Mother Nature is an artist who loves to leave her marks on minerals. Sometimes, as in the case of agates and jaspers, she is a naturalist, painting landscapes of every description. Other times she is a symbolist, etching primal patterns on the surfaces of things. One of her favorite materials for symbolic designs during the past 400 million years was the ammonite, a predecessor of the modern-day chambered nautilus. Both are cephalopods, a marine phylum that includes the squid and octopus.
In recent years, ammonites have become probably the most popular fossil gem with silversmiths, jewelry artisans, and other crafts people. Writer and graphic designer Michael Green, author of The Illustrated Rumi, thinks he knows why. “The spiral shape with its expanding, logarithmic progressions, is a reminder that there is a cosmic order to things and a call to find it in our chaotic time,” he says.
Green opens his book. There he shows an enormous wave like those seen in Japanese paintings coming forth from a great emptiness (known in Buddhism as “the Void”). Each symmetrical curl of the wave looks like it has been copied from the shell of an ammonite. “Many like me believe there is an essence that precedes existence,” he continues, “and one of its symbols is the great expanding spiral. Ammonites have these spirals hand-painted, as it were, by nature herself.”
There are names for such profound, universal symbols. One of the oldest is “archetype” and one of the newest, a word Green uses frequently, is “fractal.” A fractal is a complex geometric pattern exhibiting basic repetitive elements that are the same no matter what the scale of the structure. The parts of a fractal do not have to be identical in shape or size; there just has to be enough similarity between them to classify them as the same basic type. An ammonite is fractal because it repeats the same basic chamber pattern in progressively larger sizes, always unfolding in a spiral shape. For this reason, Green calls the ammonite “a fractal gem.”
Silversmith and fossil gem devotee Amy Kahn Russell, Ridgefield, Connecticut, agrees with Green about the deep mystical appeal of the ammonite. Before she became a jewelry maker, she was a sculptor. “The very first work I did was a chambered nautilus,” she recalls. “That shape just came to me out of the depths of my imagination.”
Jeweler John Bajoras, owner of the four-store Village Silversmith chain in Rockport and Gloucester, Massachusetts, calls “ammonites the ultimate ‘New Age’ gem, proclaiming a basic unity in creation. People get goose bumps seeing that such patterns regularly occur in nature.” No wonder he keeps dozens of them in each store.
A funny thing about fractals: They have as much to do with chaos as order—and suggest much greater kinship between the two than most people suppose. That’s why computer modelers love them. One fractal named the Phoenix set (it can be viewed at the Wikipedia article on fractals) at first seems to look like an irregular-shaped island. But as it is enlarged, it appears to consist of very regular-shaped logarithmic chambered spiral patterns eerily similar to those on the ammonite shell.