Montana Sapphire Mining Guide
Although sapphires can be found throughout Montana today, the majority of the finds can be attributed to four major locales: Yogo Gulch, Rock Creek, Dry Cottonwood Creek, and the gravel bars along the Missouri River northeast of Helena.
Montana Territories Sapphire Mining
Sapphire production in Montana was, at least initially, a byproduct of the gold rushes of the 1860s. Early prospectors searching for gold in the gravel of the Missouri River repeatedly discarded the annoying blue pebbles that continually clogged their sluices without much thought to what they may be.
The discovery that these stones had value is attributed to Ed “Sapphire” Collins who forwarded samples of these pebbles to Tiffany & Co. in 1895. When Tiffany purchased the lot for $3,750 (approximately $110,300 as of 2018) and declared that the stones were “sapphires of unusual quality,” a small-scale sapphire rush began.
A year later, a part-time prospector and sheep farmer, John Ettien, discovered the source of the sapphires – an igneous dike about five miles in length. The “ cornflower blues ” of Yogo Gulch attracted considerable attention and funding from both domestic and foreign mining companies.
Gold prospectors quickly learned that turning their operations to sapphire mining was proving more lucrative than gold. Stakes claimed along the 5-mile vein of the Yogo dike exchanged hands many times until 1899 when a trio of British businessmen purchased what had been coined the New Mine Sapphire Syndicate for $100,000 (approximately $2.9 million as of 2018).
The operation became unofficially known as “The English Mine,” and was flourishing for some thirty years until massive flooding in the 1920s damaged the mines so greatly that they never fully recovered.
With British ownership of the mine, Yogo sapphires made their way to Europe and into some royal pieces of jewelry. Many examples can be found among the British Crown Jewels. The Smithsonian Institution also holds many fine examples of jewelry featuring Yogo sapphires, one such famous piece being the Conchita Sapphire Butterfly.
The Missouri River, Rock Creek, and Dry Cottonwood Creek deposits are associated with high yields of high-clarity fancy sapphires , with colors ranging from light pinks, purples, oranges, yellows, and greens, to pale blues. These sapphires are extremely unique in that they are free of cavities and inclusions and feature high uniform clarity and even coloring.
Untreated Yogo sapphires are famous for their excellent blue color and exceptional clarity; and many believe their natural qualities surpass heat-treated stones from all over the world. However, their primary drawback is their small size. Cut gems from Yogo Gulch are very rarely more than one carat in size.
Insider View from the President of The Natural Sapphire Company:
Montana sapphires have really really grown on me over the years. When I entered the gem trade in the mid 1990s, my father and grandfather had never worked with Montana sapphires. In early 2000s when we first started selling direct to consumers online, we had some small miners contact us from Montana who sent in some samples for us to cut.
Honestly the first few years of trying to cut rough crystals from Montana I wasn’t very impressed. The stones were all light in color, had a lot of color zoning, and generally were much more expensive since mining costs in the United States are quite high.
Fast forward 20 years and we’ve made some amazing partnerships with miners who have hit some great pockets of super clean, fantastically beautiful, natural, untreated sapphires from the Missouri River. I am now a huge fan of these ultra rare gemstones.
These sapphires are mined without worry or issue in environmental, labor, or mining safety. We’re incredibly lucky to have the collection in our inventory, it’s an honor to host these stones in our safe here in New York and place so many of them with men and women in the US Military who often choose to buy these Made-In-America gemstones.
Just as many Montana sapphires have been placed into noteworthy pieces of jewelry, the world features countless famous sapphires and famous sapphire jewelry that we explore next in Famous Sapphires.