Something Blue 7

Mine for the perfect stone to set

Clarity, color, cut, carat—these four C words meant little to me as a single woman. They didn’t shine or sparkle or mesmerize me the way the movies or fancy ring shops always let on. I hadn’t known the real, raw beauty of a stone until I held an uncut sapphire in my hand. Its shape and color—the way it looked in the sun or in a room, always different with each turn of it in between my fingers—was stunning.

As a married woman, two of those four C words have since graduated their way into my vocabulary when engaging in ring talk—cut and color. Or maybe it’s colour—the embellished version, for emphasis when describing the object of our affection, like Woody Allen’s replacement of the word love with luuurve, loave, luff in Annie Hall. A sapphire is endless in its blues, each shade exquisite. Is it any wonder why a bride would wear anything else as her something blue?

In true Montana fashion, these raw beauties are found right here in our Treasure State. Within a few hundred miles between our borders are several mines to which jewelers have access to sapphire gravel through miners working personal claims, one of those shops being a stone’s throw away.

Anna and Gary Provost, owners of Montana Gems of Philipsburg, has the pleasure of uncorking this natural wonder to visitors from all over the country. Their shop is adorned with the glitter of glistening cut stones beneath brightly lit glass counters, and its walls are shimmering—copper, silver, the rugged edges and crystals of geodes having taken their places like crowns on a shelf. There are bags of material waiting to be sifted through, a gambler or adventurer’s dream come true.

The backyard is a maze of tables, troughs, and a running water flume. This is the place where the washing and setting yourself up for success will take place. First, the material will need to be set into a screening pan, then rinsed, then stirred and shifted appropriately so, and if all is done correctly, your fortune of sapphires will end up at the bottom of your pan and preferably in the middle.

The next tricky step is flipping the pan onto a table. Ideally, the weight of the sapphires—heavier than the surrounding gravel and stones—will allow them to stay grounded in your pan until the flip, revealing themselves at the top of your mound when you’ve successfully heaved them upside down without disrupting the contents. Tweezers are used to pluck the gems and safely stow them in a plastic tube to be evaluated inside.

Easy, right? Like all processes, sapphire mining has its own intricacies. It all depends on what your reason is for a visit.

“Our El Dorado material tends to produce the bigger sapphires, so if you’re wanting a bigger stone for a ring, that’s going to be a better choice,” said Anna. “Our Rock Creek stuff tends to give you better color but it usually doesn’t produce as big of a stone.”

Anna and her team are there to encourage all the right moves, and of course let you know what to look for. The raw sapphire will appear in a variety of colors with the majority belonging to the blue family, and they’ll look like pieces of sea glass.

“After you find your stones, we’ll do a free evaluation and let you know which ones look good enough to cut and we can send those stones out for you,” said Anna, referring to the processes that can enhance a natural stone’s beauty and ready it for a polished look inside a setting.

“There are way more memories and personal touch behind [mining for your own stone],” she said. “Anybody can go to a department store and pick out a diamond. Not everybody gets to go into their own backyard and mine their own sapphire and have it for a lifetime.”

And she’s right. My husband knows Anna well, having panned and found the perfect stone—a round gem, greenish blue in color, set in a custom setting. I remember fawning over it in its raw state, and now the way it dances in the light around my finger, I love it all the more.