Montana Sapphire

In this image I’ve arranged a mix of rough and cut sapphire from the El Dorado Bar on the Missouri River in Montana. Sapphires found in this deposit exhibit a wide array of mostly pastel colors of low saturation, but they typically have high clarity. All of the sapphires in this image are unheated and the sizes range from just under one carat to 19 carats.

Overview

Sapphires have been known to occur in Montana for over 150 years and have been actively mined there for more than 100 years.  However, even with all of that history they still do not have the recognition I feel they deserve.  Part of this is no doubt due to the fact that the most desirable blue sapphires are not common in the Montana deposits.  Most of the sapphires from Montana are a pale green to blue-green when they are mined, with very limited numbers of deep blues and other fancy colors such as yellow, orange, violet and pink.  While some of the Montana sapphires can be heated to produce more desirable shades of blue, many cannot due to the chemistry of the sapphires.  However, the growing popularity of colored gemstones in general and American gemstones in particular have helped raise the profile of these gorgeous gems in recent years.  This has been helped by a growing appreciation for natural unheated gems and the wide variety of colors they come in before being altered by humans.

This suite of fine sapphires were all faceted by me from a single large gem found on July 4, 2014 by Blaze Wharton at his mine on the El Dorado Bar on the Missouri River, outside Helena Montana. The large deep blue weighs 3.22 carats; the three smaller stones are a custom radiant rectangle of 0.95 carats, a custom teardrop/pear of 0.45 carats and a trillion of 0.24 carats. The differing colors are the result of how the pieces were oriented before cutting, with the deepest blue being oriented on the c-axis of the original sapphire crystal.
This suite of fine sapphires were all faceted by me from a single large gem found on July 4, 2014 by Blaze Wharton at his mine on the El Dorado Bar on the Missouri River, outside Helena Montana. The large deep blue weighs 3.22 carats; the three smaller stones are a custom radiant rectangle of 0.95 carats, a custom teardrop/pear of 0.45 carats and a trillion of 0.24 carats. The differing colors are the result of how the pieces were oriented before cutting, with the deepest blue being oriented on the c-axis of the original sapphire crystal.

Named Species/Varieties

There are no named varieties or species of Montana sapphire.  There are rare star sapphires found in the Montana deposits, and the sapphires from Yogo Gulch are so famous that they are often referred to as “Yogo Sapphires.”

Where are sapphires found in Montana?

Montana is the only state in the United States with any significant production of gem-quality sapphires.  There are four localities where sapphires are found in Montana, and only one of them is a primary deposit–the others are all alluvial deposits.  The primary deposit is at Yogo Gulch, where extremely fine blue sapphires were first found when gold miners had blue pebbles turn up in their sluice boxes in the late 1860’s.  It wasn’t until 1894, however, that they are recognized as valuable, when a sample was sent to George Kunz at Tiffany’s in New York.  What made these sapphires so remarkable was their intense blue and violet colors and extremely high clarity. The original lamprophyre lava dike that was the source of the sapphires was located and subsequently mined from 1899 through roughly 1920, but production was low and the stones primarily small.  Since that time there have been intermittent efforts at mining the Yogo sapphires, but larger supplies of sapphires from Sri Lanka, Thailand and elsewhere have made significant mining of these gems uneconomical–at least on a large scale.

This is a large Yogo sapphire; most are less than one carat in size. Yogo sapphires are prized for their rich blue color and high clarity.
This is a large Yogo sapphire; most are less than one carat in size. Yogo sapphires are prized for their rich blue color and high clarity.

In the 1890’s several other deposits of sapphires were located in Montana, all alluvial and all located while miners were looking for gold placers.  The largest and most significant deposit is located in the aptly named Sapphire Mountains west of Butte in the upper Rock Creek drainage.  These sapphires are abundant, but tend to be very small, averaging just over one carat in the rough.  While they have high clarity, their high iron content means that most are a light green color and not the desirable blues.  However, natural yellows, oranges, pinks and the occasional blues are found in this deposit.  The Rock Creek deposit was mined from 1906 through 1943 for industrial uses such as abrasives and the jewels used in watch making.  With the advent of inexpensive synthetic sapphire, this mining became uneconomical.

With the development of modern heat treatment technologies in the 1970’s and 1980’s there was renewed interest in this deposit as the gems can be heated to a wide array of fancy colors, and under reducing conditions many turn a beautiful deep blue color.  While the small size of most of the sapphires here has been a barrier in the past to economical mining, a new company has recently acquired a large amount of land in the area and is now producing sapphire that will be sold to the market soon.  They have found non-alluvial deposits on the previously unmined slopes and their marketing information indicates that there are more larger sapphires in these deposits than in the strictly alluvial deposits mined to date.  It will be interesting to see how successful this venture is in coming years (see the link below for Potentate Mining, LLC).  The famous Gem Mountain fee dig has drawn many to the area for decades; for a small fee you can screen for sapphires from gravel mined from the Anaconda bench.

