Sapphires are the gemstone of royalty dating back to the Romans and Greeks; Jewish traditions hold that the Ten Commandments were engraved on sapphire tablets. Some may be legend or myth, but there’s no denying that sapphires have an air of mystery and magic, not unlike Montana.
The major deposits found in Montana are in the Yogo Gulch in central Montana, the Missouri River near Helena, Dry Cottonwood Creek near Deer Lodge, and the Rock Creek deposit in the Sapphire Mountains near Philipsburg. I went out on the road to find the story of the yogo sapphire, and in my journey and research I discovered more than I imagined. It had me looking at the little gem with more admiration—and left me with more questions.
I pulled up early in front of the Sweet Palace/Sapphire Gallery in Philipsburg, Montana. The aroma of fresh coffee coming out the front door into the crisp morning air was hard to resist, so I wandered into the candy store, hoping someone might take pity on me and offer a cup of freshly brewed coffee. The lady behind the counter smiled and asked if I would like some, and I sheepishly said yes.
As I waited and wandered the store, a tiny lady—short in stature but with a commanding presence—came up to me and introduced herself as Shirley Beck. I followed her through the store into a back area, where I met Dale Siegford, her partner. Shirley was someone I could tell was on a mission and time meant everything to her, so I quickly got down to business setting up for the interview. Dale was already one step ahead of me, talking about sapphires and laughing. He was the lighter side to this partnership, and he would often belt out a hearty guffaw, making the mood lighter.
Dale spoke of how back in 1895 a local rancher by the name of Jake Hoover was mining for gold, and sapphires kept messing up his operation. He would keep picking them out and setting them aside in a cigar box, which he later sent to Tiffany’s to find out if he had something of value. Tiffany’s in return sent him a check from New York and said: “Send More.” So began the lucrative trade of the sapphire and the demand for the rare yogo sapphire.
The yogo is the only sapphire in the world that does not need any type of treatment. Yogos maintain their high clarity and brilliance under artificial light. Their color is usually a cornflower blue coming from trace amounts of iron and titanium. They have a high price because of the difficulty of mining them and their scarcity. As I looked around the gallery and pointed out a beautiful pendant, I asked how much it was. Dale smiled and said, “Oh…that one is about $10,000.” I told him maybe I would get it next time I was in town and we both laughed. He said he gets a lot of people coming into the gallery looking for the famous yogi sapphire. He has a hard time keeping a straight face and not correcting them right away.
Shirley got a big smile on her face and said, “I know this isn’t yogo-related, but did you know that sapphires from the Rock Creek area by Philipsburg were part of the 17-jeweled watch of the railroad when it started?”
The standardized watch in the early 1800s had to have 17 jewels adjusted to a minimum of five positions, each jewel used as a bearing within the watch. Each railroad employee had to have one, and most had to buy it out of their own wages. Sapphires from the Rock Creek area were shipped to Switzerland to be used as the bearings. Shirley was excited to show me a shipment that never went out from the early 1930s, still intact and in the original boxes with all the sapphires cut into the bearings. As she carefully opened each up and I peered in, I could not believe how intricate they were, and how small and beautiful.
Dale showed me a map from the 1930s. The sapphires occur along a five-mile strike deep within the earth. The only commercial yogo mine operating today is the Vortex mine outside Lewistown, owned by Don Baide, whose son owns the Gem Gallery in Bozeman.
Both Shirley and Dale pointed out that mining for yogo sapphires and sapphires in general is a very green practice environmentally, compared to mining gold and other metals. Chemicals are not used, and no wastewater is released from their mining. Yogo sapphires do not need to be heat treated to enhance their color like most sapphires; in fact, doing so would be detrimental to the gem.
As our interview was ending, I asked Shirley and Dale how they became interested in sapphires. Shirley told me that when she was eight years old, she used to go around town with a leather bag filled with jewelry repair tools and ask the locals if they needed anything fixed or had anything they wanted to get rid of. She would take the discarded pieces and make her own. “You don’t pay any attention to it, and you go on with your life and find yourself back here again by choice.” Dale said he was a rock collector since he was five, and he used to take the long way home from school to look in the windows of the jewelers in Missoula.
Shirley proudly said, “We tell people we speak sapphire.”