Romancing the Source: Montana Sapphires

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Montana Sapphires
Big sky, mountains, rivers, forests, deer, and sapphires. Join the GIA field team on a speedboat ride, visit sapphire mines, see sapphires pulled straight out of the jig, witness the science of heat treatment, and feel the passion of the miners and their customers. 

Montana’s rich history of gold and sapphire goes back to the late 1800s. A GIA field team traveled to the Rock Creek and Missouri River areas, where sapphire mining is still underway, to document the current industry and collect rough sapphire samples for our research reference sample collection. During our time in Montana we visited three mining operations, each with its own business model and its own exciting story. They all shared some common traits, however: amazing natural beauty and a passion for both the area and sapphires.

Miner with rough sapphire
After a hard day of mining, Mike Cumley pulls a pastel green Montana sapphire right out of the jig—the first time it has been seen by anyone. Photo by Andrew Lucas/GIA, courtesy Spokane Bar Mine.

Join us on this adventure and learn about the legacy of North American gemstones as we travel by speedboat with a mine owner down the Missouri River, witnessing historical mining sites and current operations. Then visit their mine (Spokane Bar Mine) with us, where we document the entire mining process, and feel the thrill at the end of the day when we pull rough sapphires right out of the jig. The Spokane Bar Mine usually mines for tourists, but on this day we had the entire mine to ourselves to collect samples for the GIA reference collection.

Come to Gem Mountain and see passionate tourists wash and sort sapphire-bearing gravel to find rough sapphire treasure. Witness the rarely seen world of sapphire heat treatment as Chris Cooney demonstrates the art and science of heating Montana sapphires for the excited customers who have just found them. Join us at a new, well-funded commercial venture looking to start a new golden age of Montana sapphire production, with plans to market the rough to discerning jewelers and recreate the brand name of Rock Creek Montana sapphires.

Come with us to Big Sky Country, where the land’s natural beauty is matched only by the beautiful sapphires it provides. 

Dr. Tao Hsu is technical editor of Gems & Gemology. Andrew Lucas is manager of field gemology for education, Shane McClure is global director of colored stone services, and Kevin Schumacher is the digital resources specialist at GIA Carlsbad.

The authors would like to thank Robert Kane, CEO of Fine Gems International, for facilitating our visit to the sapphire mines of Montana; Keith Barron of Potentate Mining; Warren Boyd of Potentate Mining; Chris Cooney of Gem Mountain; and Cass Thompson of Spokane Bar Sapphire Mine.