Visiting the Source: American Mined™ Montana Sapphires™

Supply Manager Becky Scheffler and Product Manager Kevin Whitmore share their experience visiting the source of the American Mined™ Montana Sapphire™.

Authored by Kevin Whitmore

Last edited: 2/18/2020

One privilege of working in the Rio Grande gemstone department is occasionally visiting one of the mines that supply the treasures we offer for sale. In August 2019, we trekked up to Philipsburg, Montana to see where our Montana Sapphire is mined.

We were hosted by Warren Boyd, of Potentate Mining. Warren gave us a tour of the entire operation. Becky and I were so impressed with how they conduct their business that we want to take you with us on a virtual tour!

The mining site is located in the aptly-named Sapphire Mountain Ranges of Montana, near Philipsburg. Sapphires were first discovered here way back in 1892.

Ruins of mining cabins in the mountains
Pictured here are some the ruins of cabins and offices of the long defunct American Gem Mining Syndicate.

There is a long history of past mining efforts.

A prominent feature of the area is the famous Rock Creek. It is one of Montana's few Blue Ribbon trout streams. And for wade anglers, a better river can't be found. Rock Creek is renowned for its rare bull trout. In addition, the region is filled with plentiful wild flora and fauna including moose, elk, and deer.

Since this is a basically untouched area, Potentate Mining is very careful in their mining practices. Here is a brief overview of how Potentate Mining operates. The original deposit of sapphires began at a high elevation atop the mountain. Over the years the sapphires were carried down slope by movements of mud and earth. Potentate Mining removes the top layer of earth from the underlying bedrock.

This soil is washed to release any rocks found. The rocks are sorted in to three streams:

  • Too large to consider
  • "Just right" sizes
  • Too small to consider

All water used to wash the stones is reclaimed. The process uses three settling pools. The first pool collects the water just used to wash the soil and gravel. This first pool begins the settling phase, where the water begins to clarify. As the water level rises, eventually the cleanest water runs off, travelling to the second settling pool. The sediment in the water continues to settle out, and again the water eventually runs off, this time to the third pool. Water from the third pool is clean enough to wash more gravel and is then pumped back up the hill to the work site. This practice conserves water and eliminates unwanted run-off from the mining site. At the base of the mountain is the much-loved Rock Creek. Potentate Mining is committed to never allowing mining effluent to enter the creek!

On the day we arrived the operation was expanding to include a new water clarifier. This two-story unit is about the length and width of a semi-tractor trailer. Dr. Keith Barron, the principal of Potentate Mining, explained to us that basically, dirty water goes in, and clean water comes out. The clarifier was a huge expense and required a massive effort to transport it to the top of the mountain. Dr. Barron believes this is a smart business expense, as it minimizes the need for water, and is an important part of their efforts at environmental stewardship.

In addition, Potentate Mining has been actively buying adjacent parcels of land. While these lands will likely have more sapphires, the main motivation is to protect the local environment from potentially less-conscious mining efforts.

Let's see the actual equipment used to sort the sapphires out of the gravel.

These photos from Potentate Mining show the sequence of operations. The hopper of unprocessed soil starts on the high ground. The chutes deliver the load to a size-based sorting operation. The correctly sized rocks are delivered to the jigs where mechanical action sorts out the higher density materials that typically contain the sapphire rough.

Hopper moving unprocessed soil
Loading the hopper.
Chutes delivering load for sorting
Down the chutes.
Becky Scheffler standing in front of the chute
Supply Manager Becky Scheffler.
Bin with rough sapphires
This photo from Potentate Mining shows a typical load of rough recovered.
Water clarifier near the mine
Here is a photo of the brand-new water clarifier on its first day of operation. Note the size of the workers under it, and near it. This is a massive piece of equipment and will allow the recycling of water used in the mining of the sapphires.

The remarkable water management demonstrated by Potentate Mining really impressed both Becky and me. And Potentate's environmentalism doesn't stop there. As they finish working an area, the land is remediated. We saw several meadows where mining had previously been done–they were fully integrated back into the natural environment surrounding them.

Cows standing in the middle of a dirt road in the mountains
For Becky and me, the journey off the mountain involved one last traffic jam.

Once the rough is mined, it begins another journey that involves size- and color sorting, heat-enhancement, faceting, and eventually delivery from Rio Grande to your workbench.

It is really a privilege to visit great American miners such as Potentate Mining. We are very pleased to have Rock Creek Montana Sapphires in our American Mined collection of gemstones, and we hope that seeing the source inspires you to use these amazing treasures in your own designs.

Shop the American Mined Collection