4 May 2007
Ancient Appeal(HKTDC Enterprise, Vol 05,2007)
|Ammolite by Aurora has its own 200-acre site where it mines, designs and produces handcrafted ammolite jewellery|
Today, there are only two mines in the world unearthing gem-quality ammolite. They are both in southern Alberta, Canada, explains Ammolite by Aurora sales manager Dennis Breymann.
"We are a vertically-integrated company with our own 200-acre site south of Calgary where we mine about two acres a year and design and produce handcrafted, ammolite jewellery in 14K and 18K gold," he says, adding that the company also has a silver line using lower-grade ammolite that is outsourced for production on the Chinese mainland.
Ammolite by Aurora currently specialises in the travel retail niche, with a customer base of independent fine jewellers and dominant retailers. "The gem has an excellent story, there is only one area in the world where it is found and, due to its multifarious colour combinations, each piece is unique," says Breymann.
The company was formed in 1987 by owner Richard Ando, the son of a jeweller, who saw an opportunity to market the gem to the town's many tourists.
"There was nothing uniquely Canadian available at that time, and ammolite has the story and rarity value which proved particularly popular with higher spending tourists such as the Japanese," explains Breymann, adding that ammolite had previously been a curiosity with claims of native Indian use on ceremonial occasions.
The company is now expanding every year, although Breymann describes the mining process as hit or miss. "These fossils must be mined extremely carefully from the sediment layers and volcanic ash," he explains. "They are very rare, and we may mine two acres and find nothing."
Ammolite by Aurora's extraction technique differs to that of its only competitor. "We use a digger with a knife-edge blade to slowly scrape the site an inch at a time," Breymann points out. "Fossils are harder than earth, so when the blade skips work is stopped and a process akin to an archaeological dig slowly unearths the fossil using hand tools."
The mining process is also highly expensive and time-consuming, and Breymann notes that one of the company's biggest challenges is to stop marauders. "If ammolite is obtained from any source other than the two existing mines, then it is probably a black market product," he asserts.
Using a proprietary process, skilled cutters and polishers then set to work to create gemstones of intense iridescent colours, including red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet in all manner of combinations.
"The ammolite layer may be less than 1mm thick and unstable in its natural form," says Breymann. "We have perfected a stabilisation method that, among other processes, injects epoxy at high pressure into the fine layers."
As a result, some 95% of the company's jewellery is sold in triplet form with the host matrix for backing.
Breymann is reluctant to pick a colour or hue that is of most value, describing this as a very personal choice; indeed, the company's marketing tag is 'Your True Colours'. However, he remarks that the real value lies in the gem's rarity and sense of timelessness. "Choice is very subjective, but we do employ a loose grading standard according to colour variety and intensity, with AA the highest."
Breymann also notes that blue is a current favourite, while a few years ago it was red. "The perfect piece would be a mixture of bright red, purple, orange and green, with a hair of blue," he adds. "Stones of AA-grade would have 3-4 bright colours, whereas single-A stones would have two colours of moderate intensity."
He notes that Japanese buyers liken some hues to the prized black opal, while the Chinese believe ammolite has good feng shui properties, emanating positive cosmic energy.
Each piece of ammolite from the firm comes with a certificate of authenticity and a lifetime guarantee. "However, as a calcium carbonate like pearl, we caution against ultrasonic cleaning and the gem is sensitive to heat," Breymann advises.
"As an aragonite, ammolite resembles the pearl in chemical structure but is closer to opal in price, ranging anywhere from US$200-5,000 depending on quality and anywhere up to US$10,000 for a showpiece."
With its jewellery now firmly positioned in the tourism retail industry in Canada and the US, Ammolite by Aurora feels the time is now right to expand into other markets. "We have been a regular exhibitor at the Hong Kong International Jewellery Fair since 2004," says Breymann. "Here, we are targeting the Hong Kong and the southern mainland market and trying to sell direct to distributors in Asia."
So, while the dinosaur may be extinct, a prehistoric animal in the form of a rare gemstone may be making its way to your market soon.
When Dinosaurs Ruled
Ammolite has its origins in the late Cretaceous period, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and a tropical inland sea covered much of what is now called North America.
The area was teeming with strange and wonderful marine life including schools of ammonite, a spiral-shaped animal and distant relative to the present-day nautilus, whose body is protected by an external shell.
Over millions of years, tectonic forces gradually transformed the fossilized ammonite into a multicoloured shell layer called ammolite - in a process that is still a mystery to science.
Indeed, ammolite was only discovered in the early 1900s by a team from the geological survey of Canada that was exploring the meandering banks of the St Mary's River in southern Alberta.
Under the guidance of the Royal Tyrell Museum, ammonite fossils are approved for gem creation.
Ammolite gained official gemstone status in 1981 by the International Confederation of Jewellery in Paris; a fitting finale for this rare gem with its fascinating history and unique combination of colour, intensity, texture and pattern.
TEXT BY SANDRA JENNER
Ammolite By Aurora