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Mining Montana Sapphires: Rock Creek

I source all of my Montana sapphires directly from the mine owners, so I have full confidence in the gems I offer.  The largest active mine in Montana is located in the Sapphire Mountains, in what is referred to as the “Rock Creek deposit,” located just west of Philipsburg, Montana.  The area is wild and beautiful.

The famed “Meadow” along Rock Creek, where a great deal of mining took place in the early 1900’s. Old mining and ranching shacks can still be seen in the meadowlands.

 

This is a famous deposit, mined since the early 1900’s.  Early mining was very destructive, using jets of high pressure water to wash the sapphires and gold out of ground, and leaving behind silt in the streams and large piles of boulders devoid of soil.

A photo of early hydraulic mining in the Rock Creek region, taken sometime around 1900.

While the forest eventually grew back, most of it was clear-cut in the last few decades, leaving very few trees.  This large area of clear-cut land was acquired by Potentate Mining in 2014 and they are now mining these areas.

New mining work being done in the Sapphire Mountains on land that was recently clear cut for timber. The land will be restored after mining and planted with native forbs, grasses and trees.

In the previous photo you can see all of the slash (waste branches, etc.) left behind by the loggers.  While the mining work may look disruptive, it actually disturbs less total land area than a typical farm, and the area mined is restored to natural condition in just one or two years.  The heavy equipment removes the topsoil and then grades away several feet of loose rock and soil in the sapphire-bearing layers.  These are trucked to a nearby classifying plant.

Here the geologist’s hand is on the rich sapphire-bearing layer of rock and soil.

At the classifying plant the material is run through a piece of equipment that sorts it by size.  Most of the sapphires are in the smallest size fractions of the sorted material.  Below you can see the plant: On the left-hand side is the tiny gravels, full of sapphires, but too small to be commercially viable.  The large rocks are almost totally devoid of sapphires, as most sapphires here are smaller than 1/2″ in diameter.  The pile of mid-sized gravel on the right will be trucked to a more distant washing and processing facility to extract the sapphires.

The classifying plant for sorting the gem-bearing gravels.

That mid-sized gravel is brought to a location with an adequate supply of water, where it is first loaded into this plant, which separates out much of the clay, sand and lighter gravel and sends them up and out the shoot on the lower right, with the ladder leaning against it. The sapphires, gold and some of the remaining gravel is now sent as a slurry through the white pipe for further processing.

This is the first processing plant, to remove clay, sand and some of the fine gravels.

The next stage is a vibrating jig that separates out the heavy gold and sapphires and removes nearly all of the remaining gravel and sand/clay. The water used is sent out the shoot, first going into a sand screw–the big red double screw you see. The sand screw removes all but the finest suspended silt in the water. The silty water is then sent through the white pipes seen in the background to a water clarifier that removes all of the suspended solids and clay then on to a series of settling ponds, where most of the now clear water is recycled back into the processing operation.

The back end of the vibrating jig, showing the waste water and gravel, and the sand screw.

This image shows the top of the vibrating jig being cleaned out. The black “pebbles” you see are actually steel shot used to help with the separation of the lighter gravels from the heavier sapphires and gold. Each operating day, the larger gravel is scraped away and the ribs of the jig are carefully examined to look for those rare large sapphires. The lower portions are then completely cleaned out using a strong shop vacuum for careful processing indoors to remove the last bits of gravel and heavy non-gem material.

The top of the vibrating jig being cleaned out so the sapphire-bearing concentrate can go through the final processing.

The material removed from the jig is loaded into this screening apparatus where it will be cleaned and separated further until just the sapphires remain.  There are nesting screens that also roughly sort and classify the sapphires by size fraction.

Gem concentrates from the vibrating jig are loaded into this piece of equipment for a final sorting and washing.

The steel shot mentioned earlier is now removed from the sapphires using large rare-earth magnets.  This will also remove some of the garnets and hematite nodules present in the gem concentrates. The larger remaining pieces of gravel are then removed by hand.

Steel shot removal from the gem concentrates using a rare-earth magnet.

Finally all that remains is concentrate of sapphires and some other materials such as barite, garnet, an occasional topaz pebble and some heavier gravel pieces that have survived.  These are mostly hand-picked out on a light box like the one pictured.  Low-grade sapphires that are heavily included or completely opaque are also removed at this point.

Sorting and final classifying of gem concentrate on a light box.

Here’s a close up view of a selection of some of the largest stones, showing the range of colors and sizes found.

