-year employee, is the manager of Korite’s fossil division, Canada Fossils Ltd., where preserved ammonites are produced and sold. The company has donated fossils to more than 20 museums around the world, including the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa.

Issa is an encyclopedia on the history of the company, the mine’s geology and the mineral properties of ammonites, and speaks of it all with enthusiasm. He’s represented Korite all over the world and witnessed the price of ammolite increase as the world has sat up and taken notice of the gemstone. “If you look at a black opal and a high-grade piece of ammolite, ammolite wins any day of the week. But the black opal is 10 times more expensive. Why? Because it’s been around 10 times as long. I see ammolite being worth as much as the Australian opal, and I think the color is far superior, but it’s a gemstone in its infancy,” Issa says. At Korite’s headquarters, one meets dedicated people who have invested many years of their lives working together to bring ammolite’s beauty to the world.

KORITE HQ, HALL OF WONDERS
Korite’s corporate headquarters are a part office, part production facility, and part museum. The hallways are hung with framed ammonite fossils, paintings depicting prehistoric times and Alberta landscapes, and dinosaur fossils. The front wholesale showroom is a feast for the eyes, filled with radiant ammonite fossils of every imaginable size, including one specimen displaying the full-color spectrum of ammolite, with a dazzling amount of the more rare purples and blues. It’s worth $100,000 retail. There is a replica T-rex head, polished mammoth tusks on stands, art made from ammolite, and glass-case displays of ammonite jewelry to match every possible taste.

Issa lays some of it out and discusses the work of different designers. He shows off Korite’s signature piece, the stunning and iconic pear-shaped Solara pendant by Calgary designer Llyn Strelau. The Solara has a large ammolite gemstone surrounded by delicate gold wires that are set with several diamonds. Close by, in-house artisans work in an enclosed studio crafting ammolite pieces. In another area, preparation is underway on rough ammonite fossils, as producers spend hours carefully chipping away matrix rock with air tools to reveal the precious ammolite beneath.

There is no factory feel here. Even with all the technological advances in the world, the rarest gemstone isn’t something you leave to machines to mass-produce. From sorting by hand at the mine to old-world craftsmanship in-house, Korite’s ammolite is about the human touch.

HANDCRAFTED FROM THE HEART: Ammolite jewelry 101
“You don’t pick the ammolite; it picks you,” Issa says as he stands in the cutting room, where jewelers work polishing and shaping pieces of ammolite one at a time, by hand, manipulating them against spinning diamond wheels. They handset the gems into pendants, earrings, rings, watch faces and other pieces. Each stone has unique qualities, colours, brilliance and patterns, and can look very different depending on the light. It can even take on unique hues when worn by different people.

Ammolite is rated on a scale. AAA (Exquisite), displaying three or more brilliant colors represent only the top three percent of production. AA (Extra Fine), has slightly lower brilliance at a high grade; A (Fine), has two distinct colors and some fine lines present, and Standard has one or more colors, primarily green or red, with varying color, pattern, and brilliance.

As a gemstone, ammolite consists of hundreds of thin, iridescent layers composed mostly of the mineral aragonite. Whereas other gems’ hues come from the absorption of certain colors, the color of ammolite comes from the refraction of light. Each thin aragonite platelet acts like a tiny prism.

Ammolite is also quite soft – a 3.5 to 4.5 rating on the Mohs scale used to classify the hardness of minerals. Once it is capped with a protective layer, it is brought up to a 7.5 to 8 Mohs rating. For comparison, the diamond is rated at 10. Korite has developed its own proprietary techniques to produce the highest-quality gemstone jewelry and offers an unconditional lifetime guarantee on every piece of ammolite.

GROWING
Since the shift in ownership three years ago, Korite has taken an ambitious turn to focus on growth. As the largest miner of ammolite in the world, controlling 90 percent of the world’s ammolite resources, it only made sense to strengthen the company’s leadership and move aggressively into expanding its markets. That included increasing its presence in the United States, where ammolite is extremely desirable but hard to find. “It would be nice to become the ‘De Beers of Ammolite’,” says Bunting, referring to the company synonymous with the finest diamonds. One of the largest markets for Korite is Asia, which has responded to ammolite with enthusiasm for its color and energy. Wilson Yip, one of Korite’s longtime managers, is credited with the growth of the Asian market – and with ammolite getting the attention of feng shui practitioners. Feng shui master Edward Kui Ming Li declared ammolite the “most influential stone of the millennium,” believing it to have positive energetic properties for the wearer and an ability to provide balance to environments such as home and office. Feng shui is the Chinese art of spatial arrangement for directing and harmonizing the flow of life energy is known as ch’i. Frank Fischer, a German Feng Shui master visited the Korite mine and offices and conducted a special ceremony intended to create the best ch’i for the company’s environment. Fischer deliberated over an array of ammonite fossils, tapping on each with a metal implement and choosing the one he felt had the most energy. Each employee also selected a piece of ammolite to hold during the ceremony. That ammonite fossil and those pieces are now held in a special display on the company’s second floor, placed using the principles of feng shui. “That became the heart of the office,” Bunting says.

A GIRL’S OTHER BEST FRIEND
The ultimate vision and goal for Korite, Grewal says, is for consumers to look at ammolite in the same way they do the other precious gemstones. “Every woman owns or knows about diamonds, rubies, and sapphires. If they own those, then they want ammolite. It’s beautiful, affordable, and luxurious, and it has an ‘excuse me’ factor – people say ‘excuse me, what are you wearing?’” Korite’s extensive catalog includes the Couture collection of classic statement pieces, as well as a Gold and Silver collection and the striking new Elements collection, with ammolite flakes set in contemporary, stained-glass and mosaic-style settings. The Watch collection, with precision-cut mosaic faces, and the Décor line, with stunning whole ammonites in matrix slabs, framed ammonites, and sculptures made from large pieces of ammolite, round out Korite’s offerings. New products are constantly being brainstormed by all of Korite’s employees. It’s not uncommon for someone to knock on Grewal’s office door and offer a new idea for using ammolite, and she welcomes it.

“We take great pride in our product through our master craftsmanship,” she says. Korite ammolite is sold in 25 countries around the world. It does a brisk trade on cruise ships, and it’s also sold on television shopping channels in Canada and many other countries.

One of Korite’s latest marketing strategies is to position the Alberta gemstone as one that relates to every part of the world, posing a piece of ammolite jewelry against stunning natural landscape photos of each locale where it’s sold.

Allan Dagnall, the marketing consultant to Korite, says the intent is to stir up magical and romantic associations with ammolite.

“We’re putting it with known landscapes. When we listened to why people bought pieces, it was because on, say, cruises, it ties them back to that moment they were there on their 20th anniversary in Alaska, and they saw a mountain and the piece had all the colors of that mountain sunset,” Dagnall says.

BRIGHT FUTURE
Believing in its people, its products, and its passionate heart has seen Korite grow into something as brilliant as its gemstones. Each person’s unique and true colors and patterns have been brought out under just the right conditions since 1979.

Like an ammonite, Korite has spiraled out from small beginnings and built round and round its nucleus to form something even more impressive. From humble beginnings hauling ammonites uphill in packs, the company’s successive leaders have continued in the founders’ footsteps, focused on growing and developing a world-class gemstone company that can take on the competition anywhere on the globe. “The ultimate goal is having the whole world know, recognize, appreciate and desire ammolite. We are devoted to that goal,” Grewal says.

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