I am not much of a rockhound. Truth be told, I am not very outdoors-y in general. But I can make exceptions when jewelry is involved! So when I found out there were actually sapphires in Montana, and we were only two states away….. Let’s just say I wanted to get my hands on some sapphires pretty badly!
Lucky for me, my husband is a rockhound. He was completely up for the trip and excited about bringing our kids along to help us scope out some good gems.
This is how we ended up on a family trip visiting the Sapphire Mountains of Montana. The good news is that we ended up with some very lovely sapphires that I plan to use for custom jewelry. The rest is all bad news – lots of driving, cranky children, and sorting gravel in the hot summer sun. Basically, the entire experience was not my cup of tea. But, like I said, if good jewelry is involved, I’ll go the extra mile.
But enough about me! Let me tell you why you should love Montana sapphires.
1. Montana sapphires are American
I know this probably seems obvious, but I don’t know if everyone realizes how rare it is. America doesn’t have a lot of gems that are available for jewelry. There is some turquoise from the Southwest and some tourmalines from Maine. But that’s about it. Diamonds, rubies, emeralds, opals, amethysts, tanzanite, etc…. the vast majority of them are from someplace else. There is not a lot of gemstone mining that goes on in the United States.
Montana’s official nickname is “The Treasure State” and that’s because they have gold and silver, and lots and lots of sapphires. The sapphires were originally discovered by gold miners who kept getting annoyed with all these little blue pebbles they kept finding!
Montana sapphires in the rough
Montana’s sapphires became so famous that they were declared one of the state’s official gemstones in 1969. They also named places after the sapphires. Rock Creek was named since sapphires are still mined there today. And the mountains surrounding Rock Creek were named the Sapphire Mountains.
The sapphires became an American symbol. First Ladies Florence Harding and Bess Truman were given gifts of Montana sapphires. And they’re displayed over the United States in different museum collections.
2. Tiffany made them famous
Back in 1895, a guy named Jake Hoover discovered some sapphires and sent them away to Tiffany’s in New York City to see if he could get any money for them. They made their way to George Kunz, Tiffany’s gemologist, who called them “the finest precious gemstones ever found in the United States”. Tiffany’s sent our friend Jake a check for $3,750 (over $100,000 in today’s money) along with a letter describing saying they were “sapphires of unusual quality”.
Tiffany butterfly brooch with Montana sapphires
You might not know this, but Tiffany did everything they could to popularize colored American gemstones, including Montana sapphires. They featured them in major pieces. They paired them with diamonds or moonstones. Americans love Montana sapphires because Tiffany introduced them to America.
3. Best gem quality sapphires
Another you might not realize is that most sapphires need to super-heated to bring out the best color. It’s incredibly common (over 90%). But there are some special sapphires. They’re called Yogo sapphires because they come from Yogo Gulch in Montana. Not only are they blue enough already that they don’t need to be heated, they’re clearer on the inside. The bad thing is that they tend to be small, most of them are less than a carat. Only 10% are over a carat. If you find one over 2 carats, you hit the jackpot! The largest one ever found was 19 carats.
color range of Yogo sapphires (image courtesy of GIA)
The sapphires that come from Yogo Gulch are called Yogo sapphires. If they come from elsewhere in Montana, they’re just called Montana sapphires.
Necklace & earrings set with Yogo sapphires & diamonds
Regardless of where in Montana they come from, today the state produces more gem-quality sapphires than anywhere else in North America.
4. Montana sapphires are ethical jewelry
More and more people are wanting to make an ethical choice when it comes to jewelry. And for that, you can’t beat Montana sapphires. They weren’t mined in a war zone, there was no child labor, no horrible environmental devastation, and you can trace them right back to the creek they were found in.
There’s also the “buying local” factor. It take an environmental toll, all the shipping and transportation we do to get products all around the world. By buying Montana sapphires, they have to travel less to get to you. Plus, you’re buying American. What could be better than that?
5. You can mine them yourself
If my husband and I and our kids can sort through gravel on a hot day, you can do it too! Head to the Sapphire Mountains! They’re literally in the middle of nowhere. Off the beaten path. There’s a great little town called Philipsburg, Montana. You can eat, get gas, and visit their awesome candy store on Main Street (the kids really liked that!). And then head out to Gem Mountain (that’s where we went!) and sort through more rocks that you know what to do with. To date, Montana has produced over 190 million carats of sapphires. And they estimate there’s another 28 million still in the ground.
What are you waiting for? Go get yourself some Montana sapphires!!!
This post has been edited and updated since it was originally published on May 14, 2020.