Sep 7, 2010 12:26 PM by Angela Douglas (KTVQ)

Sapphire hunting in Montana (VIDEO)

There's a reason Montana is known as the Treasure State, and The News Station's Angela Douglas got a first-hand look at that reason as she went rock-hounding for treasure recently.

First stop: the Spokane Bar Sapphire Mine near Helena.

"You want to work as close to the bedrock as you can," explains Spokane Bar Sapphire Mine owner Cass Thompson. "When the river was coming through here, the sapphires and gold and heavies got wedged in the cracks and crevasses along that bedrock."

Knowing that I could literally be standing in the midst of a beautiful fortune of gems, I waste no time digging in. Thompson provided some useful tips as I poured shovel load after shovel load of gravel onto a screen and sifted out the small rocks.

"That's what you're going to fill your bucket with," Thompson explains as he points out the smaller gravel that was left at the bottom of the screen.

I pour the small rocks into my five gallon bucket and toss out the large ones.

But I'm not the only one searching for that sapphire in the rough. "I'm thinking, you know, a nice ring here," Karen Carr says with a laugh as she points to her ring finger. Carr and her son Connor traveled all the way from Chicago to try their luck at rock hounding.

And quite frankly Carr's imaginary rock could become a reality. "There was a 50 carat, just under a 50 carat gem quality sapphire found, oh it's been about 30 years now," Thompson recalls.

50 carats? Yeah...that's big and rare. But smaller sapphires proved to be quite plentiful.

Every group hunting for sapphires came away with several. "Our biggest sapphire was three carats, which is right here," Connor Carr announces proudly as he points it out in his plastic bag. "And this will cut to one carat sapphire and will sell for about $500-$600."

I wasn't having much luck with the gravel I dug, so it was time to break into the Mother Load, one of three locations mined at the Sapphire Bar. Thompson says it is the newest mine producing the most sapphires. Turns out, Thompson was right about "The Mother Load" as I walked away with a 3.47 carat sapphire in my pocket.

So, with my first and successful sapphire mining experience under my belt it was time to try my luck elsewhere.

Next destination: Gem Mountain in Philipsburg. At Gem Mountain, digging the gravel yourself isn't an option. For $15 you can buy a two gallon concentrated bucket and you're pretty much guaranteed to find a few sapphires.

Before the hunt begins, I get a couple of tips from an old pro, who noted that to simplify your search for the shiny gems, water is needed. First, you pour some gravel into a screen, then you bounce and rock the screen full of rocks in the water hoping to get the heavy sapphires in the bottom middle part of the screen.

A sapphire weighs four times more than a similar sized rock, so it should sift its way to the bottom of the screen.

Once all the big rocks are on the outside and the little rocks are on the inside, it's time to see if you've done it right.

"Lift the screen off and if you've done a good job washing, we have... one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine sapphires," explains Gem Mountain owner Chris Cooney. Nine sapphires in one screen full? Now it's my turn!

Cooney's demonstration proved to be no fluke. Every single screen I flipped revealed at least one or two sapphires.

"When you get all done, we'll take your sapphires inside and we'll evaluate those and tell you which ones are gem quality," Cooney says.

If your stone is gem quality, Gem Mountain offers to heat treat and/or cut it right there in Philipsburg. "We heat treat and cut over 20,000 stones a year," explains Cooney. Heat treating a sapphire tends to make the coloring more vibrant.

Not all sapphires make gorgeous jewelry, but no matter what they're pretty fun to find. Especially when they're big.

"The largest sapphire found in recent history was two years ago and it weighs 39.41 carats," Cooney recalls. "And I found it."

Hunting for sapphires is an adventure all about luck. As the saying goes...you could be an inch from a million dollars - or a million inches from one dollar.


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