Natural unheated/untreated Montana sapphires from the Rock Creek deposit near Philipsburg, Montana.  All stones were faceted by Jeff Hapeman of Earth's Treasury. Front Row, L to R: 0.49 carats, 0.57 carats, 0.97 carats, 1.30 carats Middle Row, L to R: 1.50 carats, 1.52 carats, 1.58 carats, 1.69 carats, 1.76 carats Back Row, L to R: 2.40 carats, 1.83 carats, 4.19 carats, 1.99 carats, 2.00 carats
Natural unheated/untreated Montana sapphires from the Rock Creek deposit near Philipsburg, Montana. All stones were faceted by Jeff Hapeman of Earth’s Treasury.
Front Row, L to R: 0.49 carats, 0.57 carats, 0.97 carats, 1.30 carats
Middle Row, L to R: 1.50 carats, 1.52 carats, 1.58 carats, 1.69 carats, 1.76 carats
Back Row, L to R: 2.40 carats, 1.83 carats, 4.19 carats, 1.99 carats, 2.00 carats

The Missouri River runs just to the northeast of Helena, Montana and is the location of several significant deposits of sapphires.  Like the Rock Creek deposit, sapphires were found here during the search for gold.  Ancient alluvial bars were mined with dredges around the turn of the century, primarily for gold although some sapphires were captured and retained.  The two primary locality are the El Dorado Bar and the Spokane Bar.  These sapphires tend to be larger than those found at Rock Creek or Yogo Gulch, and typically have very high clarity.  The colors tend to be somewhat pale or pastel in nature and the blue sapphires that are found tend to have a greenish hue to them.  That said, this color has now become associated with Montana sapphire and many (myself included) find the range of pastel hues to be beautiful and therefore highly desirable.  Today these deposits are worked by a number of small-scale hobbyist and artisanal miners.

This is a small selection of typical sapphire mined from the El Dorado Bar along the Missouri River near Helena, Montana. The largest is the blue stone that the ring is resting on; it weighed 10 carats and yielded a 3.63-carat gem. The rough in the photo totals 64 carats. The gem in the ring weighs 1.53 carats; in front the left stone is a custom keystone shape weighing 2.40 carats and on the right a rectangular princess cut teal sapphire weighing 1.73 carats. All of the stones are natural and untreated in any way.
This is a small selection of typical sapphire mined from the El Dorado Bar along the Missouri River near Helena, Montana. The largest is the blue stone that the ring is resting on; it weighed 10 carats and yielded a 3.63-carat gem. The rough in the photo totals 64 carats. The gem in the ring weighs 1.53 carats; in front the left stone is a custom keystone shape weighing 2.40 carats and on the right a rectangular princess cut teal sapphire weighing 1.73 carats. All of the stones are natural and untreated in any way.

The last Montana deposit of sapphires worth noting is on Dry Cottonwood Creek, northwest of Butte.  These are also alluvial sapphires and were mined in combination with placer gold in the first decade of the 1900’s.  Like the other sapphire deposits, the colors tend to be pale.  The sapphires from Dry Cottonwood Creek tend to be larger but flat and plate-like in their crystal habit, limiting their use for faceting gems.  Very limited hobbyist mining has occurred here in the past.

Treatments

Most natural sapphire sold on a global basis has been heated to improve clarity and/or color.  Traditional heating of Montana sapphires was often not necessary to improve clarity, and the colors produced were often yellows or greens–not the most desirable of sapphire colors relative to blue.  With the discovery of the process of heating sapphire under reducing conditions, the Montana deposits were reevaluated.  While the Rock Creek sapphires respond very well to heating under reducing conditions–producing fine blues–a smaller percentage of the Missouri River and Dry Cottonwood Creek stones react in the same way.  Combined with the generally small size of the gems, this has continued to limit the economic potential of large-scale sapphire mining in Montana.

This is a small selection of heated and natural Rock Creek sapphires. The small pink on the left and the silky yellow on the right are both natural and untreated. The two blues and the green have undergone reductive heating to improve clarity and develop the intense colors.
This is a small selection of heated and natural Rock Creek sapphires. The small pink on the left and the silky yellow on the right are both natural and untreated. The two blues and the green have undergone reductive heating to improve clarity and develop the intense colors.

Use in jewelry

Sapphires make outstanding gemstones for a wide variety of uses because of their brilliance, wonderful range of colors and excellent hardness–second only to diamonds.  They are very tough as they do not have well-defined cleavage.  This means they are excellent choices for daily-wear rings such as engagement rings.  Indeed, sapphire is the default choice for an engagement ring gem in many parts of the world and is enjoying a growing resurgence here in the United States.

Buy Montana Sapphires

You can look at my current inventory of Montana sapphires by clicking here: Montana Sapphires

External Links

Heat Treating the Sapphires of Rock Creek … – GIA.edu

Gem Mountain Sapphire–Rock Creek Sapphire Fee Dig

GIA Update on Rock Creek Sapphire Summer 2015

Potentate Mining, Rock Creek Sapphire Mining

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