LETHBRIDGE - A 20-minute drive from Lethbridge brings you to what looks like an ordinary mining pit. A few excavators are operating, staff are on the ground sorting material; the hay-coloured coulees and banded cliffs surround the area.
One excavator is positioned at the top of the pit, one about 15 feet down, and another is a further 30 or so feet down, at the bottom.
Each piece of machinery delicately claws less than a foot of blackish grey shale, swings over to the opposite side and gently lays it down into a pile. The shale slides off in large pieces, like a flaky pastry.
Below the excavator, someone has a steel rake and sifts through the freshly dug up ground.
One by one, the excavators stop. The men in hard hats and fluorescent vests with small iron rakes walk over to the pile and start sorting through it, hoping to see a sparkle of something.
They aren't disappointed.
They find piece after piece of ammonite- an ancient, shelled sea creature that lived about 70 million years ago in this area, also known as the Bear Paw Sea. Where the mine now sits, was once a mile and a half under water.
This is one of the few places this creature lived, and the only area in the world where their shells have been pressed between layers of shale and transformed into a beautiful, rainbow coloured stone called ammolite, that will eventually become jewelry.
Rene Trudel is the Field Operations Manager and has been working with Korite International - the company that now owns this mine, and 90% of the world's deposit of ammolite - since 1983. Korite employs about 280 people worldwide.
He explains how everything is done by hand; how the miners painstakingly search for parts of the ammonite shells in the layers.
"We try to find as many complete shells as possible, for museums and private collectors. The broken pieces become part of our jewelry line."
Ammolite is a relatively new gem, gaining official status by the World Jewellery Confederation (CIBJO) in 1981.
As far back as the late 1400’s though, the Blackfoot tribe found pieces in select areas of southwestern Alberta, and called it “Iniskim,” believing it had magical powers.
Trudel says through the years, Korite International attended numerous trade shows, and eventually “Gem and Gemology” completed a large study, featuring ammolite on its cover magazine – seen by millions.
Jewelry, keepsakes and other pieces are now sold on cruise ships internationally....and in Jasper, Banff, Niagara Falls, Vancouver and many other tourist destinations.
It’s also now featured on the Home Shopping Channels in England, Italy, Germany, Australia, Canada and the US.
The stone is in big demand in Asia, with Feng Shui Masters in Hong Kong calling it the “most influential gemstone of the millennium,” and the “Canada 150” keepsakes also feature ammolite as the official gem.
It’s not just the ammonites that are found at this mine. Trudel says they regularly call the Royal Tyrrell Museum to send a team of archeologists when they find dinosaur remains.
“We’ve found Mosasaurs. One about 10 metres long with big carnivore teeth. It was so well preserved, that they found a full, intact turtle in its stomach…since then we’ve found 6 more Mosasaurs, we found a Plesiosaur, and not long ago juvenile Hadrosaur. He had no business being in the water, so probably as he was grazing, he fell off a cliff and got carried away. A few months earlier we also found a partial T-Rex.”
By 1999, the first ammolite mine closed, and the land restored to its original state.
Trudel emphasizes that it’s extremely important that they leave the land as close to the way they found it, as possible.
“We call it ‘A, B, C.’ A is the good topsoil, B is the subsoil all the way to the gravel. Then we make different piles. When we’re done, we level up the black shale. The marine shale. We put everything back in the same order, and we re-seed with the native grass. You can’t tell that we mined there before. Korite is very serious about doing very good reclamation work.”
Indeed, anyone would be hard pressed to find the difference between one former site a few miles from the current mine, and the untouched areas around it.
Trudel says business is expanding, and in late May they’re planning on hiring miners and other staff from Lethbridge.
“My crew, we’re 17 as we speak. We pretty much have to double it.”
They’re hoping to also mine another 4 acres in addition to the 4 acres that are being mined now.
Trudel says it’s a big difference from when he arrived and there were only 3 people.
“This mine will help put Lethbridge on the world map.”
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