Bario Neal's connection to Montana sapphires started soon after jewelry designers Anna Bario and Page Neal launched their handcrafted, made in the U.S.A. label 10 years ago.
Anna remembers a custom ring design with an early client. “In 2010, the first Montana sapphire we worked with was a beautiful round, deep lavender-blue, maybe six months after we opened the shop," she says. "It really stood out as a special stone. It was a client we really connected with and we went on to do more custom projects for that family."
Two more Bario Neal team members, Sarah and Genna, recently got a close-up look at Montana sapphires from a different perspective. In 2018, they visited the U.S. source of Bario Neal’s sapphires: Potentate Mining’s Rock Creek property, near the small town of Philipsburg, population 850. (Their three-day tour was organized by nonprofit Ethical Metalsmiths.)
“The visit gave me a greater appreciation for Montana sapphires, as a mineral, as a natural part of the earth and our environment -- and for all of the folks for whom this is their livelihood,” Sarah said. “It's labor-intensive work and they do it in a way that benefits the community and the earth. Potentate's Mine Manager, is a geologist and his wife is a geologist and a GIA-certified gemologist. They met at a mining operation, got married, and now their three sons are involved in mining. Every mine we work with has a story like that, has some element of friends, families, collaborators, and community.”
Anna says Sarah and Genna visiting Montana to see the sapphire mine there is important to Bario Neal’s mission to making ethical jewelry.
"When it comes to responsible sourcing, these are issues that Page and I have been engaging with for years. Going to conferences, visiting mines, meeting with artisanal miners and folks involved in the supply chain at every level," Anna says. "When our team members can physically be on-site at a mine, understand everything that goes into unearthing this material and processing it, and see the beauty of the raw form, they are so much more able to speak to clients about the work we are doing and to move that work forward.”
Montana Sapphires Gemstory
Origin: Our Montana Sapphires are mined in the Rock Creek region, about 75 miles from Missoula, and cut in New Jersey.
Color: Mainly blue-green
Treatment: Some are heat-treated to clear up imperfections/cloudiness.
Mohs hardness scale: 9 (According to the International Gem Society, “only a diamond can scratch a sapphire.”)
Size: Our Myrtle Blue Green Sapphire Ring has a 5-6 mm Montana sapphire; sides stones in our designs also come from the state. Many of our custom projects feature larger Montana Sapphires.
Design Notes: With a range of colors, from denim-y blue-greens to teal, Montana sapphires bring a lightness and brightness to rings.
Sarah sees a reminder of her trip to Rock Creek in her favorite Bario Neal sapphire ring (and of a discussion they had at the mine about how Montana sapphires can be a gorgeous alternative to diamonds for engagement rings): "The Myrtle Blue Sapphire Ring’s interwoven six-prong setting reminds me of the bright stars in Montana's night sky, while the color is reminiscent of the wildflowers that streak across the hills."
A Gemstone With American History
"Montana sapphire is not new,” says Warren Boyd, Potentate Mining’s marketing director, acknowledging the state’s long mining history. “People have known about it for over 100 years.”
Unearthing Montana sapphires really kicked off with the Gold Rush. Prospectors with the fever turned up the blue gems. Sarah and Genna got a hint of that experience when they toured Potentate’s operation. “Handfuls of Montana sapphires” weren’t the only sparkle. There were garnets, rubies, and gold, too, in the mine’s yield, though they aren't Potentate's primary purpose.
Sapphires have also been mined in other parts of Montana too, namely Yogo Gulch and Dry Cottonwood Creek but, Warren notes, “the Rock Creek area is known for producing the largest volume of sapphires in Montana."
Potentate Mining made some history of its own this year: The largest sapphire they’ve found set a record for size in North America in August 2018 at 64.14 carats. Called the “Ponderosa Sapphire” (a nod, Warren says, to Rock Creek’s Ponderosa pine trees and the old Western TV show "Bonanza"), it will soon be on display at the Smithsonian.
