Shopping for Ammolite Jewelry in Banff

Ammolite Jewelry
Mammoth Ivory Mosaic with Ammolite

Interlaced over downtown Banff are jewelry and other stores that sell Ammolite jewelry, Canada's rare, beautiful and unique gemstone. The gem is mined along the St Mary River near Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, 340 kM (211 miles) from Banff. Sold around the world in high-end jewelry stores, the proximity of the source of the gem to Banff and the crafting of it into jewelry by local jewelers makes Ammolite a great all-Canadian souvenir of your trip.

Shopping is free and is a fascinating use of your time, but buying can get expensive. We set a budget of $500 and didn't think we would be able to find something we liked -- since the pieces we saw in the travel magazines priced out between $1,500 and $15,000 and you can spend much more than that.

Green Dragon-Skin Ammolite Stone
Green Dragon-Skin
Ammolite Stone

The piece Dee liked the most within our budget was a hand crafted three-color Ammolite mosaic set in Mammoth ivory with Ammolite on both sides of the ivory. It was the flashing iridescent of the red that drove her decision. Coming in well under our budget, I was able to add an unmounted green "dragon-skin" stone that I thought might mount into a tie tack setting or into the stand of a desk pen set.

The total for both? -- $488.25. Well within our budget.

Part of the pleasure of shopping for Ammolite is to learn the fascinating details of this remarkable gemstone. As we shopped, each jeweler told us the general story and then added a different bit of information that added to our knowledge.

We started our shopping trip at the Banff Springs Jewellery at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. Dressed more for the trail, then for shopping at a high-end jewelry store, we were never-the-less treated with courtesy and it was a good starting point for our Ammolite shopping odyssey. Everything we were shown was beautiful -- and outside our budget. However, we were shown a piece of Mammoth Ivory with Ammolite set in both sides. It was less than 50% over our budget and we almost bought it. It was beautiful. The only reason we didn't buy is that we wanted to continue our shopping adventure, thinking we might come back for it later after we visited other stores.

Our second stop wasThe Clock Towers, located at the north-east corner of Banff Ave, and Buffalo Street. On the left as you enter is Ammolite in the Rockies. Said to have the largest collection of loose ammolite stones in Banff or the Bow Valley, this store is a mini-museum on ammolite. We spent an hour in the store, went to lunch, and then came back for another hour to watch an hour-long video on ammolite featuring Korite International pioneering work with ammolite. (We have seen the same video on Public Television since.) During our 2008 visit, the owner's 14 year-old nephew answered our questions. We were amazed at his knowledge, ability to express it, and willingness to spend time with us. This young man should go far in this world. Across from this store is Freya's Jewellery, where you can watch skilled jewelers create custom settings for the stones. A third jewelry store in the cluster has a money exchange that beats any bank or other money exchange we have experienced. Our understanding is that all three jewelry stores are owned by the same person, the owner of the Clock Towers. We left this cluster of stores with a strong background in ammolite. But we were still to learn more at other jewelry stores.

Our next major infusion of knowledge came from David Stratton, the owner of Stratton Jewelry (next to the Rose and Crown on Banff Ave.) Jewelry is grouped in show cases by price and all the pieces have price tags that are turned so you could read them. We especially liked this arrangement. All the other stores we visited were happy to show you pieces and explain their unique features, but you never knew if it was in your budget until you asked. For the budget-minded, this is a great place to start your ammolite shopping tour. Why? Because you will probably find that you can find an example of this extraordinary gem stone that is within your budget. A special bonus was being able to talk to David Stratton for almost a half hour. Most sales people we talked to knew their craft and made shopping for ammolite enjoyable. They were knowledgeable, but all seemed to be working from the same script. Mr. Stratton had the deep knowledge that comes from a true expert and he answered questions from this deep knowledge -- no scripting apparent.

Another infusion of knowledge came from a store in Canmore, not Banff, the Ammonite Factory & Show Room where we took the tour. The factory show room is free to browse, but a small fee is charged for the tour, which is well worth it. It is best to call for reservations so you don't make the trip for naught. Also, make sure you have the address, phone number, and a map. It took us a while to find the factory, which is located in an industrial park. Now any tour is only as good as the guide. We arrived almost an hour before our scheduled tour and got to hear one guide, and then got to hear a second who led our tour. Both women were outstanding guides who had their own style and covered the material from different view points. By this time we were feeling like experts on ammolite -- which is, of course, an illusion. But with this much knowledge, there was no way that we weren't going to spend our full budget.

Philippe of Banff Fine Jewellers may or may not be in your budget -- depending on your budget. But if you are shopping for ammolite, make sure you stop and admire what fine ammolite (and diamond) jewelry becomes in the hands of talented jewelers.

We visit Rocks & Gems Canada every year to view the beautiful stones and fossils of Canada. This is a place you do not want to pass by -- and yes, they sell ammolite.

In our odyssey to learn about ammolite and buy a piece within our budget we think we stepped into every shop in Banff selling ammolite and talked to a sales person in most of them. We learned something from all of them. One of the things we think we learned is that there are three major sources for ammolite gem-stones.

Significant deposits of gem quality ammonites are only found in the Bearpaw shale formation along the eastern Canadian Rockies, with almost all mining taking place in the Lethbridge Ammonite Mining District along the St Mary River in Southern Alberta.

Mining is on leased tribal or government lands by Korite International or the Aurora Ammolite Mine. Other mining is done on the Blood Tribe Reservations by natives. Different stores often specialize in the gems from one of these sources. Others carry gems from all three sources.

As we shopped for Ammolite, we learned its fascinating story. This is the story we told our family and friends when we showed them the jewelry. It's mostly factual, but if not, allow for some poetic license.

Four hundred million years ago when dinosaurs roamed the earth, in seas around the world lived a predator called the ammonite, a squid-like creature within a shell. The shell grew with the ammonite who used it as an air chamber to seek the best level in the sea to feed. The ammolite only lived a short time by geological time and is used as an index fossil to date geological formations around the world.

Mosasauer Crunching Ammonite
Mosasaur Eating Ammonite
Ammolite in the Rockies

In the same seas lived the mosasaur, a ferocious lizard or crocodile-like predator called the "Tyrannosaurus Rex of the sea", referring to the ferocious land-based Tyrannosaurus Rex dinosaur that lived at the same time. One of the Mosasaur's favorite foods was the ammonite. It would crunch its powerful teeth on the ammonite's shell forcing the ammonite into its mouth and then dropping the shell into the sediments at the bottom of the sea.

It all came to an end during the K-T extinction event attributed to a bolide hitting earth, when dinosaurs, mosasaurs, and ammonites, along with many other life forms perished.

Then time turned these ammonite shells into fossils.

Ammonite fossils are quite common world-wide, but only in a very few places did they develop their gem-like qualities. One of places is on the eastern side of the Canadian rockies.

The Canadian and USA Rocky Mountains, along with the prairies to the east, lay beneath a shallow inland sea 400 million years ago and mosasaurs fed on ammonites in that sea.

As the rocky mountains grew in the next 400 million years, the ammonite shells were subjected to intense pressure and temperatures in the present of unique chemicals forming gem-quality ammolite -- which gained gem-stone status in 1981.

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