There’s another kind of blue besides those azure skies in Montana that take your breath away. Montana’s got rocks; blue ones. While we stagger over some astounding prices realized for sapphire at auction today, there’s another source for sapphire that’s been gaining devotees. Montana sapphire has been recovered from various deposits in the wide expanse of this western state since the late 19th century. Rock Creek near Idaho’s border is the best known sapphire producer since way back.
Early hoards of sapphire recovered there went to Switzerland’s robust watch making industry. But today, the still vigorous sapphire producing region is owned by one group (Potentate Mining LLC) with consolidated efforts to introduce the azure stone to modern gemstone lovers.
Diamond and gemstone veteran Arlan Abel promotes Montana sapphire on his business’ website, Americut Gems, to which he serves as company president. He stopped by for an exclusive chat recently to explain a little more about this richly hued stone.
While he sells this native gemstone on his website as do a few other experts, American sapphire is not really well known to retailers or consumers. “My impression is that very few stores carry it,” Arlan says, “and most stone dealers do not have any inventory.” Despite American sapphire being harvested for a century by now, its celebrity has never been optimized. “In my experience, many retailers are not aware that it exists. For this reason I assume the buying public has little awareness there is an American sapphire.”
Besides an intrinsic beauty, which a stone must have to become sought after, the story of its discovery also plays a critical role in resonating with consumers. Arlan shares his personal perspective of its draw for him. “Although you asked about its appeal other than origin,” he says, “I must say that origin is a significant factor in my interest, because American sapphire is the exception to the general rule. The United States, compared with many other places throughout the world is relatively barren of precious gemstone production.” That reality might spark a game changer for promoting this particular corundum variety. “So I find it especially interesting,” he explains “that there are no other places in the entire Western Hemisphere, except in the United States, where commercial production of sapphire is not only possible, but which could become one of the most significant countries for the production of sapphire in the world.”
But he points to other reasons besides origin that keep him keen on this homegrown jewel. “American sapphire, especially the Rock Creek variety comes in a range of colors which are difficult to match elsewhere.”
Savvy consumers today relish the rarity factor and distinct colorations of any stone they collect. With Montana sapphire, he thinks, “They should have a lot of fun selecting Rock Creek sapphire because of its diversity of vivid color.” Its full potential is revealed only after cutting, of course.
“When American sapphire is cut and polished with great precision, it can reach a very high degree of brilliance.” In fact, corundum is only eclipsed by diamond in its hardness. So good corundum expertly cut looks spectacular. According to Arlan, “Many people have confused the fancy colored variety with colored diamonds.”
But phenomenal gems are white hot now with a public craving exotic stones. So the color-change variety is highly sought after. “Rock Creek color-change sapphire exhibits greater color-change when exposed to different light sources than do similar phenomenal sapphire types from other localities. Many people know about alexandrite and how expensive a good color-change stone can be.”
Now that production in Montana is turning up this exotic variation, it should push these stones to the fore with couture designers. “Few people, including those in the jewelry trade, are aware that Rock Creek sapphires frequently exhibit color-change that is every bit as distinct and head-turning as the finest alexandrite. I say Rock Creek because not all American sapphire has this phenomenon to the same degree.”
Gemstones are produced in certain geological climates of course, under very precise conditions. This is why gemstones or diamonds don’t just pop up everywhere around the globe. Still it’s not that simple because nature provides a vast range of gemstone producing environments.
“It is complicated,” Arlan confirms, “because the various locales that produce sapphire have different geological histories. The better known Yogo sapphire variety is associated with host rock, while the Missouri river varieties are linked to alluvial sites.”
Alluvial or riverbed deposits produce crystals that have traveled quite far downstream from some distant origin until it is recovered. Their crystals may have a water worn exterior. “Rock Creek crystals are present in mud flows which suggest a different geological history. This could explain why the Rock Creek deposits are perhaps the richest in the world, sometimes yielding in excess of 100 carats of cut-able goods for every one cubic yard of material excavated.
It remains to be seen if the gemstone buying public will take to the American sapphire variety, but Arlan believes there are reasons to hope that it will. Certainly a part of its allure is a sense of national pride, something that has exploded recently as consumers look for Made in America items. Arlan offers a few more reasons to consider. “Perhaps equally important is the material itself which when cut properly can be extremely brilliant.”
As an interesting sidebar, “All of our production is done on computerized robotic machines we designed and manufactured right here in the United States. This computer-based cutting technology makes it possible for us to produce finished goods in all sizes unlike anything that has been produced in the past, with stones from 1.5mm to any size the rough allows. On our computerized machines we can calibrate melee sizes every .25mm and in large sizes up to 6mm we calibrate every .1mm.” The robotics-cut stones also face up identically making the task of matching much easier. Because the proprietary cutting machines are unlike any elsewhere until now, he does not believe that commercial quantities of sapphire melee have ever been cut in the United States before now.
Only time will reveal how much and for how long sapphire production will continue at its current pace. But ongoing testing will help answer that concern. “Rock Creek mine covers an area of approximately 3,000 acres,” he says. “Tests are ongoing, but the expectation is that sapphire underlies most of it. Sample testing is still taking place but to date the yield counts suggest that the deposit is perhaps richer than anywhere else in the world. I think GIA concluded that the deposit should satisfy demand for many generations.”
Since Arlan is recognized as a specialist cutter with unique creativity in the premium stones he cuts, we wanted to learn if he’s been developing something equally exclusive just for these sapphires. “In our 3mm+ sizes for both round and oval we have a special design diamond cut with 65 facets. The prescribed angles represent a compromise between color retention and beauty which we think works the best. We are also producing cushion cuts in the same design. We have the ability to do special custom design upon request. For round stones smaller than 3mm we do a precision hearts and arrows diamond cut.”
One thing’s for sure, this American jewel has the personality and good looks to make it a star. Both designers and collectors love a good story, and this gemstone delivers on that front too. Look for its popularity to soar as sapphire fans discover their favorite sparkler was found in their nation’s own backyard.