If there’s anything that the annual gem bazaars in Tucson teach us, it’s that the odd, the rare, the truly unknown stones that are mostly off the radar can still elicit feelings of awe and downright wonder. True, we’ve wandered up and down the aisles and meandered through the tents until our eyes become glazed over. Secretly we ask ourselves, “Have I been here already – did I see this stuff yesterday?”
Small wonder. The sensory overload we experience never diminishes no matter how many years we’ve taken the plunge into the world’s largest gem and mineral shows. They rise up like some hypnotic phoenix in the desert every February. So it’s hard to explain to someone who’s never been, what this behemoth is like – you have to be there, to use a well-worn adage.
Humble Beginnings of The Tucson Gem Shows
Do you know the origins of this modern mammoth gem fair? Turns out, in 1955, a small local club of nerdy rockhounds organized a little display of its member’s favorite finds. Most displays were confined in open shoeboxes to help keep things tidy. The first incarnation of the Tucson Gem & Mineral Society was held in a local elementary school. Since then, it has expanded, taking up the entire city – and beyond, with various shows starting and stopping on different dates throughout an entire month.
“Never despise small beginnings” is the obvious take away from this story. But I usually find another take away on my nearly annual trek. Vendors from every corner of the globe share their extraordinary finds with us. And no matter how many times we’ve seen these stones, they thrill us once again with the pure wonder of what’s hidden within this earth of ours.
Ammonite and Ammolite
You’ve seen ammolite. I’ve seen ammolite. But I’ve been revisiting this ancient stone lately with its jim-dandy of a backstory. To those for whom this is a new stone, it’s a spellbinding wonder to behold.
Ammolite is rightly called a rarity. Any single-source stone gets that moniker for sure. The organic material is only found in the Bearpaw Formation in Alberta, Canada. Its dazzling color combinations shimmer with iridescence, exhibiting patterns that will inspire any designer. It also has to be finite because it’s a natural organic fossil. When it’s gone, it’s gone.
The ammolite used today in jewelry application was once a sea creature – now extinct. The fossilized remains of a sea creature left us with these remarkable shells of color. As a gemstone material, it hasn’t been around all that long. Its first commercial use in jewelry can be found back in the 1960s. It took a bit of a while to catch on. But in 1981 The World Jewellery Confederation (CIBJO) properly recognized ammolite as a colored gemstone.
Now here it can get a bit dodgy – since we’ve seen the name ammolite interchanged with the word ammonite. Let’s sort the two out. Ammonites were ancient marine mollusks that fell to extinction about 65 million years ago. These mollusks of various species can be found around the world. But only certain species of these mollusks could produce gem-quality iridescent fossilized gemstones. And those were found in Alberta, Canada.
Single Origin – Small Harvest
Even with that narrowed down field, only about 5% of the Alberta ammonites can yield gem quality material. This adds to its scarcity for sure.
What to Look For
When this ammonite successfully produces gemmy quality material, the fossilized shells will be called ammolite. They will be composed of mainly aragonite (with other trace elements). Aragonite is the major mineral also found in pearls.
The wide range of hues found on ammolite, their vivid colorful patterns, all play a role in grading this material. More common are red and green colorations. Blues and purples, not so much – so ammolite bearing those hues will be priced higher. Things like chromatic shift, (a change from one hue to another when the stone is moved) and the intensity of iridescence both impact its value. There are other considerations that savvy collectors look for when valuing ammolite stones or jewelry made with this kaleidoscopic gem.
While I’m revisiting my affection for this unique gem material, it dawns on me that perhaps you might want to view it with fresh eyes – and help your customers discover a new love from a very ancient source.