Tompkins Jewellers wants to put Lethbridge on the map — with bus tours of an ammolite mine
Tompkins Jewellers Ltd.
Retail jewelry sales
4 full- and three part-time
Custom design, CAD design, jewelry appraisals,and jewelry sales
50-plus, married women
Bus tours to an ammolite mine may make Lethbridge an international destination – if Lisa Corbin has her way.
Ammolite — an iridescent, rainbow-colored gemstone — represents $5 million in Asian sales annually, where it’s sought after as a symbol of prosperity in Japanese feng shui. It’s also popular with North American, European and other tourists on Mexican and Caribbean cruises.
And Southern Alberta is a hotbed for the gem. Korite International Ltd., the largest company mining the stone, exports about 20,000 pieces of ammolite jewelry annually. But, says Corbin, president of Tompkins Jewellers Ltd. — a Lethbridge jewelry store that specializes in ammolite — despite the overseas demand, many Canadians haven’t even heard of Alberta’s official gemstone.
She believes the gem will eventually turn Lethbridge into an international destination. To make this dream come true, and drive business to her store, she’s been offering tours of Korite’s ammolite mines near the city for the past six years.
The 50-person bus tours, full of mostly fossil-hunting locals and Alberta history buffs — but with some tourists from across Canada, Japan, Australia, and other countries mixed in — started well, but Corbin has so far been unable to increase demand. She’s stuck sending out only three or four tours each summer.
“The biggest challenge I am facing is a marketing problem – trying to break into the (international) tour industry,” she says.
Corbin feels Ammolite has the potential to attract the interest of major tourist operators, even if her efforts haven’t shown results yet. The stone comes from fossilized ammonite, a common spiral-shelled mollusk found all over the world. While most ammonite deposits are very thin and fragile, the unique geography in Southern Alberta makes it one of the only places on earth where a high enough quality version of the gem can be harvested and turned into jewelry.
It’s a limited and non-renewable supply, making ammolite a prime investment for collectors, explains Corbin, a certified gemologist and fellow with the Canadian Gemmological Association. Pieces start anywhere from $100 to $350, depending on their setting, pattern, and the vibrancy of the gem’s colour.
But Lethbridge isn’t so prime when it comes to tourism. Calgary, Edmonton, and the Canadian Rockies account for about 89 percent of international visits in Alberta, and 75 per cent of spending to attract tourists, according to Alberta Tourism. Nestled to the south of the Trans-Canada, Lethbridge falls off the maps of most visitors.
So, Corbin is boosting her marketing efforts by working with the Chinook Country Tourist Association, a not-for-profit tourism organization that promotes southern Alberta. She pays an annual fee to advertise the tours on its website, ExploreSouthwestAlberta.ca. The venture is only a month old, but Corbin thinks it will pay dividends.
“I have to find my target market on my own, which is costly and inefficient,” she says, adding that ammolite sales only represent about six percent of her store’s annual $800,000 revenue, but she thinks the tours, if successful, could turn it into a major growth opportunity.
The tours are a fossil enthusiast’s dream, with passengers driven through Korite’s three acre open-pit mine. They watch crews dig for fossils, examine exceptional finds, and learn about the process of creating ammolite jewelry.
At $55 a seat, Corbin needs at least 29 paying passengers just to cover fixed costs. That doesn’t leave much of a profit margin, but Corbin also averages about $3000 in sales after every tour, and once sold a large chunk of raw fossilized ammolite for $28,000 following a trip. With new pieces worth up to $58,000 in stock, she says plenty of sales potential exists, as long as she can get more people interested.
To this end, Corbin is writing letters to Alberta tourism companies, sending press releases to newspapers, advertising in tourism publications, and has given speaking engagements with Chinook’s trade marketplace to convince international tour operators from Tokyo, Japan, India, and Belgium to make Korite’s mine a destination.
The efforts have yet to pay off.
“It’s going to be difficult if it’s all about jewelry, in all honesty,” says Barbara Sutherland, regional representative for the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA). But, she adds, the journey could be enticing if tours included an overnight stay, and were packed with other attractions, such as the Lethbridge’s museum or Japanese gardens.
Corbin has considered this, and is seeking local partners to build packages. She feels ammolite simply has too much potential for the community, and her business, to give up.
“[The mine tour] is the perfect tool to make Lethbridge an international destination,” Corbin says. “If you peel back all the layers, that’s really why I want to do it.”