Montana Sapphire: Value

Introduction

     Accompanying the growing interest in American mined sapphires is a growing list of questions about them.  One frequently asked question concerns value.  The question usually takes the form, Do Montana sapphires have value?   Full disclosure compels me to acknowledge that I have a personal interest in the question.  My company, Americut Gems, has a large inventory of Montana sapphire which I use to supply my independent retail jeweler customers located throughout the United States.  I consider the question of value to be a very important one deserving a very thoughtful answer.  That is the purpose of this article.

What is value?

     Value is a broad term that could mean many things.  I think what is meant by value in this context is most likely one of two things.  It could be both.  If value is equated with beauty, the question would be, Are Montana sapphires beautiful?  This is the aesthetic sense.  If value is understood in an economic sense, the question would be, Are Montana sapphires expensive?   

     My experience has been that some consumers are primarily interested in aesthetic value, others are more interested in monetary value.  Most have some measure of concern about both.  Obviously, the two concerns are interrelated.  Despite the adage that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it is generally true that the greater the beauty, the more expensive the sapphire.

Are Montana sapphires expensive?

     Sapphires, like most commodities, acquire and hold value because of their scarcity.  Generally speaking, the greater the scarcity, the greater the value.  I explored this scarcity=value theme in an earlier post where I compared the volume of Montana mined production with total worldwide production.  The comparison was based on a ten year study conducted by the United States Geological Survey.  In 2008, the last year of the study, total worldwide sapphire production was approximately 25,000 kilograms.  In the same year, Montana’s contribution to that total was 70 kiligrams, or 0.002%.

     It is hard for me, and maybe others, to visualize 0.002%, and so I suggested imagining an assortment of 350-400 sapphires.  The assortment would represent all of the sapphires mined everywhere in the world in any given year of the recent past.  Then, based on the production statistics just cited, we would recognize that only 1 of the 350-400 sapphires in the assortment could be called a “Montana” sapphire.  Visualized in this way, one can begin to appreciate just how rare American sourced sapphire is.  

Montana sapphire value

     It is one of the reasons the Survey identified Montana sapphire, together with Burmese and Kashmir sapphires as being the most expensive in terms of average polished prices.  Scarcity creates value.  Scarcity also means that consumers generally  cannot walk into most jewelry stores and see a nice selection of Montana sapphires, at least in finer qualities and larger sizes.  They will need to ask for them, in which case such  inquiries  are best placed with independent jewelers who have the resources to accommodate their requests.

     When people buy fine sapphires it is often in connection with life changing events like engagement and marriage or recurring special occasions like special anniversaries.  They expect to keep, enjoy and wear them for a lifetime.  They are often passed down to future generations.  This very common life history of precious sapphire helps to explain buyer’s concern with not only value but durable or lasting value as well.

     Because of these concerns, I know there are many people who would like to know more about this “scarcity=value/lasting value” theme.  An informative, meaningful sequel to this theme must include a discussion about the sizes and qualities that could be expected from a given volume of mined Montana rough.  The size I am most concerned with is 1 carat + polished because that is where most of the demand is at the present time.

     Very little has been published about the size distribution and qualities of Montana mined sapphire.  The most comprehensive survey I am aware of dates back more than a century.  Although the results of a similar survey today may not be the same, the parameters are such that I think sharing a brief summary of the report would be useful.

     The survey was based on ten years ( within a 1906 to 1923 timeframe)  of production records of sapphire mining operations in Granite county, Montana.  It was a large enterprise that managed to produce a total of 38 tons of sapphire rough, all of which was sold to be used in high precision industrial applications.  The mine ceased operating in the 1940’s after synthetic sapphire came into wider use.  The companies records suggest that approximately 18% of total production of mined crystals were of sufficient size  to create faceted gemstones  that would have weighed one carat or better.

     A more recent survey conducted in the 1970’s, in the same area by a different  mining company was based on the extraction of 35 kilograms.  The purpose of the survey was to determine whether sapphire mining would be profitable.  Apart from size considerations, they concluded it would not be profitable because of the large number of unmarketable pale stones uncovered.  It was estimated that only 8% had sufficient color saturation to be sellable, a figure that seems very high based on my own buying  experience. Because I am not aware of similar more recent studies that are in the public domain, my best resource available to explore these matters in more detail is my own buying and cutting experience. 

     My company, Americut Gems, has a large inventory of alluvial sourced Montana sapphire.  I acquired this inventory by purchasing large volumes of rough material over a number of years and presided over all the processes required to transform this rough  into a vast inventory of beautiful gemstones.  However, I do not imagine that because of  this experience all of my conclusions must be spot on to the last digit.  On the other hand, because of my experience,  I am  confident that I can describe the scarcity of Montana sapphire in such a way that interested persons can acquire a confident sense of, and appreciation for,  its lasting value.