Rough unheated Rock Creek Montana Sapphires

I’m ending this blog post with a shot of land that has been reclaimed after mining. Everything on the left was mined and replanted with native grasses and forbs, as well as tree seedlings so the forest will regrow. The soil area in the center is a new test trench on the edge to see if the sapphire-bearing gravels extend further at this spot. As you can see, its now in much better condition than it had been left by the timber company and in a few more years it will be almost impossible to tell that the land was ever disturbed.

Reclaimed and rehabilitated land one year after mining.

I want to thank Potentate Mining LLC for providing the bulk of these photos of their operation, and for rejuvenating sapphire mining the Rock Creek region.

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The Importance of Chain of Custody

In a recent post about ethical sourcing I touched on the concept of chain of custody, and I’d like to expand on that here.  I’ll start by explaining the idea behind chain of custody: quite simply, its the knowledge of every set of hands a gem has passed through between the moment it is dug from the ground and when it ends up in the hands of the final owner.  Complete knowledge of the chain of custody is the only way to ensure that the gem you buy meets your personal requirements for ethical sourcing and treatment status.

A fresh batch of sapphires and garnets just after being removed from the jig at the El Dorado Bar on the Missouri River near Helena, Montana.
A fresh batch of sapphires and garnets just after being removed from the jig at the El Dorado Bar on the Missouri River near Helena, Montana.

I often see people in the gem industry refer to “trusted” suppliers, and indeed we all rely on them for obtaining gem material from locations that we cannot travel to (and some gem dealers don’t ever travel to the mines). However, even trusted suppliers can be fooled.  Material is often brought from other locations to the latest “hot” find to meet demand from buyers; without being present when the material is mined, it can be hard to be sure that the material is truly local.  How does one avoid these problems and truly know where the gem material comes from the conditions under which it was extracted from the earth?

Its not possible to mine everything I would cut myself–or even travel to all of the mines where the material comes from–so ensuring that I know the full chain of custody is an important task.  I address chain of custody in a variety of ways.  I try to do some of my own mining whenever possible, whether that be in southern California in an underground pegmatite or in Montana on an alluvial sapphire deposit.  That said, my time to work at a mine is limited, as I need time to cut the gems and run my business–photographing gems and publishing them online is time consuming, and so is the required time marketing them.  I spend many hours a week answering questions from potential buyers, posting photos and information online and talking to people on the phone.  On top of all of that work, weather in the northern hemisphere limits the time that can be spent mining–in Montana the weather is only suitable for sapphire mining for roughly half of the year.

Jeff Mining
In this photo I’m working to carefully dig out a gem-bearing pocket in a pegmatite in the Oceanview Mine in Pala, California. This pocket contained a small amount of gem-grade morganite–and a lot of sticky mud.

To help me address the chain of custody, I work very diligently to make connections with individual mine owners and miners, many of whom work for a cut of the finds, which they then sell.  I’ve also invested both time and money in mines in places as far off as east Africa.  These relationships I have with those who actually mine the stones allows me to have confidence in the gem rough I purchase.  It also helps guarantee that the miners are getting the best price for their gems, as it eliminates middle men who would need to take their own cut. That said, there are so many different gems found in so many different parts of the world that I still must rely on brokers who can travel to these remote destinations.  Similar to how I carefully choose the mines and miners I work with, I also carefully select the brokers I chose to work with.

I track where all of my gem rough comes from, so if you’re looking for a particular gem and you want to know the full chain of custody, email or call me and we can discuss it.  If its a Montana sapphire or California tourmaline, then I’ve almost undoubtedly purchased it directly from the miner or mine owner.  Some of my material from Australia, Brazil and Africa also comes directly from the mine owners.  With those gems I can confidently tell you about the conditions in which they were mined in terms of environmental sustainability and working conditions for the miners.   With my other rough, I can tell you what I know via my suppliers.  No matter where my rough comes from, I work to make sure its not from locations where the environment is being destructively exploited or where the gems pass through the hands of those who use the profits for funding conflict. I make sure that whenever possible the original miners are independent claim workers and not exploited labor.  If I can’t ensure this, then I don’t buy it, its that simple.

Jeff Hapeman, Earth’s Treasury

 

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Ethical Sourcing: What does it mean?

Small-scale hand mining for sapphires on the Mambilla Plateau, Nigeria. Photo courtesy of Brume Jeroh
Small-scale hand mining for sapphires on the Mambilla Plateau, Nigeria. Photo courtesy of Brume Jeroh

In the image above we see people working under what looks like very difficult conditions, and indeed they are.  In the foreground we see men and women working with hand tools to turn over fresh soil, hunting for gem gravels containing precious deep blue sapphires–worth many thousands of dollars per carat when they are finished into gemstones.  Behind them are other people washing the gravel in open pits of muddy water to hopefully expose a few prized gems–but probably not.  Further in the distance is a shanty town that has rapidly sprouted at this site.  The immediate reaction of many people in the “developed” world is shock and concern–understandably so.  Are these people happy and healthy?  Are they doing this of their own free will?  We’ve been sold a message by some that these people are being exploited, and that the ethical thing to do is to not buy these stones.  But is that true?

