Montana Sapphires: Colorful Characters and The One, The Only Yogo  

It’s hard to believe sapphires were once cast aside as mere pebbles, but early miners eager to find gold did just that. In 1866 gold was discovered near Lewistown, Montana in the Yogo gulch. Though never enough to warrant a very profitable endeavor, there was enough gold to bring fortune seekers from far and wide for several years running. As miners panned for gold, small blue pebbles appeared in their sluices. With little to no knowledge of precious gems, most miners thought them to be superfluous rocks. But a local rancher named Jake Hoover knew better and collected a cigar box full of these Yogo pebbles while working his own gold claim in 1894. Suspecting they might have value, he sent the box to New York for testing and appraisal. They eventually ended up at Tiffany and Company. It was only then the Yogo sapphires received their due recognition. They were pronounced to be,"in quality and color… the finest precious gemstones ever found in the United States"  according to Yogo The Great American Sapphire by Stephen M. Voynick.

   Today, Yogo sapphires are still sought for their exceptional quality and natural color. Found only in the Yogo Gulch, Yogo Sapphires owe their quintessential blue color to the rare, yet perfect geological conditions which occurred millions of years ago. These isolated conditions allowed for sapphire crystals to form deep underground; trace amounts of iron and titanium give them their spectacular blue color. A small percentage of Yogo sapphires can be purple. Unlike most commercially available stones, color enhancing treatments are never applied to the Yogo sapphire. Yogo sapphires are rare not only because of how they formed, but because they are no longer mined. The Yogo vein of sapphires also runs 400 feet underground, making the fall under the hard rock mining classification. An extraction process costly and dangerous, but which adds to their rarity and value. Yogo sapphires are not the only sapphire found in Montana. The Montana sapphire is mined from three locations in south-central and south-western Montana. It is unique because it comes in a variety of colors, 38 to be exact.

  “We call it nature’s palette,” explains Cindy Just of Stephen Isley Jewelry.  Montana sapphires are available in a multitude of colors making them a favorite among customers looking for that special something. “It’s the choice of color that people love,” explains Cindy. Their beautiful assortment of colors can be compared to elements of nature, glacial water blues and river rock arrays endear them to individuals looking to have a little piece of Montana.

Husband and wife design team, Stephen Isley and Cindy Just, have built their business, Stephen Isley Jewelry, around the best of Montana’s beautiful Yogo and Montana Sapphires. Ask them about Montana gems, and they can regale you with a combination of history, geology, and even a bit of folklore. Their love of the entire process, from understanding how the sapphires formed to the finished piece of jewelry, has taken Stephen and Cindy all over Montana.  They design and work with many different types of gems, but the sapphires from Montana are their favorite.

“Most people don’t know that Montana produces a large portion of the world’s sapphires,” explained Cindy. In fact, around a third of the world’s sapphires are mined our state. 

   For Stephen and Cindy sapphires are also a personal statement, “Using a stone thatis mined in Montana means something to us. We’re supporting the U.S. economy by promoting local employment and utilizing a resource available in our state.”

  Over the years Stephen and Cindy have cultivated close relationships with both the mines and brokers. Going straight to the source they have panned for Montana sapphires in Phillipsburg, MT and have gone 400 feet underground down into the Yogo mine.

   As a custom designer of fine jewelry, it was the originality of the stones that first drew his attention some 30 years ago. Stephen saw potential in their rare beauty and now after over 40 years, he has assembled an extensive collection of one of kind sapphires.

   “These are precious, forever, durable stones. Even after 30 years of working with sapphires, the gems in our collection still inspire and stimulate my imagination.” Stephen explained, remembering back to the early days of starting his collection, “Many of those early gemstones were the focal point of some of my favorite pieces.”

   Stephen likes to call their design process, “letting the gemstones do the talking.” And custom settings open up a world of possibilities when it comes to individual expression. Stephen’s dedication to his craft and his expertise means he can create a stunning piece of jewelry around any size or shape of gem.  

For more information or to view galleries of sapphires in jewelry visit

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