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Commentary: The Business

Claire Baiz: It’s All Go for the Yogo

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The resumption of production of what some call the most important color stone being mined in the U.S.?is exciting news. 

[dropcap cap=T]hey don’t call Montana “the treasure state” for nothing. If you can dig it and sell it, it’s been mined in Montana. Butte, home of the Copper Kings, was called “The Richest Hill on Earth.” [/dropcap]

There’s also gold in them there hills: Before bedraggled miners struck pay dirt, Helena was called Last Chance Gulch. There’s palladium too. Stillwater mining is the big domestic source for palladium, the other white metal. There are garnets, agate, platinum, quartz, silver, zinc and more.

To most jewelers, Montana means sapphires. Rock Creek, Eldorado Bar, “dig your own” or buy them heat-treated, cut and set: Montana sapphires are abundant and attractive.
 Among all Montana’s treasures, though, there is one crown jewel: the natural unheated Yogo sapphire. After a few lean years, I’m happy to report that Montana’s only commercial Yogo Sapphire mine is back in business.

 In the late 1800s a discouraged gold miner named Jake Hoover discovered blue sapphires in a creek bed near Utica. Some prospectors might have mistaken the rocks for bottle glass and thrown them into the creek after a few good swigs. Hoover had the good sense to collect them until he filled a cigar box. He wrapped the package in twine and scrawled an address on the front: Tiffany & Co., New York City.

 A few months later Hoover got a $3,700 check from Tiffany’s along with a note that said, “Thank you. Please send more.” According to one inflation calculator, Hoover’s first check was worth over $80,000 in today’s dollars.

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 Today, that’s only about 10 1-carat round brilliant Yogo sapphires at retail.

 When the Yogo mine shut down in 2004, Montana jewelers were given two weeks’ notice that the only commercial source for Yogo sapphires was closing. Taking away our blue rocks gave jewelers the blues.

 It’s not as though jewelers aren’t used to this. Previous mine owners had tried to do too much: mining, cutting, designing, setting, marketing and fighting with each other. It seemed to frustrate buyers that miners spent more time in court than in the mine: Partners turned to plaintiffs and contentious lines were drawn in the Montana dirt.

 Today there is new hope for the Yogo. A self professed “ditch digger,” Mike Roberts, bought out the claims of several parties and has been quietly deep mining the Yogo. Mike loves the “blue rocks,” as he calls them. He has a heaping shovelful of mining experience, and he’s out to make a legacy, not a quick buck. Besides, without partners, there is no one to argue with but his wife Laurie, and she usually wins.

 The output isn’t huge, but a number of nice large Yogos are trickling out of the mine, along with an ample supply of smaller goods. The rough tends to be flattish, which makes full-depth rounds over a carat very valuable indeed.

The unique nature of this unheated sapphire has been under-appreciated by buyers who might prefer to pay less for an imported heat-treated gemstone. When you add the confusion of the rare Yogo with the plentiful heat-treated Montana sapphire, it’s no wonder that the Yogo has been a hard sell. 

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 Still, the Yogo sapphire has friends in high places. For many decades, Tiffany & Co. used them in its designs; the Brits, who at one time owned a claim, love them. And last year, I overheard Douglas Hucker of the American Gem Trade Association tell Mike Roberts that the Yogo sapphire was the most important color gemstone being mined in the U.S. today.
 
Mike’s wife, Laurie, is working to establish a market for this socially and environmentally responsible homegrown gemstone.

 The wash plant is going full tilt until the snow flies up at Yogo Creek, and the line for buyers forms to the left.

Claire Baiz owns Big Sky Gold & Diamond Brokers in Great Falls, MT. E-mail her at [email protected].

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