Digging for sapphires in Montana
Finding treasure at Gem Mountain sapphires
by Maureen Connor/for Montana Living
There is a good reason that over 12,000 people travel to the West Fork of Rock Creek every year.
And in this case, it isn’t for the fishing. The attraction is the sapphire gemstone, and here at Gem Mountain it’s one of a few places in Montana where you can find your own precious gems.
Grubbing around for sapphires is at the very least, fun, and for some people, highly addictive. It’s kind of like gambling, with a little dirt involved. You can buy a single gravel bucket for $12 each, and it’s likely to contain genuine Montana sapphires.
The mine also ships its gravel, so you can try this at home. The mine operators provide everything you need to find your own Montana sapphires.
First, you take your bucket of gravel and pour it onto screens. Then you wash the gravel in a water trough. The water rinses away the clay and mud that hide the sapphires. The biggest Sapphire from Gem Mountain is 122 carats, and was found in a gravel bucket by a paying customer in 2003.
In downtown Philipsburg, the Sapphire Gallery also offers customers a chance to find their own sapphires. These are the only two retail businesses in North America that offer heat treating of sapphire gem stones,
Gem Mountain was first developed in the 1890s, and since then has been the source for 180 million carats of sapphire. These days the Cooney family, from Butte, is the owners and operators of Gem Mountain. The Cooney family provides a relaxed atmosphere for all kinds of people, from serious rock hounds to families looking for a little entertainment.
Here the customer has the same odds of striking it rich and finding a big sapphire as the mine owners.
The gravel washing trough and retail store are open seven days a week, from mid-May through mid-October, and the business processes orders and ships gravel concentrate year-round.
If you are new to the area, and don’t know where Gem Mountain is, you are in luck, because it is a nice drive! Gem Mountain is on Montana highway 38, the road that goes over Skalkaho Pass into the Bitterroot Valley, right at the base of the Pass on the West Fork of Rock Creek, about 22 miles from the town of Philipsburg.
On the Web: gemmtn.com
— this article appeared in a 2007 issue of Montana Living magazine