Friday, September 18, 2009

Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine

Mari and I made the trip from Hamilton across Skalkaho Pass to Gem Mountain. This highway sign accurately describes the drive through Skalkaho Pass:

I've never seen so many adjectives on a highway sign.  There were still a few idiots who took this road while towing campers.

Near the top of the pass, you round one of many blind turns and come upon Skalkaho Falls.

Down the east side of the pass is Gem Mountain, one of the largest sapphire deposits in the world.  The gems occur here in a wide range of colors, and they are mixed in with a naturally occurring gravel of quartz, sandstone and other rocks. The folks at the mine sell buckets of the gravel for $14.00 each, and they let you use their screen boxes and wash trough to look for gemstones.

Sapphires are denser than the surrounding gravel, so the best technique is to shake the gravel up and down in the water trough to get the gems to settle to the bottom of your box. Then you work the box in a rocking motion each way to try to move the sapphires to the center. When you feel lucky, you flip the box and dump it onto a table, and the sapphires, which were supposed to have worked their way to the bottom, should be on the top of your pile of wet gravel. The mine employee who gave our demonstration said the sapphires would look like beach glass.

This is how the gravel looks after you dump it. We'd already picked through this batch.

We never quite perfected our shaking and dumping technique, so we still had to sort through the top of the gravel pile to make sure we found all our sapphires.

Notice the people in the back of this pic. There were a few characters there who meant to strike it rich, just like in the lotto, but where you have to get your hands dirty.

This is what we found in two buckets:

 Unfortunately, the large irregular piece at the bottom of this pic, just to the left of center, was a worthless piece of quartz. We showed our haul to one of the jewelers inside the shop, and she said we had several sapphires that were over one carat. Several of the largest were flawed, though, which she jokingly blamed on their having been stepped on by a dinosaur.

We didn't find anything resembling the Hope Diamond, but this was a fun way to spend an afternoon. We barely got this trip in this year, because the mine closes for the season at the end of September, and Skalkaho pass closes to traffic on October 15.

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