     Production of Montana mined, rough sapphire fluctuates from year to year.  For the  purposes of this article,  I am going to assume a yearly production of 500,000 carats.  I think that given this volume of rough, we can assume that approximately 6-7000, mostly brilliant marketable gemstones will be cut weighing one carat or more. They likely would have an aggregate weight of approximately 8400 carats, or slightly less than 2% of the total weight of the rough mined.  A large majority of this 8400 carats would be made up of stones weighing 1.00-1.25.  A minority would weigh 1.25-1.75, and relatively few, perhaps 5-7% of the total (500-600) would weigh 2 carats +.

     Given the worldwide demand for American sourced sapphire, these numbers on their face imply extreme scarcity and this implies lasting value.  But again, as in an earlier article,  it is hard for me to visualize the statistics.  But like before, I can use my imagination.  I know, based on the numbers, that if every billionaire in the United States wanted a 2 carat Montana sapphire, they would need to wait for two or three years of production to get all of their orders filled.  I know that if every American who bought  a Jaguar last year wanted a Montana sapphire one carat or larger they would have to wait 3-4 years to have their orders filled. The same would be true of every American who bought a Mercedes Benz last year, except they would have to wait a half a century to have all their orders filled, to say nothing of all Mercedes Benz buyers in future years who would have virtually no hope of buying a 2 carat sapphire in their lifetimes.

     I could go on. But enough of that. I am sure everyone gets the idea by now that Montana sapphire as described is quite rare, and that this level of scarcity should provide for a comfortable level of lasting value.   Hopefully this article will help put to rest those concerns people have who are buying fine sapphires they hope to enjoy for a lifetime.

Sapphire: Mine to Market Journey’s

SAPPHIRE: MINE TO MARKET JOURNEYS

Introduction

Once a sapphire is mined, many things need to be done to it before it reaches its final retail destination.  It needs to be transformed from an unattractive, rough, rock looking crystal into a brilliant gemstone.   This usually involves cleaning, heating, cutting and polishing.  I have called this the mine to market journey.  It is a journey that every mined sapphire must take.  In the eyes of the public, it is an obscure journey and one that is not well known.  The purpose of this essay is to shed some light on that journey, light many consumers can use to make better sapphire buying decisions.

I am especially interested in describing the journey taken by sapphires mined in Montana (USA) and comparing that journey to the journeys taken by most sapphires mined elsewhere in the world.

I am very interested in comparing these two journeys for two reasons.  First, I own Americut Gems, a company that is a major supplier of polished Montana sapphire to retail jewelers who are mostly located in the United States. The  journey taken by sapphires mined in Montana is very different in several important respects compared to the journey taken by sapphires mined most anywhere else.  These differences are important.  Just how important and why they are important will become clear later.

Typical Overseas Journey

I will begin by describing the main features of the typical mine to market journey of sapphires mined in locations other than Montana.  The focus will be on production from countries in Asia and Africa because that is where nearly all gem quality sapphire is produced. (Thomas R Yager, W. David Menzie, and Donald W. Olson, “Weight of Production of Emeralds, Rubies, Sapphires, and Tanzanite from 1995-Through 2005”  United States Geological Survey)

Sapphires are mined commercially in no less than twenty countries.  These countries are widely scattered across the globe.  There are many mines in Asia.  The best-known Asian locations are Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, China, and Vietnam.  African nations that produce sapphire include Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria, Malawi, and Cameroon.  The African nation of Madagascar is in a class of its own because of the huge volumes of sapphire it produces. Australia is also a significant sapphire producer.

Ratnapura- Gem Mine in Sri Lanka
Ratnapura- Gem Mine in Sri Lanka

After they are mined, most sapphires need to be cleaned and heated.  After they are cleaned and heated, all sapphires need to be cut and polished before they can be set in jewelry or sold as loose gemstones.  Sometimes these operations are completed locally where the gems are mined.  This is especially the case in countries where governments require that some or all of these processes are done locally.  However, enforcing these requirements has always been difficult because of gemstone smuggling.   This is especially true in countries where bribery of officials responsible for enforcement is not only possible but common.  Consequently, there have always been extensive clandestine operations where sapphires are removed from their countries of origin and shipped elsewhere for heating and cutting.

One of the major motives for shipping sapphires from one country to another, whether clandestine or straightforward, is to artificially enhance their value.  A good, real-world example would involve shipping a sapphire from Madagascar or Australia to  Sri Lanka.  As stated previously, Both Australia and Madagascar are primary sources of mined sapphire.  Many of the sapphires recovered in both  Madagascar and Australia look similar to sapphires mined in Sri Lanka.  If those Sri Lankan looking sapphires that were mined in Madagascar or Australia could be sold as having originated in Sri Lanka, they would sell for higher prices.  This pattern of price discrimination based on country of origin has created many chameleon sapphires and is one reason many mine to market journeys remain opaque.

