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Interview: Warren Boyd of Potentate Mining

A couple of months ago, we had the great pleasure of sitting down with Warren Boyd of Potentate Mining, specializing in beautiful sapphires from Rock Creek, Montana. Watch the video here, or scroll down for the transcript below!

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Transcript:

David:
Hi everyone, David Saad here from Skyjems.ca. Thank you all so much for joining me. It is an honour and a pleasure to have Mr. Warren Boyd here from Potentate Mining. He’s absolutely one of the most highly-regarded field gemmologists and geologists in the country. He’s worked on mines in six different continents, and really knows more than just anybody I know in the business. I'm super lucky, I've known him since I was a little kid. He's a friend of the family and I have him here for you. So thank you so much for joining me.

 

Warren:
Thank you David, that's a very kind introduction. And yeah, when you said I'd worked on six continents I actually had to check that out to make sure you were correct, and...pretty close! I haven't been to Antarctica yet but I'm not in a rush.

 

David:
So Warren, today we're gonna be talking about Potentate and specifically Rock Creek sapphires. Just gonna have some questions for you and go from there. First question I wanna ask is, can you give our viewers a brief history of sapphires in the Rock Creek area, and how they were first discovered?

 

Warren:
Well that's an interesting question. Montana sapphires are not new, they're not new on the market. The deposits in Montana were actually discovered in the 1800s. And this particular area, the project we're working on, owned by Potentate Mining, was discovered in 1892 I think. I tracked down the first newspaper article. Prospector Bryan was out looking for gold and came across these shiny little pebbles, which he kept in a jar for his grandchildren. According to the newspaper article, he took them to jeweller Weyland. I don't know who that is, but jeweller Weyland back in 1892, 93, identified them as sapphires. So that was the first recorded occurrence of sapphires at Rock Creek, near Philipsburg, Montana. In 1902 they were in jewellery at the Paris Exhibition.

So they were very much known by the industry in the early 1900s. So the really scariest mining happened between 1905 and 1935 where sapphires were mined primarily because it was a large volume of sapphires there, and they were mined...well there were gems, they were recovering the gems, but the bulk of the sapphires were being used in the Swiss watch industry and the client for this shipment at that time were the Grubel and Jeweller in Switzerland, who in turn were selling to the Swiss watch industry. And that's well-documented history.

 

David:
That is absolutely fascinating. So, fast forward a bit if you can tell us a little bit about how Potentate first began operations in Phillipsburg, Montana and how have things been growing over the years?

 

Warren:
At that time after 1935, well, synthetics came on the market. The Swiss watch industry didn't want natural sapphires for the jewel movements. They started using synthetics in the watches. And during the war years, things went quiet there. They weren't mining the sapphires anymore. And then mostly it was small-scale artisanal operators who were working in the area in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. And then in the 1980s, 1990s, the technology for heat treatment became widely known, and they developed recipes for heat treating sapphires. So this particular deposit had an abundance of sapphire, but the bulk of them require heat treatment to improve the appearance.

And what does it do to improve the appearance? I can get into that later, but the new technology came along in the 80s and 90s, and I was on the project as a geological consultant in the 1990s, and that's my first introduction into the project. My partner, Doctor Keith Barron,  involved in this, he was also on the project in the 1990s, so he and I were both familiar with it and said, "Wow, what a fantastic project." But that company didn't progress. It was mostly a promotional company at the time, 1990s. But we didn't lose interest in it, and then the project––

 

David:
Sorry, may I interrupt? When you say "a promotional company", what, how do you mean?

 

Warren:
Oh, it was a public company and they were using it as a promotional entity to raise money, and they weren't really serious about marketing the product. So my involvement at the time was writing due diligence reports for an independent mining engineering firm, not working for the company but an independent consultant. Similarly, Keith was in the area because he was working on an industrial garnet deposit some miles away from this deposit and was familiar with the sapphire deposit. But the project was tied up as private property; a forestry company owned it at this time from the mid-90s to mid-2000s, and the man owning the private company by this time passed away. And we purchased the assets from the estate of the lumber company. So from mid-90s to 2000s, about 20 miles of roads were put in over the project and all the trees were removed by the forestry company, so suddenly it was accessible. And the previous ground was inaccessible before the 90s because it was Bureau of Land Management or state property, so you're not allowed to mine it. So, when it became private property that meant you could mine it, you could apply for a small miners' exclusion permit. So when we acquired it, we were the first ones with the cash, and acquired the project in 2014 and put first production out late 2015, and signed by 2016.

