On a family expedition years ago to the Diamond Bar sapphire mine outside of Helena, Montana, I got hooked on the treasure hunt of gem mining. It wasn’t limited to experts – anyone can do it – and even a 13-year-old beginner is guaranteed to find something. The tools are water and a shovel, wieldy for anyone from a teenager to a retiree. It’s an immediate adventure, a hands-on quest that both suits and feeds the independent spirit of the explorer.
I can’t make the stones myself that compose the pieces that come out of my jewelry studio, but I can be part of the process from the earliest stage by “mining” the raw gems that my team and I will turn into works of art It is a privilege to return to Montana, one source for these stones. This summer, my partner Sarah and I did just that, mining together at the Spokane Bar and Eldorado Bar sapphire mines: hunting for stones from the same strata from which those family memories were made more than 20 years ago.
Why hunt for sapphires in Montana?
I love the remote, beautiful and wild country up there along the headwaters of the Missouri River. The soils of Montana also offer up the highest-quality sapphires in the U.S. The stones from this region come in a broad spectrum of soft pastels, from icy cornflower blue to mint to lavender – a marked difference from the dark, luminous blue color that the word “sapphire” most often brings to mind.
While the typical mining operation requires big equipment, chemicals, and destruction, these sapphire deposits lie in gravel bars near the surface, the results of river dredging decades ago. Sifting through these accumulations minimizes the impact on the environment. Large-scale commercial production doesn’t pay off in this region, so the land retains its off-the-beaten-path, pristine nature. Mining high-quality sapphires comes without the cost of destroying this gorgeous landscape.
Peeling back the layers from gravel to stone
Sarah and I began to unearth our discovery by digging the rough stones out of the dirt. I love the delayed gratification of this process: You know something beautiful lies beneath, but you must peel back the layers to uncover the treasure within.
From the resulting piles of rough gravel, we screen-sifted in two stages, the first gets rid of big rocks, and the second removes the teeny tiny particles. The resulting stones get a water bath on a third screen. Shaking the immersed stones back and forth, sapphires sink to the bottom because they are denser. You might also find garnets and hematite grouped with the sapphires because they sink as well.
Next, in an exercise brunch chefs will appreciate, we make a gem frittata. Draining the water, we then press in a chunk of thick foam and place a piece of wood on top to stabilize. Then, we flip the “sandwich” over and take the screen off. Any sapphires will be lumped together at the top, looking a bit like shards of broken glass or luminescent sea glass. Bright sun makes them a little easier to spot. Any remaining mud and dirt are cleared away in an ultrasonic cleaning bath of soapy water.
The sapphires get sorted into three piles, or grades. We keep the smallest gems in a rough state, and we will probably use them as ancillary stones in a design. We’ll polish the medium-sized stones on one side and set them raw for a gorgeous, natural feel. The largest stones are immersed in a refracting liquid so we can assess the integrity of the stone — only the strongest can stand up to faceting. Those that pass this test move forward into the grinding and polishing stage.
Finally, we give nature a little assistance with grinding and polishing. The facets are ground with a rough polishing wheel to get the basic shape, and then the stones go through six stages of polishing, using incrementally finer wheels. Each stage is applied to both the bottom and top of the stone. With this final push, the sapphires that took the Earth some [50 million years to prepare] are ready to be set in a design.
Here are some of my favorite sapphire pieces.
Sourcing materials with integrity
On this latest trip to Montana, I’m reminded of why I started my business. I recently read an article in Lapidary Journal-Jewelry Artist that discussed beliefs and practices which line up perfectly with mine. In the article, titled “Consider Your Sources” a jeweler, Luana Coonen, used the term level-one sourcing to describe an integrity in sourcing that draws a “traceable line from mine to cutter to dealer: full transparency” (McCarthy, 2018). I realized that notion strikes to the heart of my craft: I’ve always strived to be a level-one jeweler. Not only does it connect me to the materials, but it allows me to tell my clients that the “traceable line” from mine to cutter to dealer to jeweler to finished piece is not a line at all in the case of me and Montana sapphires but a single point as I am directly involved in all aspects of this supply chain.
Even if I didn’t mine a particular gem myself, I know where it came from, thanks to personal connections with suppliers, a habit of relationships that together raises the industry bar.
Ideally, I would dig all of the stones I cut myself, as in the case of these Montana sapphires. When I can’t mine the stones, it is my goal to work only with suppliers of rough who share my values. Do they strive to “do no harm” to the landscape we love so much? Do they eschew chemicals and processes that destroy in the act of uncovering?
I am passionate about being personally connected to the entire jewelry-making process, from sourcing raw materials to creating unique pieces in collaboration with my clients. My clients can be sure that what they buy from me are high-quality pieces of art that have decency, fairness, and respect at all levels of production.