Like most things in life the story is far more complicated.  Most of the messaging around this topic has been around diamonds.  The well known movie “Blood Diamond” was instrumental in spreading this message to the public.  The problem is that its Hollywood, not reality. Yes, there has been and continues to be trade in precious commodities to fuel the wars that still plague the African continent and that includes diamonds and even some colored stones.  But that is the exception to the norm.  In most cases precious gems are hand-mined by small-scale artisanal miners who do this by choice and the work they do and the monies they receive do not support conflict–it supports families.  Mining offers these people an opportunity to make money to supplement their income and the potential to escape the poverty many of them were born into.  Blindly deciding to not purchase gems from some portions of the world denies these people one of the few opportunities they have to achieve some level of financial success beyond bare subsistence.

A miner works at excavating sapphire-bearing gravels on the Mambilla Plateau, Nigeria. Photo courtesy of Brume Jeroh
A miner works at excavating sapphire-bearing gravels on the Mambilla Plateau, Nigeria.

The gentleman who took this photo and the one at the beginning of this article is a gem rough dealer from Nigeria, and I also consider him a friend.  He was born and raised there, and knows many of the miners around his country.  He can tell you first hand that most–if not all–of those who mine these gems do so because they want to.  They love what they do, even if it is dirty and hard work.  Often the miners work deposits like this during the “off season” from farming, when they would otherwise be unemployed.  The advent of the Internet and broad access to it via mobile phones means that these miners know the market for their gems and have a broader reach for their product.  The prices they realize are substantial, and a good find can literally transform someone’s life.  That lure is a strong one–here in the United States that same lure led to the massive Gold Rush in California in the mid 1800’s, and later rushes for gold in Alaska and the Klondike of Canada right up until the early 1900’s.  Similar rushes for resources occurred throughout the 1900’s for oil and even recently for gas.  Its human nature to seek opportunities to achieve more wealth and hopefully security for ourselves and our families.  But an even more powerful draw for many who mine is the sheer joy of discovery of a piece of natural beauty.  If you’ve never held in your hand a gem or some gold that you yourself dug, you can’t understand the euphoric rush it provides–but those who mine these gems do!

Here I'm digging at a pocket exposed while we were expanding an access road on Chief Mountain in Pala, California. I'm on the far left, followed by my friend Jordan Wilkins and then the mine owner, Jeff Swanger. Its hard dirty work, mostly done by hand once the gems are exposed.
Here I’m digging at a pocket exposed while we were expanding an access road on Chief Mountain in Pala, California. I’m on the far left, followed by my friend Jordan Wilkins and then the mine owner, Jeff Swanger. Its hard dirty work, mostly done by hand once the gems are exposed.

Mining for gems is hard, dirty work no matter where its done–even here in the US.  I’ve worked in hard rock mines in southern California and at alluvial gravel mines in Montana.  The men and women who do this work here love it just like most miners around the world.  In the photo above I’m on the far left with my friend and fellow gem cutter Jordan Wilkins next to me; further down you see mine owner Jeff Swanger shoveling away dirt to expose a gem pocket.  While there is a Bobcat in the scene, note that we are working by hand.  Gems are fragile and valuable–when you are working to extract them, its safest and best done by hand.  While we have the luxury of access to better safety training and equipment in the US, its still a dangerous job.  I have scars to prove that, and for several years I carried a piece of broken rock embedded in my knee to prove the point–until it finally worked its way out.  While I don’t mine on a daily basis to support my family there are many small-scale miners in the US who do, just like there are where ever gems can be found in this world.

This brings me to the question that I used to title this article: Ethical Sourcing, what does it mean? The answer to that is complicated, like most things in life.  What are your ethical concerns when acquiring a gem?  Are you worried about funding conflict?  Are you concerned about environmental degradation?  Are you looking to make sure that your purchase financially supports those of lesser means?  All of these can be part of one person’s ethical criteria used when selecting a gem.  To be able to effectively answer this question requires that you know the full chain of custody of the gemstone.

Cut Arm
I’ve shed my own bled to find gemstones–its hard, dirty and often dangerous work. Here you can see where a sharp piece of broken quartz sliced open my arm while I was digging out after blasting. It was easily patched up, but I carry a reminder of that day in the form of a scar.