 

David:
Well that's fantastic. And it's really great material that you are pulling out of there and that we're getting to enjoy. Now something – when you first told me about this part here I had to have you explain it to me, I think three times because it just kind of bent my brain a little bit. And that is the mine's particular mountaintop location, where it is, can you tell us what it is about that that makes it unique?

 

Warren:
Yes, it is a very unique occurrence. I think God was generous on this area (laughs) because first of all, one of the big problems with mining in this area – in fact, in North America, especially the north part of North America – is glaciation. The diamond mines in Canada, for instance, where there's no weathered bedrock sitting on the surface. You have glacial tills and the glaciers effectively scrape down all the weathered bedrock and spread it to the wind, so to speak. This particular area of the mountains in Montana, for some reason the glaciers never touched it. So it's untouched by glaciation, even though there's glacial valleys to the north and to the south. This particular hilltop was untouched, which meant that the bedrock was deeply weathered and not scraped away down to the hard bedrock by glaciation. The geology is, the sapphires were probably in place or arrived in the Eocene which was, I think, 50, 60 million years ago. I'd better check the dates there but, the Eocene Geological Epoch. And they were intruded much like volcanoes. The sapphires came from deep beneath the earth, up to the surface in what geologists call alkali basalts. A more specific term might be laprocirs or laprolites, and they're a very unusual type of geological occurrence. All sapphire deposits in the world, there's only one or two that I'm aware of that occur in laprophidic or alkali basalts. The basalts you're seeing that carry the sapphires in Australia are quite different. The Shandong sapphire occurrences are flow basalts salts, big thick flow basalts that flow out on the surface. Similarly, you're seeing the same in Thailand. And in Sri Lanka, you have a different type of geology all together: high-grade metamorphic rock. Similarly in Greenland for the ruby occurrences, high-grade metamorphic rocks. So the geology's unique and it's reflected in the appearance, and the look, of the sapphires. The shapes of the sapphires are quite different as well.

 

David:
They definitely have a very very unique colour to them. I only have a few stones from you right now. I actually have them on a turntable here. But I know that, in looking at them and spending time with them, the life in the gems is definitely quite unique, and something that I don't know of any other sapphire that gives you the same kind of both a glow and a silkiness. There's almost a little bit of mottling that you can see from really close up, but from just a little bit further you get that really interesting blend of the colour.

 

Warren:
The sapphires are quite unique at Rock Creek, in the fact that the crystals are blocky, short stubby crystals. Some are tabular, but by and large the bulk of them are a nice, uniform blocky shape. If you close your fists, they're that sort of the shape of your fists, sort of blocky, chunky crystals. Unlike sapphires you'd see out of Sri Lanka, which are, well, some people call them barrel-shaped or dog tooth-shaped because they're long. So consequently, the advantage of those crystals is the cutters like them because they get relatively high yields. The stone is almost pre-formed, ready for them, and all they have to do is shape it. So the buyers like it because they get relatively high yields on the cutting. Also, one of the things that you've alluded to there is the appearance of them. They're bright and clean. For some reason nature's been kind, and the fact that the stones that are natural without silk are bright and relatively clean. They're beautiful. They reflect all the light that comes out of them if they're cut properly. The ones that have a little silk in them, as soon as you heat them that silk dissolves with the stone, and turns the stones into very clean. So I would say of the production we're getting with heating and natural, about 75 to 80% of the stones we recover are cuttable quality.

 

David:
Oh really? 75 to 80%. That's––

 

Warren:
That's mind boggling. You don't see that in many deposits around the world. Well, I can't cite any specifics because I don't have the statistics on me, but many of the sapphires you recover from most mining operations are fairly opaque. They're really industrial grade, and then occasionally you'll get the genuine material. But in this particular deposit for reasons that are not really clear, you get a very high percentage of some with clarity. Even the large crystals have chunks of them that are clean, so you can cut a bunch of little stones out of them. Whereas some deposits from elsewhere in the world, the stones are quite opaque and you don't get much gem at all. Like when I was a boy, I collected sapphire crystals from near Madoc, Ontario, from an industrial corundum deposit that they mined for industrial purposes there. And those crystals were technically sapphires, they were blue, pale blue. Beautiful crystals, but no clarity to them.

 

David:
Which is, I mean, that's the whole point of gems being gems right? Is that they are that tiny little sliver at the very top of the qualities, and then there is all the other grades. But everything gem, that's why it's a gem, right?

