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How Montana Gold Rushers Literally Threw Away a Fortune in Sapphires

The Daily Beast logo The Daily Beast 1/13/2018 Levi Higgs

© Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast In the mid-19th century, the cry heard across the American West was “There’s gold in them thar hills!” In the great Treasure State of Montana, little did the prospectors know that they should have instead been proclaiming the presence of one of the highest quality (and most expensive) gemstones the world over, known today as the Montana Sapphire.

In 1866, the Little Belt Mountain Range of Montana—specifically the Yogo Gulch—was awash with disappointed prospectors, tossing out the blue pebbles they found in their sluice boxes as they panned for gold. And while those pebbles were not diamonds in the rough, they were sapphires—and of an extremely lucrative variety. Other sapphires found throughout the state had been more of the industrial quality, and in hues that are less than desirable at the time: greens, pinks, or colorless.

In 1895, Montana’s reputation as a motherlode of precious sapphires was still relatively unknown, until, a gold prospector named Jake Hoover decided to send in his cigar box filled with collected blue pebbles all the way from Montana to New York City. The box landed on the desk of Dr. George F. Kunz, the most well-regarded gemologist and mineralogist at Tiffany & Co. Kunz’s meteoric rise to fame started when he began selling specimen collections of gemstones to universities across the United States as a boy, and wound up with his entrance into the Tiffany & Co. executive offices at age 23. Throughout his life, he would write, research, and accomplish much, including aiding J.P. Morgan in amassing the gems and minerals collection that would form the basis of the American Museum of Natural History’s collection. Kunz had heard of subpar sapphires from Montana before, but after examining these Yogo Gulch stones, he concluded these to be some of the best and most desirable due to their color, the formation of their hexagonal crystal shape, and their intense clarity, with minimal inclusions. These stones required no heat treatment, whereas 96 percent of the world’s sapphires do require heat treatment to achieve proper coloration.

In 1897, Kunz wrote for the American Journal of Science, and detailed the specific and ultimate coloration of sapphires from the Yogo Gulch region. He wrote that the deviation in color of the stones were “varying from light blue to quite dark blue, including some of the true ‘cornflower’ blue tint so much prized in the sapphires of the Ceylon… Some of them are ‘peacock blue’ and some dichroic, showing a deeper tint in one direction than in another; and some of the ‘cornflower’ gems are equal to any of the Ceylonese, which they strongly resemble,—more than they do those of the Cashmere.”

Previously, sapphires of this shade and depth of color only came from the Kashmir region in India, and thus today at auction one often hears about the highest-selling sapphires as Kashmir sapphires, in the same way some of the best diamonds are known as Golconda Diamonds, a region which denotes their top quality. Yogo Gulch sapphires are the ideal blend of aluminium, oxygen, and titanium, with the presence of titanium integral to creating the perfect blue hue.

So, how does color and quality translate into dollar signs? Today, some more common Montana sapphires can fetch $1000—$4000 a carat, but the pure and bright “cornflower” blue stones from Yogo Gulch often hit the benchmark of $10,000—$14,000 a carat.

Throughout his career, Kunz was continually interested in gemstones that were bountiful in the American landscape, such as freshwater pearls from the Mississippi River, Arkansas diamonds, and tourmalines from Maine, so when he was presented with these top quality sapphires, he was enthralled. With the might of Tiffany & Co. behind him, he brought these vivid blue stones to the marketplace. In the late 19th century, Tiffany & Co. started using Montana sapphires in their jewelry designs. Tiffany & Co. even exhibited jewelry with these stones at World’s Fairs.

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One of the most well-known pieces of Tiffany jewelry that uses these enchanting stones is the Iris Corsage Ornament, currently in the collection of The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. It was designed by Paulding Farnham, a leading designer at Tiffany from the late 19th century through the first decade of the 20th century. In collaboration with Kunz, Farnham created one of his well-known flower brooches for the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900, and ended up winning the firm a gold medal. The piece deftly utilized the rich blue sapphires to a striking effect, sparkling like dew drops on gemstone petals. The not-so-subtle purpose behind this piece was to display the material wealth birthed from the American landscape as well as the strength of American design.

Another wonderful example is a piece that recently surfaced at auction in New York City at Christie’s in 2017. This multi-gem pendant necklace was designed by Charles Tiffany’s son, Louis Comfort Tiffany, who was a very fanciful designer when it came to expression of color. This piece is from around 1920, and was formerly in the collection of The Garden Museum in Matsue, Japan, now closed. The center clear blue sapphire is the perfect example of “cornflower” blue and is very likely a quite large specimen from the Yogo Gulch. This piece was estimated to sell for $50,000 to $70,000, but after an intense bidding war, it sold for $271,500 and is currently in the heritage collection of the Tiffany & Co. Archives, which has been adroitly snatching up important and historically significant pieces at auction for the last 25 years.

Today, there still exists quite a bit of life at the Yogo Gulch. There have been many iterations of the mine since the first discovery of these stones in the 19th century, and the drama surrounding the buy-outs and double-crossings involved could make your head spin. For example, after Jake Hoover’s initial cigar box of blue pebbles was sold to Tiffany & Co. for $3,750, which roughly translates into $100,000 today, Mr. Hoover sold his shares of the dike for $5,000. A British company swooped in, and two months later the same shares were sold by Johnson, Walker and Tolhurst, Ltd. for $100,000. The Yogo Gulch became known as the English Mine for a time. As more claims were staked in the early 20th century, the name changed once again to the American Mine. In the 1920s, after the tough years of WWI, the conglomerated mines began to decline. A flash flood in 1923 destroyed mining equipment and dispersed millions of carats of rough sapphires throughout the region, some of which were plucked from the ground by lucky local Montanans. As each decade passed, old mine claims were drained and went dormant.

However, in 1984, four local residents staked an unexplored claim of the Yogo Gulch, and dubbed it the Vortex Mine. They dug a shaft 280 feet down and began their operation completely underground. They found brilliant blue sapphires present in the ore, and mined for quite some time. In 2008, the Vortex Mine was acquired by a man named Mike Roberts. His goal was to expanded even further underground, but he tragically passed away in 2012 when he was struck by falling rocks.

As of the summer of 2017, the Vortex Mine, the last mine yielding Yogo sapphires, has found new ownership. Don Baide, a resident of Bozeman, Montana, purchased the rights from Mike Roberts’ widow. Don and his son Jason also own and operate The Gem Gallery in Bozeman, which specializes in Montana sapphires, especially stones from Yogo Gulch.

Jason Baide spoke to The Daily Beast to detail the rollout of their new family operation. As of January 2018, Jason says, “Montana winters can be a bit tough. Our operation doesn’t use any harsh chemicals and instead uses more traditional techniques... using water. Because of the low temperatures and snow that we get, we will start out mining during the warmer months, April-October or so.” After a spring and summer of mining, Jason expects to spend the rest of the year sorting, cutting, and mounting the stones.

When asked why these American-mined stones have meaning in the marketplace today aside from their high quality, beautiful color, and rarity, Jason responded that Yogo sapphires “... have much greater regulation and transparency. You can know for a fact what the environmental impact of a mine is, and that it is conflict free. That’s hard to do with most international gemstones.”

America has a reputation of being an abundant land, chock-full of every natural resource one could possibly imagine. As little Manifest Destiny-laden wagons trundled westward, early settlers and pioneers discovered the amber waves of grain, and the purple (read: amethyst?) mountain majesties, and basically concluded that the West was a land full of treasure. It’s amazing to think how much of that treasure was originally thought of refuse, and how far one little cigar box full of bright blue pebbles would go.


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