Calgary-based Korite International is the global leader in ammolite
production

by Karen Rudolph Durrie

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 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 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 drops 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
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. He
puzzles pieces together, categorizes ammolite, and stabilizes it with a proprietary
substance before packing it into barrels. Nilsson, a soft-spoken, mustachioed man,
has been with the company 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, catalogued 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
mososaur 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, 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 a 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 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. The hand-set the
gems into pendants, earrings, rings, watch faces, and other pieces.

Each stone has unique qualities, colors, 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 colors, patterns, 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, 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 per
cent 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 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 catalogue 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

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