 

Warren:
Well truly the definition of a gem is beauty, durability, and rarity. So corundum is common, but corundum you can cut into a gem would either be a ruby or a sapphire...rare. And hopefully those stones will be beautiful, and therefore it's a gem. Hence the three points.

 

David:
Actually I wanted to ask you as well, something you were showing me when we got to get together in person. You were telling me about some of the other things that you're finding during the mining process.

 

Warren:
Yes, we do get a lot of garnets, but the garnets are not generally gem-quality. So for the generations of artisanal workers on the mine site, anything red they would throw away. Well I decided, "Let's give a little attention to these garnets, get a closer look at them." And I noticed that some of the garnets were fluorescent. I also noticed that some of the garnets didn't jump to the magnet like they should. Garnets from this particular deposit are weakly magnetic, so if you take a neodymium magnet to them they'll jump or they'll move. They'll wiggle around on the table. So you can pull them out. And then some of them didn't have that. We saw non-magnetic and weakly fluorescent. So we decided to do a little identification on that and turned out that we were actually getting some rubies. We were the first ones to actually identify and recover rubies from this deposit. Now it sounds exciting, but they're commercially insignificant. We've only, out of literally millions and millions of carats of sapphires we've mined over the last few years, we've only recovered 11 that I would call rubies, and the largest cut stone we got was only 42 points. So, exceedingly rare. And truly a unique American ruby.

 

David:
That's fantastic, that's really fantastic.

 

Warren:
Another thing we have, which is...I wouldn't say it's a curse, it's a blessing, is the fact that because the bedrock here is so deeply weathered, we have a very fine amount of gold occurring in our gravels. The old time miners didn't know how to recover it 'cause it was so fine, so they would just wash it away. But we decided to put in a recovery circuit in our mining operation and now, on average, we get between $7 and $10 for every yard of dirt we process, in gold. That doesn't sound like a lot, but when you're processing 60 yards a day for six months a year, it adds up. It covers all our fuel and trucking costs for moving stuff around. So we're getting gold as a byproduct of our sapphire mining.

 

David:
That's definitely, that's the kind of byproduct you want.

 

Warren:
(Laughs) That's true, yeah.

 

David:
Yeah, that's a heck of a lot nicer to deal with than just about anything else. You're gonna be getting it – even the garnets, if the garnets were like, a heck of a lot nicer it's like, "Well, I'll still take the gold and that easy money" and you know, like you said, cover gas and whatnot. So something I want to talk about – and some people who are watching this that are very into American sapphire and whatnot will already know, but can you please enlighten myself and the viewing audience: what is it that makes Montana's Rock Creek sapphires different from other sapphires? For example, Kashmiri or Australian.

 

Warren:
Because of the nature of the geology and the trace element contents of the sapphire, in general the Rock Creek sapphires have a very unique colour tone. And what many people have come to call it is teal. A teal colour tone. Now what does the word "teal" mean? Teal is actually a duck that is quite common in Europe and North America, and when that duck flies through the air it has these beautiful blue-green feathers it flashes on its wings and on the crown of its head – on the temple of its head. And that's where the colour term, the teal, comes from, is this blue-green in the feathers of the blue wing or green wing teals. But teal is a blue-green or pastel or greenish blue tone that is very common in the Montana sapphires specifically from Rock Creek. Very rarely do we get the deep colour tones that you might see in the best of the Kashmir or the best of the Sri Lankan stones. That's quite unusual from our deposit. We do get it, but it's very unusual.

 

David:
Next question is, we're talking about the colours. There's the term "American blue". So what is American blue, and is this a common colour that is found at Rock Creek?

 

Warren:
Yes, I would say a synonymous term for the colours I just alluded to, the teals, would be American blue. And I've come to call it that. I haven't really heard it so much beforehand. I wouldn't say I coined the term, but it is a very typical colour that you see in Montana. Any experienced stone dealer trading in stones can see the difference between a parcel of Montana sapphires versus a parcel of Australian versus a parcel of Sri Lankan or East African or Nigerian. They have a very unique tone or saturation to them. And so I just came to call it American blue because it's simpler than trying to explain what teal means. (Laughs)

 

David:
Right. Well it's interesting because I know teal stones, obviously we know they've really taken off, and there's some debate of whether Montana sapphires grew in popularity which made teal stones grow in popularity, or teal stones were growing in popularity which made Montana stones grow in popularity. Do you have any thoughts on that?