  If sapphires are mined in countries that do not require local processing, they are usually shipped to distant heating and cutting centers like Bangkok in Thailand and Colombo or Ratnapura in Sri Lanka.  Whether clandestine or forthright, these sapphire mine to market journeys often involve multiple players.  Sapphires often change hands many times before they are finally presented to the public for sale as fully transformed beautiful, lively gemstones.  The chains of custody can be very complex and impenetrable.

Perhaps the most important implication these mine to market  journeys have  for consumers is that any attempt to retrace their sapphire’s  journey is most likely a  fool’s errand.  With some exceptions, retail sellers cannot know with certainty where any given sapphire they are selling was mined.  For some consumers, it is very important to know the journey.  Their motivations vary but may include concerns about fair trade, working conditions of the miners, and the environment.

Gem Lab Country of Origin Reports

If any given sapphire has sufficient value, a country-of-origin report from a reputable gem laboratory is probably the best solution.  However, most origin reports include the caveat that their conclusions are opinions.  This is because mines routinely produce sapphires with characteristics that are atypical for that mine, and instead display microscopic features that mimic characteristics that are more common in other mines.  

In addition, the problem of accuracy is compounded by the sheer plurality of mines in many different countries.  There is considerable overlap in sapphire DNA among these many mines. Consequently, despite much research and effort, mistakes are possible.  (Aaron C Palke, Sudarat Saeseaw, Nathan D Renfro, Ziyin Sun, and Shane McClure, “Geographic Origin Determination of Blue Sapphire”  Gems and Gemology, Winter 2019, Vol.55, No.4)

  Nevertheless,  gem lab origin reports are the best solution for most consumers who are acquiring sapphires that have been subject to the mine to market journey I have described.

The Montana Journey

The Montana mine to market journey is very different from the journey I have just described.  In some respects, it may be unique.  Because of these differences and this uniqueness, owners of Montana sapphire will be pleased to know that the chances of overpaying for a chameleon sapphire are too remote to be of concern. 

I mentioned at the beginning of this essay that Americut Gems is a major supplier of polished Montana sapphire to retail jewelers.  The company has a large inventory that consists exclusively of sapphire that has been mined in Montana.  There is no chance that sapphires in this inventory can get mixed up with sapphires that have been mined elsewhere.  As the owner of Americut Gems, I acquire all of this inventory from the mine after it has been cleaned.  I supervise all aspects of the heating and cutting operations.  All of these operations are done by American companies in the United States.

Potentate Mining LLC- Rock Creek Sapphire
Potentate Mining LLC- Rock Creek Sapphire

The chain of custody is short and transparent.  I can guarantee that all of the  sapphires purchased from my inventory were mined in Montana.  My guarantee is trustworthy and meaningful to my retail customers because of the shortness and transparency of the Montana mine to market journey.  Gem lab country of origin reports may be useful for a small number of the most expensive sapphires to preempt concerns that could arise in the distant future.  But for the vast majority of very fine sapphires, whose price tag may not justify the expense of an outside report, these trustworthy guarantees together with an understanding of their chain of custody will suffice in most cases to address customers’ concern about country of origin.

I have described the way things are done at Americut Gems to shed light on the general nature of the Montana “mine to market” journey.  Other sellers of Montana sapphire may have custody chains that are different from mine but it remains the case that the Montana journey is generally shorter and more transparent than those encountered elsewhere.  There are exceptions.  Some Montana mined sapphires are shipped overseas for both heating and cutting.  This occurs most often in the smaller sizes.  The motive is to reduce production costs. 

Summary and Conclusion

The purpose of this essay was to shed some light on mine to market sapphire  journeys.  Every sapphire takes this journey if it is to be changed from an  unattractive dull looking rock into a highly polished, brilliant gemstone.  First, I  described the journey most sapphires take that are mined in  Asian and African countries.  Next, I discussed the journey taken by sapphires mined in Montana.  I compared the two journeys.  I took special note of the differences in their respective chains of custody and the implications this has for country of origin claims.

 Nothing stated here should be construed as discouraging the purchase of sapphires that may have been mined anywhere in the world.  Choosing the right sapphire is a very personal thing, and once a choice is made, that choice may override any concerns, if any, about origin.  And for that large and growing number of individuals who have chosen to acquire sapphires mined in Montana, this mine to market discussion should give them a better understanding of what they have and a greater appreciation for the uniqueness of what they have selected.