Sapphire Town

Iconic Communities, On the Road
on February 3, 2002

Brilliant, clear Yogo sapphires—most are cornflower blue when mined—are found only in Montana’s Little Belt Mountains, and the rare stones are entrenched in the identity of Lewistown (pop. 5,813).

The sapphire’s influence is evident in names such as the Yogo Inn, the town’s main hotel that was developed out of an old train station, and the Sapphire Cafe, a lunch spot for locals. Four downtown stores sell the sapphires, which are both difficult and expensive to mine.

Lewistown’s Main Street looks much as it did when the agricultural community was settled at the turn of the century by gold miners and ranchers. Croatian stonecutters built the sandstone brick buildings in the area known locally as the Silk Stocking District, which is listed by the National Register of Historic Places. The area includes arts & crafts and neo-Georgian homes.

Most visitors are after sapphires, not history, says Sue Smith, owner of a local bakery and gift store featuring Montana-made products, including the sapphires.

“When people come here, they want the native stone,” Smith says.

The larger sapphires are cut and set by the local Yogo Creek Mining Co. in nearby Utica, Mont., (pop. 20) which operates the area’s only remaining sapphire mine, while smaller stones are cut in the Far East and then set by local goldsmiths.

“Yogos are so rare, so beautiful, so brilliant, they are easy to sell,” says Debbie Stephens, an employee of Don’s Store, which sells the jewelry to tourists from around the United States and as far away as Germany and France.

The sapphires are a glittering blue when mined, unlike other Montana sapphires and those from the Orient that must be heat-treated for better color. The stones stay brilliant at night, are almost as hard as diamonds, and much more rare.

“Put it next to a diamond and there is no question what someone will buy,” concurs Frank Hansel, owner of the eclectic Montana Mountain Man Gallery, which sells everything from antler chandeliers to Western art. Yogos have graced the collections of Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, Queen Victoria, and the Duchess of York, according to Stephen Voynick’s Yogo: The Great American Sapphire.

Prospector Jake Hoover found the sapphires in Yogo Gulch in 1894, after failing at the gold mining which attracted most miners to the area. Hoover gathered the blue pebbles from his sluice boxes and sent them in a cigar box to New York’s Tiffany and Co. Tiffany’s replied with a check for $3,750 and a letter describing the stones as “sapphires of unusual quality,” Voynick writes.

Then in 1896, Jim Ettien, a sheepherder, found what is reputed to be one of the richest sapphire lodes in the world in Yogo Gulch—the 6-foot wide, 5-mile long dike formed when igneous rock intruded through a crack in the limestone in the earth’s surface.

In the next 100 years, a string of short-lived mines offered up nearly $25 million worth of sapphires from the dike. Lanny Perry owns the remaining mine, the 15-year-old Yogo Creek Mining Co.’s Vortex Mine in nearby Utica. Perry says sapphire mining is expensive and labor-intensive and many mines failed because of insufficient capital. The Vortex mine employs 11 miners and uses a 16-foot underground tunnel that burrows 250 feet below the surface, where trucks carry out ore that has been blasted.

“Yogos are unusual because they are high-quality, natural, and they come in a tight range of blues,” Perry says. “Yogos have all the flash and hardness of diamonds, but they are rarer. The market is always short-supplied.’’

Jacqueline de Mars, owner of Rogers Jewelry, says because Yogo is the Pigean Blackfeet word for romance, local legend has it that the Yogo sapphire is the love stone.

“And, I think, because it is gorgeous—the soft cornflower blue steals your heart away.”