 

Warren:
Yeah, I would tend to go for the latter. I think Montana, in some ways, has created the popularism of teal. And the reason I say that is, I have a stone dealer I deal with in Israel actually, that I do a lot of business with and that I've known for 30, 40 years. When I first showed him some of the material we were recovering, he said, "That colour will never sell, Warren. You won't be able to sell that." Now he's a regular client because he's had so many people asking for the teal tones. So that's an evolution I've seen in a period of 5 or 6 years. I tend to think it might be because of the popularization of the stones, the promotion of it. There is some material coming out of Nigeria that has the tone, the teal tone, but it doesn't quite have that American blue look, the brightness, the intensity or the clarity that you're seeing in the American blues.

 

David:
I definitely agree with you on that. Nigeria, there's some Ethiopian material that looks bluish green, greenish blue, and it's beautiful material but it doesn't have, like you said, it doesn't have the brightness and the fire to it that you get out of the American stones.

 

Warren:
I should mention also, David, there's a lot of other colours that come from our deposit. We're getting peach and oranges, we're getting yellows, we're getting colourless sapphires as well. I've talked about the rubies, those are by far the rarest. But oranges, yellows, peach tones.

 

David:
Are you getting, like, orange-peach, peach-orange?

 

Warren:
Some. The locals, and we've come to call them "Rocky Mountain Padparadscha" because they're quite rare when we do get them. Some heat treat, some natural. But by and large, most of the ones we've produced so far would be heat treated. I've seen a few and we've processed and cut a few that were natural. Today's consumers are quite savvy. They have their own ideas of what they like and what they don't like. It's reflecting an evolution in fashion, an evolution in tastes, and evolution in what's considered acceptable. Like the unusual pastel colours in Rock Creek sapphires are – ones that, at the time, that they used to mine in the early part of this century, the sapphires were either blue or they were worthless. In the early 1900s, if they weren't blue they were worthless.

 

David:
And that goes for even pinks and yellows?

 

Warren:
Yeah, you just don't see them. I mean, there was a quotation from Frederick Kunz, and I'm gonna have to paraphrase it, that I've researched. He had said regarding Rock Creek sapphires, that never had he seen such a range of colours as he has in Rock Creek, in sapphires. So that's a quotation back from, oh, I think it was 1910. I'll find the exact reference, I don't have it in front of me, but I had cited it in one of my previous talks. And for those who don't know, Frederick Kunz was the man they named kunzite after.

 

David:
Yeah, actually one of my – actually everybody's – favourite gemmologist. The first gemmologist or whatever. Did Frederick Kunz ever go to Rock Creek himself?

 

Warren:
I don't think so. I believe that these stones arrived at the markets in England and Paris at the time, and they arrived in Washington at probably the Smithsonian. I'm not quite sure where he saw them, but it was probably in the eastern United States. I'm not aware that he visited the mine. We have had the curator and the associate curator of the Smithsonian visit the mine already though. 

 

David:
Yeah, I know anybody I ever meet that says they're really into gems, I'm like, "Yeah, you really need to go to the Smithsonian and lose a day there. Whoever you're in Washington with, just tell them to come back and meet you in the same room in a couple few hours." And to have them be at your mine and be excited to be picking your sapphires is a lot of fun.

 

Warren:
Well on that topic, in 2018 we recovered what turned out to be North America's largest gem sapphire. 64 carat crystal that we named the Ponderosa sapphire. And through some negotiations of that, it's now in the possession of the Smithsonian. It's gonna be part of their display sometime in the next year or two.

 

David:
You have that on loan to them?

 

Warren:
No no, they own it outright now. They own it outright. They may rename it, but we called it the Ponderosa sapphire and the press we have on it is the Ponderosa sapphire. I coined that term because the largest pine trees that we have on our property are called Ponderosa Pines, and also, for those older people, it generates the feel of the Ponderosa Ranch in the Bonanza series on TV. So I thought it sort of raises the spectra of Ponderosa Pines and cowboys, and that's what Montana's all about.

 

David:
So we've already covered some of the colours. Can you tell us a little bit about the size? What are the average sizes that you're seeing in the gems mined in Rock Creek?