Chain of custody is trail back from you, the purchaser of the gem, all the way back to the person or persons who mined the gem.  Knowing who has handled the gem is crucial for answering questions about the environmental conditions under which it was mined, the financial conditions of the transactions and provides valuable information on whether the gem may have been subject to any undisclosed treatments.   Whenever possible I make an effort to source all of my gem rough as close to the mine as possible. When I am unable to do so, I make sure that I work with a broker that has an impeccable reputation and ethical standards that match my own, and they must source directly from the miners.

I strive to provide gemstones that I am 100% confident have been sourced as close to the original miner as possible, and I make sure that the miner receives a fair market price for his or her goods.  In most cases I have personal relationships with the miners, particularly here in the US.  I want to see them succeed and I have provided financial support for many miners either by buying rough material when they are in need of funds–whether I need the rough at the time or not–or by making direct investments when possible.  For example, I have directly invested money in small-scale sustainable tsavorite mining in Kenya, with no requirement or guarantee of return.

Beyond the process of mining the gems, there is the process of turning them into finished gemstones.  Regrettably, many gems are still cut under “sweatshop” conditions in overseas cutting houses, mainly in Asia.  When choosing a gemstone, you must keep in mind not only the conditions under which the gem rough was mined, but also the working conditions under which the finished gemstone was created.  I personally cut a large percentage of the gems I sell, and most of the others are cut here in the United States by other artisanal gem cutters.  However, I do also have some gems cut overseas–but I have carefully vetted the business who does this work for me.  The workers there are paid well and receive excellent training.  Most of them are true artists who have worked in this trade sometimes for several generations.  I have selected my overseas vendor for the quality of their work and the way that they conduct their business and pay their employees.

In this photo you can see me examining a gemstone as I work through the process of carefully cutting and polishing each facet. Its both a craft and an art. Photo courtesy of Greg Keating
In this photo you can see me examining a gemstone as I work through the process of carefully cutting and polishing each facet. Its both a craft and an art.

When you choose to purchase a gemstone from me, you will know where it was mined and the conditions under which it was mined.  You can be confident that those who have worked hard to mine the rough gems from the earth have received a fair value for their efforts and that the gems were mined in a sustainable fashion taking into consideration the environmental impact of the mining process.  This comes at a price–I won’t be able to match prices of gems that haven’t been so thoroughly vetted in their sourcing.  The extra care required to protect the environment when mining comes at a financial cost, as does making sure the miners receive the best price for their efforts–but its something my personal ethics require, and if yours do as well, then lets talk about gems.

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Southern California Gem Mining: Part One

This photo shows Tourmaline Queen Mountain in Pala, California. The photo was taken from Chief Mountain, just to the east. You can clearly see evidence of mining activity on the mountain. On the south (left) end of the mountain, the Stewart Mine and associated roads scar the ridge. Near the more distant top of the peak (on the right), fainter road scars and an exposed mine dump mark the famous Tourmaline Queen Mine. Both of these mines would not be nearly as visible if a fire had not burned the mountain clear of most of the heavy brush in 2011.
This photo shows Tourmaline Queen Mountain in Pala, California. The photo was taken from Chief Mountain, just to the east. You can clearly see evidence of mining activity on the mountain. On the south (left) end of the mountain, the Stewart Mine and associated roads scar the ridge. Near the more distant top of the peak (on the right), fainter road scars and an exposed mine dump mark the famous Tourmaline Queen Mine. Both of these mines would not be nearly as visible if a fire had not burned the mountain clear of most of the heavy brush in 2011.

 

Introduction

This is the first installment in a multi-part series about the gemstone mines of San Diego County, California.  I had the good fortune to spend significant time in this area in the past few years, including a period of time working underground in the Oceanview Mine, currently the only mine where there is active drilling and blasting taking place.  The tourmaline mines in San Diego County have produced more tourmaline than any other location in the northern hemisphere, and at one point were the primary source of gem tourmaline in the world.  In addition to tourmaline, the mines have also produced beautiful brilliant orange spessartine,  pale blue topaz and beautiful pink morganite as well as fine lilac to purple kunzite and pink morganite–both first discovered here in the Pala Mining District.

History

Tourmaline was apparently known for millennia in San Diego County; tourmaline crystals have been found in native American burials.  

