There is a substantial and growing interest in American mined sapphire. I know this because my company, Americut Gems, is a major supplier of Montana sapphire to retail jewelers throughout the United States. One expression of this growing interest is the frequently asked question, Are Montana sapphires scarce? The purpose of this article is to answer that question. The answer will be based on an examination of total worldwide sapphire production and comparing that with total production of American mined sapphire. The difference between the two production totals will highlight how scarce American mined sapphire is relative to sapphires mined in most other locations scattered throughout the world.
The production statistics I am using in this article are based on a report published in 2008 by the United States Geological Survey (Weight of Production of Emeralds, Rubies, Sapphires, and Tanzanite from 1995 Through 2005, Thomas R Yager, W. David Menzie, and Donald W. Olson). According to the report, total worldwide sapphire production in 2005 was in excess of 25,000 kilograms. Expressed in tonnage, total production was approximately 27 ½ tons. And for those of us who would like to visualize what 27 ½ tons could look like we can imagine a row of 12-14 Teslas. This is the number of Teslas, more or less, whose combined weight could approximate the total mined rough sapphire weight in the year studied. However, we need to remember that this row of Teslas represents the approximate rough stone weight. You may remember that after the stones are mined they need to be cut and polished, and this reduces total mined weight significantly. Total polished weight may be equivalent to no more than 2-4 Teslas.
Another factor that cannot be overlooked is the rejection rate of mined sapphires because of poor quality. Many if not most mined stones are never cut and polished because of quality issues. Rejection percentages vary from one mine to another. Based on my own experience it would not be surprising if only 1-2 Teslas is the more accurate representation of the total annual mined weight of marketable cut and polished sapphires.
A word of caution is in order. Acquiring completely reliable production statistics for sapphires as well as any other gemstone variety is extremely difficult. The authors of the Survey acknowledge this in their introduction. They cite the usual complications encountered in conducting gemstone production surveys. These include the fragmentary nature of the industry, poor and unregulated governmental supervision, and the large amount of under reporting due to smuggling and other clandestine activities. In fact, prior to this report the United States Geological Survey had never attempted to report production statistics on a country-by-country basis. However, I feel that something is much better than nothing, and that the data provided by the survey is very instructive and sufficiently reliable for the purpose of this article.
The report listed twenty sapphire producing countries. The overwhelming majority of total production was from Africa, Asia and Australia. The largest producer in Africa was Madagascar. Sri Lanka was the largest producer in Asia.
Kashmir, Myanmar, Montana: Value/price/scarcity
In addition to production statistics the survey also discussed the relative value of the sapphires produced based on their country of origin. The report described a wide range of polished sapphire prices among the twenty producers. The report identified the three most expensive sources as Kashmir, Myanmar (Burma), and Montana. These three sources had the most expensive sapphires because of their relatively higher quality. It was also a reflection of the relative scarcity of their supply. With gemstones, as with most everything else, value and rarity go hand in hand. For example, these three most expensive sources were responsible for approximately 1500 kilograms. This is less than 6% of total worldwide production.
Because my company, Americut Gems, is exclusively involved with American sourced (Montana) sapphire, I was very interested to know what the total production was for each of these three “most expensive” sources. Total production for the three was approximately 1500 kilograms. Kashmir and Myanmar (Burma) produced, in somewhat equal amounts, in excess of 1400 kilograms. Montana’s total production was only 70 kilograms. This is less than 5% of the 1500 kilograms produced by these three highest value sources. I believe that if the production figures provided in this report were updated to reflect current production totals, the ratios would not be significantly different.
Based on production statistics reported in this survey, Montana sapphire is scarce by most any definition. The extremely low ratio of Montana production to worldwide production makes it very difficult to conceptualize. Again, I need to visualize to appreciate. Imagine a pile or layout of 360 sapphires. The 360 sapphire layout represents a proportional sample of total sapphires mined throughout the world by the twenty sapphire producing countries identified in the survey. Based on the production figures reported, only one of the 360 sapphires would have been produced in Montana.
Are Montana sapphires scarce? According to sapphire production statistics provided by the United States Geological Survey, Montana sapphires are scarce. American sourced sapphire is miniscule compared to other sapphire producing countries. If Montana production was double or triple the statistics cited in the report it would still be trivial. Montana production would have to increase ten fold to match production in Myanmar or Burma in the years studied, and sapphires from both those countries have always been considered scarce. Perhaps, on that criterion, Montana sapphire should be considered extremely scarce.
Several noteworthy inferences can be drawn from the extreme scarcity of Montana sapphire. First, demand for Montana sapphire has been increasing. More people are using them in engagement rings, anniversary rings, bracelets, and necklaces. It has become a favored gemstone for many designers because of its increasing popularity and the unique nature of each stone.
Second, most expensive high quality gemstones, including sapphires, are acquired with the expectation that they will be enjoyed for a lifetime. Consequently, many consumers are very interested to know whether a particular gemstone of interest could reasonably be thought of as a store of value. Montana sapphire is very reassuring in this respect. Depreciating values over time are less likely because of the scarcity factor and the prospective supply/demand outlook. This feature of Montana sapphires has also contributed to the increased demand seen in recent years.
Third, I know that many, if not most people attach special significance to finding gemstones that are uniquely personalized in the “one of a kind” sense. This means having a sapphire that is so rare and unique that it is unlikely to be seen anywhere else, and especially today, a sapphire that does not look like it could be synthetic. Traditionally, sapphires have been synthesized to look as if they had been mined in Sri Lanka. Synthetic sapphires do not have a Montana sapphire look
This “one of a kind” feature of Montana sapphire derives, first, from its extreme rarity as we have seen, and second, from features intrinsic to the gemstone itself. Everyone who has worked with this material knows that finding matching stones is very difficult, and sometimes impossible. Montana sapphires have color changing properties. Hues and tones shift depending on the light source to which they are exposed. Matching in one light source becomes undone when examined in a different light source. This inherent difficult to match feature, together with limited availability due to scarcity, makes these American sourced sapphires the sapphire of choice for all those consumers who value or even insist upon their very own “one of a kind” gemstone.
Third, a growing number of consumers prefer purchasing products that are “grown locally”, protect the environment and mindful of the health and welfare of workers. Montana sapphire once again takes pride of place with respect to each of these issues and is another reason for its growing demand.
These are some of the reasons growth in demand for Montana sapphire is unlikely to subside in the foreseeable future. There are few if any reasons to believe dramatic increases in production are on the horizon. The scarcity factor will most likely either remain in place or become more acute.