So, what exactly is an ammolite anyways? And is it “ammolite” or “ammonite”? Is it an organic gemstone? Can I wear it in jewelry? Where does it come from? I heard ammolite was rarer than diamonds. Is that true? Are all ammolites doublets or triplets?
These are the sort of questions any jeweler featuring ammolite in their store, gallery or internet based-shop is likely to hear. And they are all excellent questions!
What is ammolite?
First, lets fast forward to the next question: is it ammolite or ammonite?
Both actually. Ammolite is what we in the trade call a finished gemstone made using an ammonite fossil. Specifically, the aragonite shell material. And furthermore, only from two very specific species of ammonites: Placenticeras meeki and Placenticeras intercalare.
There are many other species of ammonites, which are found in various locations around the world, including Morocco, Madagascar, Utah and the UK. But these ammonites are smaller (Usually about the size of a quarter), and the iridescent layer of aragonite shell material is too thin to cut into suitable gemstones.
The ammolites we know and love which are used in jewelry come from one place on earth: The Bearpaw formation in North America. This formation stretches from Alberta, Canada, into northern Montana, of the United States. Fortunately for our cold hardy northern neighbors, pretty much all of the ammolite bearing land is in Canada. In fact, Ammolite was declared the official gemstone of Alberta several decades ago, and has been gaining popularity in the rest of the world ever since.
To date, only two companies have mining rights for these stones, so if you do purchase a piece of ammolite, it would have had to come from one of them. Also noteworthy is that these companies cut and finish the vast majority of the stones which are released to the public so uncut material is rare.
So how rare is ammolite? Or ammonite? You know what I mean…. Diamonds are rare, or at least they seem to be. I never really could get a straight answer on that question from anyone in the business, so either no one really knows, or those that do know, aren’t talking. But one thing is for sure: Due to the very specific locality of the ammolite beds, and the estimated 15 – 20 years of remaining mine life, I’d say yes, these are very rare. This would put them in a category with Paraiba tourmaline, tanzanite, and other minerals which can only be found in very specific locations. If we ever see the demand for these stones skyrocket, you can be assured the price will go up as well as the supply is limited. Afterall, there is only so much dirt that two companies can move in a given year. I can only imagine how skilled these excavator operators must be to remove such fragile pieces from the sides of mountains.
That said, they do take care to excavate larger specimens for sale to collectors, museums and galleries. Such as this one which I was lucky enough to get to see with my own eyes! It took almost all of my restraint to not rub my hands across the surface. So shiny! But… So fragile! Which is why most all ammolites used in jewelry are doublets or triplets.
Ammolite is a softer material. Only about a 3.5 – 4 on the Mohs hardness scale. So most often, ammolite is capped with either a harder epoxy resin material, or it is fabricated into a triplet. As the names suggest, doublets will have two layers, and triplets will have three. Below are some images showing how the layers are generally laid out.
The advantage to a doublet is it is less expensive to create than a triplet. Basically, cut the ammolite to the desired shape, drizzle the epoxy of the top, cure and voila! A finished stone. The disadvantage is that the epoxy will generally cure to a hardness of about 6. Still way better than 4 though!
A triplet is generally reserved for higher grade ammolites. In these cases, a clear gemstone cap is used. Most commonly quartz is used, but spinel is also used too. These are honed to near perfection, polished and then epoxied onto the top of a wafer-thin piece of gem grade ammolite. The bottom is further stabilized with a thin piece of material, most commonly made from black onyx, but the original host shale is also sometimes used. Once the epoxy cures between all three layers, they will create a beautiful cabochon that is ready for jewelry. In this case, the cap has a hardness of 7-8, making it even more durable. The clear dome also can seem to magnify the stone.
While using ammolites in jeweler seems to be a newer trend, if we look back at history, we’ll see that sure enough, the native American tribes that had previously inhabited these lands had beat us to the punch once again. These stones were no stranger to the tribe members and they were often used as talismans and worn to bring luck and the buffalo back to the tribe year after year. It is easy to see why they would have been highly regarded hundreds of years ago, let alone today.
Nowadays, we even have a set grading system for ammolite. It spans from B to AA, with the middle grades being A-, A and A+. Because ammolites are typically capped, or made into triplets, they are typically not sold or graded based on their carat weight. But instead are graded based on their colors and patterns. A highly colored stone, without any internal patterning, and comprising at least three distinct colors is regarded as the highest grade. Patterned stones can be graded, but it can be a bit fruitless as in these cases, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
So, if you’ve read all this, then you’re now an ammolite expert! Feel free to impress your friends.