First exploration of the Pala Chief mine, ca. 1900. Left to right: M.S. McLure, Bernardo Heriart, Frank Salmons, Pedro Peiletch. H. C. Gordon, photographer. Courtesy of William Larson, unpublished photo.
First exploration of the Pala Chief mine, ca. 1900. Left to right: M.S. McLure, Bernardo Heriart, Frank Salmons, Pedro Peiletch. H. C. Gordon, photographer. Courtesy of William Larson, unpublished photo.

While tourmaline was first found in California in 1872 on Thomas Mountain in nearbyRiverside County, the most significant commercial deposit was discovered in Mesa Grande in 1898.  This became the world-famous Himalaya Mine, still one of the most prolific discoveries of gem tourmaline in the world.

Not long after that, the significant deposits of gems in the Pala Mining District were discovered, about 25 miles west near the town of Pala. Significant mines in this area were the Pala Chief, the Tourmaline Queen and Tourmaline King and the Stewart Mine.  All of these mines served a strong demand from China for pink and red tourmaline.  At the time, the dowager empress of China, Tz’u Hsi had a love of tourmaline.  Not only did she purchase huge quantities of tourmaline, but it also fed demand in the imperial court.  Carved tourmaline was extremely popular.  It has been estimated that as much as 120 tons of tourmaline was mined and shipped to China from the Himalaya Mine alone in just a few short years–1902-1910.  Not long after the dowager empress passed away in 1908, the demand for tourmaline all but disappeared and most of the mines shut down.

In addition to tourmaline, other gemstones were also mined in the area.  One of the most important of these was purple-lilac spodumene, first discovered in Pala and called “Kunzite” in honor of Tiffany’s gemologist George Frederick Kunz.  Kunzite wasn’t the only gem discovered in the area–substantial amounts of pink to peach-colored beryl were discovered, and Dr. Kunz named that variety “Morganite” in honor of his patron J. P. Morgan.  Another important local gemstone was blue topaz; San Diego jeweler John Ware first discovered significant amounts of this gem in the Aguanga area in 1913.

Recent History

By the beginning of the first world war, mining had all but ceased at most localities in San Diego County.  No significant mine activity took place until the late 1960’s, when famed Beverly Hills jeweler and gem hunter Ed Swoboda partnered up with Bill Larson to reopen the Stewart and Tourmaline Queen Mines.  After several years of work building roads and tunneling, in January 1972 and spectacular pocket of large rubellite tourmalines with deep blue caps was hit, and southern California gems suddenly gained international prominence again.  Many of the specimens found in this pocket and several adjacent pockets are in the collections of the greatest museums of the world, and private specimens–when they come available–often sell for six figures or more.  This success led to a rebirth of small-scale mining by a variety of local men, including Bob Dawson, Roland Reed, Byron Weege and others.  Bill Larson formed Pala International and operated several mines, and oversaw the reopening of the Himalaya Mine, which once again produced significant quantities of spectacular gems.  Further south in the county, the Little Three and Hercules Mines produced beautiful topaz and some of the finest spessartine garnets ever found.

The "Big Kahuna" kunzite crystal--the largest find to date from the Oceanview Mine and perhaps the largest extant US-origin kunzite crystal. This crystal measures 28 x 15.6 x 2 cm and weighs 2.2kg! Found in the Big Kahuna II zone, Baker Boulevard level, Oceanview Mine, Pala District, San Diego County, California, USA. Oceanview Mines, LLC. specimen. Photo © 2011 Mark Mauthner.
The “Big Kahuna” kunzite crystal–the largest find to date from the Oceanview Mine and perhaps the largest extant US-origin kunzite crystal. This crystal measures 28 x 15.6 x 2 cm and weighs 2.2kg! Found in the Big Kahuna II zone, Baker Boulevard level, Oceanview Mine, Pala District, San Diego County, California, USA. Oceanview Mines, LLC. specimen. Photo © 2011 Mark Mauthner.

The most recent mine to operate in the region is the Oceanview Mine.  Work started on this mine on Chief Mountain in Pala around the year 2000, but began in earnest a few years later.  After significant tunneling with only minor finds, on September 22, 2007 a significant pocket was discovered.  Named the 49’er pocket since it was discovered on mine owner Jeff Swanger’s 49th birthday, this pocket produced a large number of beautiful aquamarine and morganite specimens on albite matrix, as well as large quantities of gem grade citrine.  This was followed by the discovery in December 2009 of the first major finds of gem-grade kunzite in California in nearly 100 years.  Throughout 2010 and into 2011 several more rich zones were hit, producing a broad variety of tourmaline, morganite and what is believed to be the largest gem kunzite ever found in North America.

Next: Gem Minerals of Southern California

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Earth’s Treasury Joins the AGTA!

