Postcard Montana: Heading West to See a Sapphire Mine

EditorsAug 20, 2018

Postcard Montana: Heading West to See a Sapphire Mine

Senior Editor Brecken Branstrator recounts the gemstones she handled and the sites she took in on a recent trip to Big Sky Country.

A selection of Rock Creek sapphires fresh from the processing plant

Two weeks ago, I had the absolute pleasure of traveling to Montana for work. It was my first time anywhere near the Northwestern U.S., and I would happily go back.

Potentate Mining invited me to visit its Rock Creek sapphire mine, and I jumped at the chance, eager to take advantage of the opportunity since Montana sapphires are playing a big part in the increasing popularity of American gems.

Rock Creek sapphires come in dozens of different colors, including fancies like pinks and oranges, classic blues and the teal hues so specific to the region.

Potentate currently holds what it says is the largest sapphire-producing land package in the western hemisphere through two properties in southwestern Montana: one at Eureka Gulch, the initial site where it has mined since 2011 and now houses just its office and processing plant, and one at West Fork Rock Creek, where it has mined since 2016.

Director of Marketing Warren Boyd walked me through the mine’s processing plant at Eureka Gulch, allowing me to see the ore travel through the machines to be separated by size, cleaned and then land in the hands of employees for further processing.

He also took me to the main mining site at West Fork Rock Creek, not far from Eureka Gulch in mileage but still a bit of a drive as the roads separating the two sites wind around the Montana hills along Rock Creek.

This part of the visit was fascinating for a few reasons, the first being that a few buildings leftover from turn-of-the-century mining operations remain. I loved seeing the still-standing history of the place, evidence of its importance in the American gemstone sector.

The mining being done at West Fork Rock Creek is completely different from what I have seen before, largely because the company is surface mining there since the soil is so rich, rather than digging down to develop underground mines.

Under Montana law, Potentate is only allowed to disturb 5 acres at a time, so the company is careful as it begins mining an area to keep the topsoil nearby to help in the rehabilitation process.

Potentate will streamline processing by installing a new plant at West Fork Rock Creek so the ore doesn’t have to be trucked along those meandering mountain roads to Eureka Gulch. It should be completed and operating within the next few weeks.

So far, the mine has produced a few hundred kilograms of material in all sizes, with only a very small percentage of that cut into significant sizes.

Boyd said this summer will be a slower production season as they continue to focus on moving the processing from Eureka Gulch to the main property at West Fork Rock Creek.

Most Rock Creek sapphires are smaller in size; larger stones and those with fancy colors or saturated color are rare. According to Boyd, about 70 percent of production is in small sizes while the remaining 30 percent will produce polished sapphires ranging from about 0.75 to 10 carats. 

A rough Rock Creek sapphire crystal after acid washing and heating

Right now, Potentate plans to keep production steady while it works to build demand and find partners, Boyd told me.

He said it’s important for the company to build a strong base inventory so it can attract the major merchandisers, which want the assurance of a consistent supply so consumer demand can be met.

The mine operators also are working to develop a brand, focusing on the mine’s ability to produce some of the country’s finest gem-quality sapphires as well as their responsible sourcing and environmental responsibility. This includes not only the rehabilitation efforts but also the fact that, according to Potentate officials, there is no chemical pollution at the site.

They already have found a few key partners to work with, including Americut Gems, which offers the “All-American Sapphire”—mined, cut and polished in the United States.

Potentate’s operators also work with gemstone cutter Jeff Hapeman of Earth’s Treasury, who specializes in American gemstones.

Hapeman told me the reason he loves working with Rock Creek sapphires is the same reason I think the people who know about them love them—their array of colors. He noted, though, that aspect of the stones’ broad palette can make it harder to market them, as it appears almost no two stones are exactly alike.

“I often tell people that it takes about 300 sapphires of one hue, say blue-green, before I can find a perfectly matched pair.”

When it comes to sales, Hapeman told me he purposefully markets to buyers who are looking to get away from the gemstones everyone else is buying, and while their tastes can vary pretty widely, he said the teals and aqua blues are popular, generally in the lighter to medium saturations.

A 1.65-carat Montana sapphire from Rock Creek. This stone was cut and photographed by Jeff Hapeman of Earth’s Treasury.

During my time out West, I also briefly visited Bozeman, Montana, home of The Gem Gallery, a retailer that has created a niche for itself by specializing in Montana sapphires.

Store owner Don Baide also is the new owner of the Vortex Yogo sapphire mine near Lewistown.

While I didn’t get a chance to visit that mine, I enjoyed not only getting to see The Gem Gallery’s beautiful downtown store but also getting an update from Baide’s son, Jason, and seeing some Yogos in person.

Store and mine owner Don Baide still is in the process of bringing the Vortex site into compliance before they can fully resume operations, but they seem excited to bring more Yogos—deep blue in color and loved by many—to the market and to establish trade partners to carry them and build consumer awareness.

(For more on Yogo sapphires, check out the latest issue of GIA’s Gems & Gemology, where the beautiful, deep blue stones got the cover treatment.)

All in all, there are some interesting developments in the Montana gem scene.

With the increase in mining-related activities, the growing interest in American-mined gems and the ability to trace them from mine to market, and, of course, their beauty, there seems to be a lot of upside for Montana sapphires.

I look forward to seeing how the market for the state’s gorgeous sapphires grows, and I wouldn’t say no to another trip out to the wild, amazing West either.

Because I still can’t stop thinking about how beautiful that state is, here’s a photo I took from a few personal days at Glacier National Park in Montana.

Brecken Branstratoris the senior editor, gemstones at National Jeweler, covering sourcing, pricing and other developments in the colored stone sector.

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