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Yogo Sapphire

National pride hasn’t helped sales of sapphires from America’s vast yogo Gulch sapphire deposit in Montana. Sitting in a mid-Manhattan Citibank vault are some 250,000 carats, mostly rough, of blue and violet sapphire, all that remains of possibly the final attempt to make a go of mining at Yogo.

Citibank acquired the goods in satisfaction of a dept owed by publicly traded Intergem Inc. of Denver, Colorado, the fourth Yogo mining venture since 1956. Intergem closed its Montana sapphire business in 1985 for basically the same reasons as its post-war predecessors: the extremely high cost of mining sapphire in the United States relative to its cost elsewhere. Unlike the alluvial sapphire found in Australia, Sri Lanka and Thailand, Montana’s Yogo sapphire is found embedded in hard rock. That makes mining it a very expensive proposition.

To get consumers to pay the much higher price for Montana’s hard-rock sapphire, Intergem embarked on the shrewdest and most daring marketing campaign for Yogo sapphire in its nearly 110-year history. Rather than sell its stones loose, the company launched a line of Yogo jewelry, then tried to capitalize on Montana sapphire’s two greatest strengths: its all-American and all-natural unheated status.

Those strengths ultimately proved weaknesses. Few cared about the Yogo sapphire’s home-country origin when prices for stones from more widely known localities were so much less. And fewer still cared that Yogo sapphires were the only stones of their kind in the world with a blanket guarantee to be spared heat treatment to improve appearance and color.

Such a no-treatment guarantee was premature, made at a time when gemstone enhancement disclosure was still taboo in the jewelry industry. Thus the guarantee backfired as a marketing tool because it put jewelers in a “Catch-22” dilemma, forcing them to admit most of their other sapphires were treated and thereby inviting a scandal over the concealment of such facts. “The tactic could only have worked if the trade had been disclosing treatment all along,” says a gemological consultant. “Since it wasn’t, Intergem looked like a bunch of rabble rousers.”

Crying The Blues

Raising the sapphire-treatment issue isn’t what sunk Intergem, but it didn’t help to keep the company afloat either, especially after it trumpeted the treatment issue to The Wall Street Journal in 1984. Montana sapphire enthusiasts feel the company could have pursued a less aggressive positioning policy for the breed than seeking a controversial market niche for it as the world’s only untreated sapphire. “Freedom from treatment is a virtue only for very large, fine stones,” says one dealer. “But it doesn’t matter much with small stones.”

Unfortunately, Yogo doesn’t produce many large stones. Melee is, and has always been, its forte. That’s because the Yogo Gulch deposit, located just about dead center of Montana, is partially the result of igneous (underground volcanic) activity which pushed the lightest, flattest and most buoyant material up to the surface of the find. Although recent geological surveys indicate sapphire reserves at Yogo as deep as 7,000 feet, mining there has never gone much below 250 feet. Hence the small size, flat shape and lighter color of most Montana sapphires that jewelers saw in the past.

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Yogo Sapphire