The chemical composition of ammolite is variable, and aside from aragonite may include a mix of calcite, silica, pyrite or other minerals. The shell itself may contain a number of trace elements based on the chemical composition of the original sediments. They can include aluminium, barium, chromium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, strontium, titanium, and vanadium.
Its crystallography is orthorhombic. Its hardness is 3.5–4.5, and its specific gravity is 2.60–2.85. The refractive index of Canadian material (as measured via sodium light, 589.3 nm) is as follows: α 1.522; β 1.672–1.673; γ 1.676–1.679; biaxial negative. Under ultraviolet light, ammolite may fluoresce a mustard yellow.
Ammolite comes from the fossil shells of the Upper Cretaceous disk-shaped ammonites Placenticeras meeki and Placenticeras intercalare, and to a lesser degree, the cylindrical baculite, Baculites compressus. The ammonites that form our Alberta ammolite inhabited a prehistoric, inland subtropical sea that bordered the Rocky Mountains — this area is known today as the Cretaceous or Western Interior Seaway. As the ammonites died, they sank to the bottom and were buried by layers of bentonitic mud that eventually became shale. Many gem-quality ammonites are found within siderite concretions. These sediments preserved the aragonite of the shells, preventing it from converting to calcite.
|Ammolite from the Bearpaw Formation|
The thicker the layers, the more reds and greens are produced; the thinner the layers, the more blues and violets predominate. Reds and greens are the most commonly seen colours, owing to the greater fragility of the finer layers responsible for the blues. When freshly quarried, these colours are not especially dramatic; the material requires polishing and possibly other treatments in order to reveal the colours' full potential.
Ammolite itself is very thin. It is generally 0.5–0.8 millimetres (0.02–0.03 inches) thick. This thin coating covers a matrix typically made up of grey to brown shale, chalky clay, or limestone.
Frost shattering of these specimens is common. If left exposed to the elements the thin ammolite tends to crack and flake. Prolonged exposure to sunlight can also lead to bleaching of the generally intense colouration. The cracking results in a tessellated appearance, sometimes described as a "dragon skin" or referred to as a stained glass window pattern.
Ammolite mined from deeper deposits may be entirely smooth or with a rippled surface. Occasionally a complete ammonite shell is recovered with its structure well-preserved: fine, convoluted lines delineate the shell chambers, and the overall shape is suggestive of a nautilus. While these shells may be as large as 90 centimetres (35.5 inches) in diameter, the iridescent ammonites (as opposed to the pyritized variety) are typically much smaller. Most fossilized shells have had their aragonite pseudomorphously replaced by calcite or pyrite, making the presence of ammolite particularly uncommon.
In 1981, ammolite was given official gemstone status by the World Jewellery Confederation (CIBJO), the same year commercial mining of ammolite began. It was designated the official gemstone of the City of Lethbridge, Alberta in 2007.
Ammolite is also known as aapoak — Kainah for "small, crawling stone" — gem ammonite, calcentine, and Korite. The latter is a trade name given to the gemstone by the Alberta-based mining company Korite. Roughly half of all ammolite deposits are contained within the Kainah (Kainaiwa) reserve, and its inhabitants play a major role in ammolite mining. Marcel Charbonneau and his business partner Mike Berisoff were the first to create commercial doublets of the gem in 1967. They went on to form Ammolite Minerals Ltd.