3 Day Virtual Journey to Montana

Day 2: Gem Mountain Public Dig Site in the Rock Creek Area

Located off the beaten track approximately two hours outside the capital city of Helena, you will find this gem of a place (pun intended). The famous Rock Creek sapphire mining area located near the town of Philipsburg, MT and has a lot to offer gem enthusiasts.

The Rock Creek area is home to the Potentate Mine. For more information about Potentate’s commercial mine CLICK HERE to read the full article from the Gemological Institute of America. Accessible the public for a fee, the Rock Creek area is also home to the famous Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine. The public dig site welcomes people from all over to try their hand at sapphire mining.

When the world is not in a global pandemic, visitors can reserve their spot online in advance. Directions are provided to find this secluded location near Mount Emerine. Following a paved road towards the mine site, I was delighted by the mountain vistas surrounding the mine. The Gem Mountain sign was a welcome site after travelling along the unfamiliar road.

The dig site is set up with tables and canopies. The main building has lots of jewellery items for sale. All the tools necessary for the dig are provided. Visitors must dress appropriately. Weather can change quickly in the mountain area, so be prepared. For safety reasons, visitors do not have access to the actual sapphire mine. However, dump truck loads of sapphire bearing gravel are brought to the public dig area. The gravel has also been sifted to remove large rocks making it easier to wash the gravel.

Once registered, I picked a bucket of gravel and was shown by staff how to properly wash and sift the gravel. The staff, of course, made the process look easy. I however, have a lot of practicing to do to get the technique just right. Regardless of my skills, or the lack there of, the entire process was a lot of fun.

Sapphire bearing gravel Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine
Photo Credit: @acgemlab
Sapphire bearing gravel prior to washing.
Photo Credit: @acgemlab

After dumping some of the sapphire bearing gravel into a tray with a fine mesh bottom, “miners” are brought over to the water trough for washing. While holding the tray in the water, miners must shake the tray back and forth from side to side, rotate 90 degrees, and then repeat. The washing process utilizes sapphire’s higher specific gravity compared to the surrounding rock. If done properly, the sapphires will be concentrated in the centre when the tray is flipped upside down on the sorting table. This makes the sorting process much easier. If done improperly, sapphires will be scattered throughout the tray requiring more sorting time.

Sapphire rough concentrated in the centre after washing. Photo Credit: @acgemlab
After proper washing, sapphires will be concentrated in the centre of the tray.
Photo Credit: @acgemlab

The most exhilarating step comes when you get to pick through the sapphire rough in your tray. I can truly understand the excitement that brought so many prospectors to this area in the hopes of making it rich. With each gem carefully added to the collection bottle, comes the pride of uncovering one of mother nature’s precious gifts.

Rock Creek Montana Gem Mountain Rough Sapphires Photo Credit: @acgemlab
Rough sapphires from Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine.
Photo Credit: @acgemlab

Meeting the other miners revealed many that come back on a regular basis. Proud to show off their jewellery, I was amazed at the elegant designs that had been created using sapphires found at Gem Mountain. The staff were gems also. They were knowledgeable, friendly, and always available to help with washing and sorting.

After sifting through all of the gravel, I was invited inside to have the rough sapphires sorted. The material was sorted by size and the quality. Pieces that had potential for heat treating and faceting were separated out. Most sapphires from the Rock Creek area require heat treating to induce a more vivid colour. The majority of stones found were light greenish blue. Pink stones are found on occasion in the area, but in small sizes. Gem Mountain operates one of the only heating furnaces in the United States. Stones are then sent to their cutting facility in Sri Lanka. Larger stones can be faceted in Montana. Should you choose to have your stones heat treated and faceted, the process takes approximately three to four months. The prices are reasonable and vary based on the number of stones being submitted.

Rough Sapphires from Gem Mountain Photo Credit: @acgemlab
Rough sapphires waiting to be sorted.
Photo Credit: @acgemlab

On your way back, be sure to stop in the town of Philipsburg. There are several unique business and buildings in the town. Gem Mountain provides an indoor year round sapphire mining experience there. Be sure to check out the loose stones and finished jewellery for sale. You are bound to find inspiration for how to display the sapphires that you just mined.

To see the transformation of rough sapphire into a faceted gem, CLICK HERE! Thank you to the staff of Gem Mountain for a wonderful experience. I hope to visit again when regular travel resumes.

Written By: Alanna Campbell September 10, 2020

Opinions and experiences are my own. I am not affiliated with anyone described in this article. Photos are credited to @acgemlab