Mining Montana Sapphires
Potentate’s operation is on top of Gem Mountain, mining a near-source origin of sapphires from weathered rocks and sediments that have been transported down slope (what a geologist would call eluvium).
Warren says for every cubic yard of gravel (think a truckload) they process, they get anywhere from 5 to 20 carats of sapphires. They process 40 cubic yard per hour.
The gravel they haul off the mountain goes into a hopper to screen out big chunks of rocks and small pieces under 3.5 millimeters. What remains is moved on a conveyor belt to a washer unit and jig. Anything with higher density falls to the bottom. Employees examine what’s left, called “concentrate,” to get the sapphires.
Montana Sapphires’ Role in Ethical, Sustainable Jewelry
“Extractive industries like mining are inherently unsustainable but they don’t have to be a source of horrible pollution,” Anna says. “Humans and animals have been mining natural resources for as long as we've been around. There are ways to do it that honor the material and treat these materials like the gift they are.”
The Rock Creek area has a reputation for natural beauty and, aside from sapphires, the local economy relies on tourism for hunting and fly-fishing. The creek is vital to the area, and Sarah says she saw how Potentate works to keep it as clean and pristine as possible. “You can tell they love the land they're on,” she says.
By operating on top of a hill, the company distances mining from the activities of those playing outdoors. Potentate Mining doesn't mine more than 5 acres a time, and when they are done with one area, they rehabilitate it by replacing nutrient-rich topsoil. They also use a water clarifier and recycle water they use during processing. This diverts muddied waters from the clear creek and makes a more eco-friendly operation. About 80 percent of the water they use in processing is recycled. (A century ago, sapphire mining operations used high-pressure fire hoses, and the resulting slurries ran freely into the environment, a practice that the U.S. and Canada has banned.)
“It's similar to Bario Neal. We go as far as we can to get the best options for material, but we always know we can be doing better,” Sarah says. “So being able to visit with a supplier in the U.S. and talk to the folks who work there and learn about their concerns and challenges and about the areas where they're doing fantastic work for the environment and where they want to improve, is exciting. We shared ideas about where we can all do better and where we can collaborate to do better.”
Local families from Phillipsburg work at Potentate, and the company strives to be a good neighbor, according to Warren: "We are very supportive of the community and they, in turn, of us. We hire local people. We use local services."
The team at Potentate knows ethical, environmentally friendly gemstones resonate with fine jewelry shoppers in the U.S. "There's a lot of interest in American gemstones from the consumer,” he says. “Some of our clients, who we sell rough stones to, have told me that at least half to 80 percent of their sales are going to engagement rings, as an alternative to diamonds."
And Warren says they like to hear about the work of jewelers like Bario Neal and their clients.
“I love to see finished pieces, from the mud that we're digging up,” he adds. “I've been in the jewelry business my whole career, on the road selling all sorts of gemstones, and for me to see the pieces on people’s hands has been rare because I am trade oriented. So when I hear about or see rings posted on social media, it's a nice warm feeling at a small mining operation like ours.”
Making ethical sourcing a priority, Anna says, includes thinking about where materials come. There’s a deeply personal side to place as well, because each mine’s region lends itself to the characteristics of the gemstones and metals that come from there.
“With Montana sapphires, the range of colors, these denim-y blue-greens and everything from yellow-orange, lavender, and teal, there's a beautiful color palette that is very bright and almost springy,” Anna says. “They bring this lightness and brightness that is different than a really deep blue dark sapphire.”
Sarah values what will be a lasting connection to Montana sapphires thanks to her visit.
“We have a limited number of gemstones that can be sourced here in the United States, in terms of the quantity and quality we need. Bario Neal works with Wyoming black jade, Ant Hill garnets from Arizona, and Montana sapphires,” she says. “One of the things that sticks with me is when Warren said as we looked at the sapphires, 'you're the first person to look at this thing that's been created over the last three million years.' If you want a beautiful, one-of-a-kind Montana sapphire you are most likely going to be working with a small, independent jeweler like us, with how we consider our clients' perspective and our focus on custom design. After all, it's exciting to be able to say nobody else has a stone like this in the world."