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'It's like nothing else on earth': Rarest of gemstones fuels boom for Alberta miners

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'It's like nothing else on earth': Rarest of gemstones fuels boom for Alberta miners

A Calgary-based mining company says its operation will quadruple in size within 12 months — thanks to prehistoric squid-like creatures transformed into gemstones that can only be found in one spot in the world, southern Alberta.

About 70 million years ago, Korite's mine would have been found in the bottom of the Bearpaw Sea. Today, it is in the bottom of a coulee about 20 minutes south of Lethbridge, Alta.

The geographic area is known as the Bearpaw Formation — the only home of commercially mined ammolite in the world.

Ammolite gems are the result of perfectly preserved prehistoric ammonite — squid-like creatures that lived in shells — being pressed in layers of shale.

While the animal's fossils can be found around the world, a southern Alberta river basin is the only place where a confluence of factors made the mollusc into a gem. 

"All the colours are on top of each other, the same as a rainbow — and it's all natural. So that makes it one of the rarest gemstones in the world," Rene Trudel, Korite's operation field manager, told CBC News.

"In this sediment, the preservation is incredible ... you cannot find anywhere else the full spectrum [of colours]."

Mining company Korite 'expanding dramatically'

And that's good news for Korite, which is quadrupling the amount of land it mines by next year.

"We were mining two acres a year, and in the next 12 months we'll mine eight acres. So we're expanding dramatically," Korite president Jay Maull said.

"It's not only do we have to find it, we have to process it. We were processing about six million carats of gemstone per year. We're growing to eight million this year, but to meet demand we're going to have to double that over the next two years." 

The expansion will also mean hiring both at the mine — for the Lethbridge area that means about 20 more jobs — and for  jobs in marketing, sales, distribution and processing at the headquarters in Calgary. 

Korite currently employs 280 people worldwide. 

'One of the rarest gemstones in the world'

Trudel was never formally trained as a geologist but he knows the Bearpaw Formation like the back of his hand, having worked there for 35 years.

He oversaw the excavation of about 57 hectares of land in the area, searching for the elusive gemstone.

'It's not easy to start a new gemstone'

The company has come a long way from where it started in the late 1970s.

At that point, the company was only using surface extraction and marketing the treasures to tourists in Banff, Alta.

That was the landscape before ammolite was even recognized as a gemstone. The official designation changed everything in the early 1980s.

"If it weren't for the Japanese — at that time they were travelling in large numbers in Alberta — they wanted souvenirs unique from Canada," Trudel said. 

"That really helped us. It's not easy to start a new gemstone."

The first mine was dug in 1983, and four others have been dug since. 

"Then lots of people started to hear about us. And it's growing very fast in different markets, like the Caribbean with the cruise boats," said Trudel.

Korite uncovered other ancient creatures

Trudel jokes about the fact that in the time he's been plotting Korite's mines, he's never missed. 

He has followed the Bearpaw Formation all the way down into Montana and nowhere else has he found ammolite in the condition it exists in the St. Mary River Valley and along parts of the Oldman River. 

Of course, the squid-like ammonites weren't the only creatures living in the area during the Late Cretaceous Period.

The Korite team has also found seven Mosasaurs — a scaly skinned, flesh-eating lizard that lived between 65 million and 135 million years ago — and a Plesiosaur — a large carnivorous sea animal with a broad body and two pairs of flippers that lived at the time of the dinosaurs.

All were pulled out of the ground by the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology, in Drumheller. 

Gemstones' cost compares to sapphires

The cost of the gemstone is comparable currently to sapphires or black opals.

However, the cost of each depends on colour, which is rated on a one to five scale, as well as its brightness.

"It's like nothing else on earth, it has more colours than any other gemstone in the world," Maull said. 

The company's also getting a boost from Canada 150.

Korite is the official supplier of jewelry and keepsakes, such as pins and cufflinks, for the anniversary celebrations.

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