I’m proud to announce that Earth’s Treasury is now an introductory member of the American Gem Trade Association (AGTA). The AGTA is the leading professional organization for dealers of colored gemstones, pearls as well as jewelers and other industry professionals. All members must annually commit in writing to the associations code of ethics–the most stringent in the industry.  Even joining the group requires a waiting period–as a new business, Earth’s Treasury had to wait a year before we could be accepted as a member, and after one year as an introductory member we will be eligible for full membership.

I believe strongly that educating my customers and being completely open about any treatments that gems may have been subjected to is always fully disclosed–although as those who follow my work know, I generally only work with completely natural gemstones.

You can learn more about the AGTA at: http://www.agta.orgAGTA

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Photographing Gems and Jewelry

This image highlights the diversity of colors to be found in Oregon sunstone.  Rough gem material from the Sunstone Butte and Double Eagle 16 mines is paired with cut stones from both mines and ring made from a green and orange sunstone.
This image highlights the diversity of colors to be found in Oregon sunstone. Rough gem material from the Sunstone Butte and Double Eagle 16 mines is paired with cut stones from both mines and ring made from a green and orange sunstone.

 

Introduction: Photographing Gems and Jewelry

I thought I’d write a post about photographing gems and jewelry, since getting excellent photos of both is crucial for my business–and takes a significant amount of my time.  It’s also a topic I frequently see discussed online.  No matter what anyone tells you, getting good photos of gems is not easy–the camera does not “see” things the way our eye does.  In addition, it reacts differently to lighting than our eyes and brain do, and since color is so crucial in gemstones, this is a very important problem to recognize and deal with.  I’ll cover the basics: The camera, lighting, composition and post-processing.

The Camera

Contrary to popular belief, great photos are not the result of an expensive or “professional” camera.  While its true that a better camera can be used to produce better results, the real work behind a great photo requires knowledge of how to use the camera, how to light the subject, how to compose the photo and much more.  That said, starting with the right camera makes a big difference.  Any camera you use should have several important features:

  • Macro capabilities: With few exceptions gems and jewelry are relatively small.  To get a good photo, you need to be able to get a magnified image–for that you’ll need either a special macro lens or a camera that has macro capabilities.
  • Manual focus capability: Even the best autofocus system will struggle to focus exactly on the right part of a gem or a piece of jewelry.  You need to be able to override the autofocus to precisely set the focal plane where you want it to be.
  • Manual exposure control: Gems and jewelry reflect light–it’s what makes them so sparkly and attractive!  It also means that you need to deal with a wide range of light in the image.  Being able to manually control the exposure allows you to prevent blown-out highlights in the photo–bright areas that overwhelm the capabilities of the camera sensor.  It also allows you to control the depth of field–the area of the image that will be in focus–by controlling the aperture of the lens.

Ideally you should have the following features as well:

  • RAW file output: This is important to help you during the editing phase.  It will be rare that a photo will come straight out of the camera perfect; some editing of exposure levels will be required.  This is much easier with the original raw file data from the camera, and the results will be much better.
  • Mirror lock-up if the camera is an SLR: If you use an SLR camera that has a mirror, mirror lockup is important. It will prevent shake-induced blurring. In a macro image at low shutter speeds the image can actually be blurred from the slap of the mirror as it flips up and down to take the image.
  • Live View capabilities: This allows you to compose the image in real time on the camera.  This is important as it allows you to adjust the lighting and positioning of the gemstone to ensure that it looks the way you wanted it to.
  • Interchangeable lenses: The best lens to use will be a dedicated macro lens, ideally one of 100mm focal length of more.  A good macro lens will give a very sharp image with a flat field and the longer focal length gives you enough working distance to ensure the depth of field is what you want.  The longer the focal length of the lens, the greater the depth of field at any given f-stop on the lens.
  • Depth of Field Preview: This allows you to see what the final photo will look like when the aperture is set for the final image; virtually all cameras will show the preview image in the viewfinder or LCD screen with the lens wide open.  You want to see exactly what will be in or out of focus in the final image, and a depth of field preview button lets you do just that.

I personally use a Canon 5D Mark III digital SLR with either a 100mm f/2.8L  Macro IS USM lens or a 180mm f.3.5L Macro USM lens.  However, there are many other cameras that would be suitable for the task.  No matter what camera you use, a tripod is a requirement.  A tripod will allow you to keep the camera stable and lets you control the lighting and composition relative to the camera.

