Finding The "Big One"

Helena and its surroundings are well known for world-famous gemstones. Tourists and rockhounds alike love to search for the “Big One.”

Montana sapphires are a variety of mineral corundum that is transparent or translucent. The best-known sapphires are commonly known as ruby.

Except for the diamond, the sapphire is the hardest stone in the world. Because sapphires are four times rarer than diamonds, a large one can almost equal the value of a fine diamond in value. While a Montana sapphire appears dull and glassy in its rough state, when cut and polished, it can approach the luster of a diamond.

The sapphire is the birthstone for September. They have always been prominent throughout history. In the Bible, the Ten Commandments were engraved in tablets of sapphire. The ancient Persians believed the earth sat on a great sapphire and that the sky took its blue color from the reflection of the stone.

Searching for sapphires can be an exciting treasure hunt. The techniques are as simple as sifting gravel through a screen then washing it to find the heavier sapphire. The concentrators used to wash the sand are usually available at digging sites. Some of the better-digging sites charge a fee but have the equipment available for rental.

Now that you found your “big one” the fun really begins. Stones that appear cloudy can be heat treated to enhance the brilliance. Those that are clear need only be faceted. Faceting is the process jewelers use to turn the rough stone into a finished gem. Helena has the only heat treatment facility in the state and several expert lapidaries that can facet your stone. There are also several expert jewelers nearby who can mount your stone and turn it into a beautiful piece of jewelry.

There are seven pay digging sites in the Helena area. These are your best bet for finding that treasure stone:

The Eldorado Bar Sapphire Mine is on the east shore of Hauser Lake. 449-1907.

French Bar Sapphire Mine. Just downstream from the Canyon Ferry Dam. 475-3380.

Castles Sapphire Mine is located about eight miles downstream from the Canyon Ferry Dam. 227-5485.

Lovestone Sapphire Mine is located just a few miles downstream from the Canyon Ferry Dam on the east side of the Missouri River.