Ammolite: Gemstone with Iridescent Colors!

The Rare Ammolite with a spectacular flash of iridescent colors!

Ammolite is an opal-like organic gemstone found primarily along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains of North America. It is made of the fossilized shells of ammonites, which in turn are composed primarily of aragonite, the same mineral contained in nacre, with a microstructure inherited from the shell. It is one of few biogenic gemstones; others include amber and pearl.

The chemical composition of ammolite is variable, and aside from aragonite may include calcite, silica, pyrite, or other minerals. The shell itself may contain a number of trace elements, including: aluminium; barium; chromium; copper; iron; magnesium; manganese; strontium; titanium; and vanadium. Its crystallography is orthorhombic. Its hardness is 4.5–5.5, and its specific gravity is 2.60–2.85.

An iridescent opal-like play of color is shown in fine specimens, mostly in shades of green and red; all the spectral colors are possible, however. The iridescence is due to the microstructure of the aragonite: unlike most other gems, whose colors come from light absorption, the iridescent color of ammolite comes from interference with the light that rebounds from stacked layers of thin platelets that make up the aragonite.

huge Ammolite
A gigantic opalized ammonite fossil from  southern Alberta, Canada.
Photo: Rocks for the Spirit

Significant deposits of gem-quality ammolite are only found in the Bearpaw Formation that extends from Alberta to Saskatchewan in Canada and south to Montana in the USA.

The best grade of gem quality ammolite is along high energy river systems on the eastern slopes of the Rockies in southern Alberta. Most commercial mining operations have been conducted along the banks of the St. Mary River, in an area south of and between the town of Magrath and the city of Lethbridge.

The ammolite deposits in Canada

The ammolite deposits in Canada are located in the Bearpaw Formation, which extends from Alberta to Saskatchewan and into Montana. However, commercial extraction of the ammolite gemstone only occurs in Alberta, due to the superior grade of gem found in this region. 

The Bearpaw Formation was once part of the Western Interior Seaway, a shallow sea that covered much of western North America during the Cretaceous period. Ammolite is formed from the fossilized shells of ammonites, a type of cephalopod that lived in this sea.

The ammolite deposits in Alberta are found in a narrow band along the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains. The most important deposit is located near the town of Lethbridge. This deposit is known as the K Zone, and it is the only known source of gem-quality ammolite in the world.

The shallowest of these layers, named the "K Zone", lies some 15 meters below the surface and extends 30 meters down. The ammolite within this layer is covered by siderite concretions and is usually cracked—this is the crush material. It is the most common and (generally speaking) the least valuable of ammolite. Beginning twenty meters below the crush material is the "Blue Zone"; ammolite from this zone, which extends 65 meters, is usually compressed with a thin layer of pyrite rather than siderite concretions. This is the sheet material; due to its depth it is rarely mined. It is also much less fractured, and therefore the more valuable type of ammolite.

Canadian ammonites are rare. The Canadian government considers them part of the “National Treasures of Canada”. For this reason, all ammonites must be inspected and registered by the Alberta provincial government. Each ammonite then receives a number and is entered in the provincial database. A cultural property export permit, with the name and address of the buyer, is required before any Canadian ammonite is allowed to leave the country.


Natural Ammolite from Alberta, Canada.
Natural Ammolite from Alberta, Canada.

Ammolite Characteristics

Ammolite Colors

Gemstone ammonite can be found in any color known in nature or the imagination of man. It can also have an infinite array of color combinations in every square centimeter. The higher grades will either have a very strong, bright single color, or contain a range of bright colors drawn from a color spectrum vaster than a rainbow. Lower grade gemstones will show less vibrant colors in a more limited range. Generally, red/green is more common than blue or purple, but there are certain hues, like crimson, violet and gold, that are very rare and in high demand.

Ammolite Iridescence 

Iridescence is the property that creates the incredible colors across the surface of ammolites. The surface of gem-quality fossil shells is composed of closely-packed, tabular crystals of aragonite, with their c-axis oriented vertical to the shell surface.

Ammolite Chromatic Shift

The color of ammolite depends on the angle of light and the viewer’s perspective. Sometimes, a chromatic shift occurs. (Sometimes this is subtle; sometimes this is spectacularly dramatic). Red will shift to green, green will shift to blue, etc. This shift is called dichromatic.

Ammolite Rotational Range

Some material won’t show strong, vibrant colors through 360° of rotation. When these stones are rotated, the brightness decreases and darkens to black.

Ammolite Enhancements

Gems are sometimes treated with lacquer or Opticon fracture sealer for stabilization.

Ammolites can show striking patterns of healed fractures and colors. These have various descriptive names, such as:

  • Stained Glass: window panes
  • Dragonskin: scales
  • Cobblestone: regular, uneven rows
  • Floral: flower petals
  • Ribbon: long thin patterns
  • Feather: tendrils
  • Tin Foil: bright crinkle stack pattern
  • Paintbrush: broad strokes
  • Moonglow: inner glow, mono or dichromatic
  • Pinfire: small plates of changing flash
  • Sunset: red tinged landscape scenes
  • Lava River: green with red rivers of lava
  • Christmas Tree: green with red ornaments or freckles
  • Suture Gem: suture or leaf pattern
  • Nipplites: three dimensional rainbow eye or tubercle
  • Ripple: regular spaced rainbow striations or ribs
  • Banding: distinct color bands
  • Stain: spreading color changes
  • Lava Lamp: color globules
  • Terrain: aerial map
      Ammolite: Gemstone with a Spectacular Flash of Iridescent Colors!
      Patterns found in Blue Zone ammolites of the Bearpaw Formation
      A Gemstone with a Spectacular Flash of Iridescent Colors!
      Patterns found in K Zone ammolites of the Bearpaw Formation

      A Gemstone with a Spectacular Flash of Iridescent Colors!
      A Gemstone with a Spectacular Flash of Iridescent Colors!
      The ring credit:

      Ammolite Grading

      The ammolite industry has yet to agree on any one grading system, however most systems refer to color, brightness, play of color, etc. We use the following chart:

      Ammolite iridescent

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