Lighting

Lighting is the single most crucial component of good gemstone and jewelry photography.  Lighting determines the appearance of the gem–how the facets reflect the light–and the color of the gem, via the spectrum of the lighting.  The photo below shows my lighting setup.  I use a set of daylight-balanced fluorescent lights that I got from Alzo Digital.  They are mounted on stands so I can adjust the height and angle of each light indecently.  The hoods direct the lighting and they are covered with fabric diffusers to provide a soft even light.  I shoot in my basement where I can completely control all lighting.  When I take an image, I use the Live View function on the LCD screen of my camera or tether my camera to my laptop so I can preview exactly how the final image will look.  I will spend as much time as possible moving the lights and or the gem to make sure that image looks perfect before I finally take the final exposure.

This photo shows my lighting set up for photographing gems and jewelry.
This photo shows my lighting set up for photographing gems and jewelry.

Note how I’ve got the lights and camera arranged relative to the gem.  In nearly all gem cuts the highest performance in terms of light return–and therefore brilliance–is face-on to the table of the gemstone.  That means that you want the camera positioned parallel to the table of the gemstone and the lighting to be either even with or slightly behind the camera.  While shooting straight on to the gem this way will maximize brilliance and the symmetrical appearance of the gemstone, it will also often result in the gem picking up reflections of everything in front of it, including the camera.  To minimize this effect, I position the lights in such a way that only the front of the camera lens is visible.  Another solution to this problem is to use a lightbox or light tent that has just a small opening for the camera lens; however,  I find that more cumbersome to deal with.

One difficult component of lighting to address is spectrum.  This is crucial for white balance–making sure that in the final image whites are truly white, and therefore other colors are also close approximations to what our eye will see.  To that end, I use daylight-spectrum-balanced lighting.  These lights are designed to emit light at a temperature of 5500 Kelvin, very similar to full daylight.  I use a gray card to carefully calibrate the white balance and a MacBeth Color Checker card to verify that the colors are all being represented as accurately as possible.  However, one effect that I do have to deal with is fluorescence.  Many gems are fluorescent.  Fluorescent lights use fluorescence of the coating in the light tubes to turn the UV light created inside the build to the light spectrum we see–but they also emit some UV light.  This can cause color changes or color shifts in many gems. Sometimes it won’t be apparent to the eye–only the camera will pick up the color shift. In those cases I will typically try to photograph the gem under multiple lighting scenarios–daylight, incandescent and the fluorescent lighting.  I always compare the image on my computer screen to the gem in my hand to be sure the final photo is as accurate as possible.

 Composition

I touched on this briefly under lighting, since the two are closely related.  However, lighting should be subject to the composition you choose that best displays the gem or jewelry you are photographing.  Most faceted gemstones are designed to be viewed face on, looking right at the table.  With a single loose gemstone this means that positioning the camera parallel to the table will provide the best view.  However, with multiple gemstones in a photo or with a piece of jewelry that may feature multiple gemstones, you might need to choose a view that is a compromise so that all of the gems are displayed to best effect.  Some gems are best viewed or photographed from an angle–for example opposed-bar cuts or gems with checker-cut crowns.  It will often take a little bit of experimentation to get just the right view; I suggest photographing gems like these from multiple angles to see which appears best.

Part of the composition is the background you choose.  Because I photograph all of my gems for sale on my website, I try to be very consistent with the backgrounds.  I prefer to use wood because the natural texture provides some visual interest and contrasts with the highly polished facets of the gems.  I also will often use a black lexan background.  This creates isolation of the subject, and a slight reflection to provide balance to the image.  Occasionally I substitute a white background for very pale gems.  For purely artistic compositions, objects with complementary colors can be very effective.  For example, blue, green and purple gems can look beautiful on an orange or red background.  Finally, think of the placement on the background you choose.  I often angle the gems relative to the camera or the wood grain; this creates a visual contrast that keeps the image more interesting and engaging.  Combined with judicious placement of the plane of focus, I can use this effect to lead the viewer’s eye into the picture.  The sapphire image below demonstrates this effect.

2.28-Carat Unheated Montana Sapphire

Post-Processing

The final step to photographing gems and jewelry is the post-processig of the image.  No matter how well you’ve composed your image and how good of a job you’ve done with your lighting, you will still need to do some work on the images–its the whole reason I recommend shooting the images in your cameras raw mode.  Because a well-cut gem or glittering piece of jewelry will have brilliant areas, you will have to do some adjust of either the brightness of the image highlights or the shadows–or both.  Done properly this will give the image a more natural appearance.  Even the best cameras cannot come close to capturing the dynamic range of light that our eyes can see.  I typically shoot my images to make sure that the brightest areas are not overexposed.  This means the darker areas of the image can be too dark.  By using the “Shadows” adjustment slider in Adobe Lightroom (my preferred photo management and editing software package), I can bring up the exposure of the darker areas of the image without altering the rest of the exposure.  There’s a similar tool for the highlights that allows me to pull the exposure of those areas down a little bit if I’ve overexposed them.

The only other adjustments I do in post processing are cropping and occasionally some removal of dust spots.  The key concept is to make sure the image is as accurate a representation of the object being photographed as possible.  When a customer gets a gem or a piece of jewelry from me, I want to be sure that what they receive looks as close as possible to the photo.

Other Considerations

Other things to think about when photographing gems range from the location of where you shoot to what you do to keep the shooting area clean.  One of the most persistent issues I deal with is dust and dirt on the gems I’m photographing.  To control this, I try to keep the studio area very clean.  Before shooting I wipe down all of the surfaces with a damp cloth.  I wash my hands to make sure they are free of any dirt or grease, and will typically use disposable lint-free gloves.  I dip all gems in denatured alcohol to clean them of any grease or fingerprints, then wipe them with a cloth, followed by a final wipe with a lint-free cloth.  I will use gem tweezers to place the gems on the photo surface to ensure I don’t get anything on the gem.  Some gems, like tourmaline, become statically charged when they are rubbed with a cloth.  This means that almost immediately a tourmaline will start attracting particles of dust from the air.  I keep the camera set and ready to shoot so that I can take the image as soon as possible.  When adjusting the gems and lighting, I move the base that the gem is set on so I don’t have to touch the gem.

I hope you’ve found this post helpful–good luck with your photography of gems and jewelry!  If you have any questions for me, feel free to post them below and I’ll do my best to answer all of them.

This image features a custom amethyst ring showcasing a 3.98 carat Uruguayan amethyst and 66 points of diamonds set in 14k yellow gold. It's perched on a couple of natural amethyst crystals from Nigeria ready to be sent and cut into gemstones, and next to it is a 11.18 carat Uruguayan amethyst that measures 14.4mm.
This image features a custom amethyst ring showcasing a 3.98 carat Uruguayan amethyst and 66 points of diamonds set in 14k yellow gold. It’s perched on a couple of natural amethyst crystals from Nigeria ready to be sent and cut into gemstones, and next to it is a 11.18 carat Uruguayan amethyst that measures 14.4mm.
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Grand Opening!

Welcome to Earth’s Treasury–your source for fine gemstones, jewelry and gem mineral specimens.

Earth’s Treasury was founded in 2012 as the realization of many of my passions: gems, minerals, jewelry, photography and more.  I want provide the public with a focused collection of gems and jewelry created primarily from natural stones and materials mined from the earth. While I don’t believe there’s anything inherently wrong with manufactured stones, I have a strong affinity for gems in their natural state, as they formed within the earth–hence the name Earth’s Treasury. I prefer to present these gems as faceted beautiful gemstones; however, sometimes I will prefer a natural gem crystal–particularly if its perfect in form. I particularly enjoy pairing cut gemstones with the rough crystals they are cut from, just as they are mined from the ground. While some people collect these “rough and cut” pairs, my primary goal is to educate people about where their gems come from, and how the look before they are transformed into cut gems and finished jewelry. My focus is on colored gemstones from around the world–sapphire, ruby, emerald, tourmaline, tanzanite, aquamarine, morganite, kunzite, and many more.  There is a remarkable diversity of colored gemstones–many of which are far more rare and valuable than diamonds.

I maintain a close connection with the hard-working people who mine these stones for all of us to enjoy. Too often these stones change hands so many times that the men and women who have labored so hard to find them don’t see the true rewards of their efforts. In that sense, I strive to ethically source my material–I won’t have stones or materials from nations or corporations that exploit their people and natural resources. I always make an effort to buy directly from small miners. While I do source material globally, one of my primary goals is to have a collection of gemstones, mineral specimens and jewelry that are sourced entirely here in the United States. To that end I have developed a partnership with the several gemstone mines here in the United States to help bring some of their wonderful gemstones to the market. I regularly visit some of these mines, hunting the amazing gemstones we all admire so much.

Browse my store and check back often–I’m going to be constantly adding new products.  In fact, I only managed to get about one quarter of my inventory ready for this launch, so there will regular daily additions to these pages.  I’ll also be expanding the sections on gemstone education, and posting longer blog posts here about my adventures mining gems around the US and around the world.

Thanks,

Jeff Hapeman
CEO and Founder, Earth’s Treasury

– See more at: http://www.earthstreasury.com/#sthash.tNCkVmIX.dpuf