 

Warren:
By far, the largest proportion of what we produce are smaller stones, but this is not unusual for any mining operation whether it's diamond mining, sapphire mining, emerald mining. You'll find that the number of large stones is very small. The number of smaller stones is higher, and Rock Creek is no exception. The largest volume of sapphires we produce with cut gemstones in the range of 20 points to a carat, carat and a half, and the balance of what we produce is probably less than 5, 6 %, would produce stones more than a carat and a half, polished. So the largest volume of Rock Creek sapphires you'll see on the markets are between 10 to 15 points, up to a carat, carat and a half.

 

David:
So anything over a carat and a half is really getting to the point where you're talking about a very very rare gem.

 

Warren:
Yes, it's quite uncommon. I do very detailed size distribution analysis on our rock, and material that cuts two carat and up represents about 1 to 2% of our production. Even though it may cut at stones that size, because the larger crystals generally have natural fractures in them or whatever, the larger crystals don't necessarily cut larger gems.

 

David:
Now, you were talking a little bit about the hocus pocus, flux filling and glass filling and whatnot. Have you done, or do you have anybody who's done any kind of experiments with that? With any of the stones from Rock Creek, even if it's not to market it, just for fun? See if you can flux treat it, or whatever?

 

Warren:
Actually our material – you have to have material that improves on appearance by getting flux infilling. Really what flux infilling does is it takes a material that is full of cracks or surface-reaching fractures, and fills those up with a glass with a very close refractive index but not quite the same as sapphire. We don't need to do that on any of our sapphire. It's really tight stones with no surface-reaching fractures. If there's fractures in the stone, right now, our cutters are working around the fractures. Or if there's inclusions in the stone, they're either leaving them in there or we're heat treating them, so that the silk or rutile dissolves. So no, none of our material that I'm aware of has been flux infilled. There is a treatment called diffusion that some people are doing on sapphires. That's not an uncommon treatment to see on sapphires in today's market. And most of the diffusion, using the element called beryllium, it's called deep diffusion. It diffuses beryllium through the entire stone. It changes the appearance of our stones radically, but it also cheapens them. It turns them into very very inexpensive material on the markets. So we have made a conscious brand-protective decision not to sell our sapphires to areas where they're doing beryllium diffusion because we don't want the brand for our Rock Creek sapphires or Montana sapphires adversely affected by inordinate supplies of beryllium-diffused or titanium-diffused sapphires coming on the market.

 

David:
If gems are either beryllium- or titanium-diffused, is it still fairly easy to do an origin on that gem? Like if you would send – just say that if we were to take one of these stones that I have on the turntable, get it beryllium-diffused of whatever colour, send it off to GIA. Would they be able to do an origin certificate on it, or would that process change it so much that it would be unrecognizable?

 

Warren:
Well this is more of an academic question from my point of view. First of all, if the laboratory determines it's beryllium-diffused, it's cheap. Therefore there's no point having origin on it. So beryllium diffusion excludes the need for origin because origin tends to improve or reduce the value...I wouldn't say reduce, but improve the value of a stone. Like for instance, a classical Burmese ruby is worth a lot more than a Mozambique ruby of comparable colour and quality, only because of origin. We're educating laboratories around the world by providing them samples of all our materials so that they have reference collections that come directly, if you'll forgive the pun, straight from the horse's mouth. From our mining operation, uncorrupted samples. So they have control samples for analysis purposes, so that when stones are coming in for certification, they have a set of controls that they can compare them against. FTIR is a method for picking out Rock Creek Montana sapphires. We're challenged right now in the fact that many of the laboratories don't distinguish which mine it's from in Montana. They might say it's Montana but they won't say it's this mine or that mine or another mine. Thankfully the one I know from historical production figures that are well documented by the state of Montana, 91% of all sapphires produced in Montana, historically have come from Rock Creek. So you have a 91% chance that if it's a Montana sapphire, it's Rock Creek. Those numbers are available through Richard Berg, a Montana government geologist who's documented the historical production of sapphires. I did the analysis on his numbers and it turns out that 91% of the historical production was from Rock Creek.

 

David:
So Warren, can you tell us a bit about the treatment process for the Rock Creek Montana sapphires?

 

Warren:
Sure. First of all, I should put things into perspective. Of our production, about 8% of our production does not require heat treatment. And of the material that's very clean, has no silk in it, has a nice natural colour to it, we set it aside for cutting into no-heat sapphires or selling to clients at a premium price at no-heat sapphires. The balance of the material has, most of our crystals down the C-axis, there's often a little bit of silk in the core on the C-axis. So you can cut the stones with that silk in it, but the stones tend to look a little foggy. Some people like that, others don't. The trade tends to prefer a stone that's bright and clean, as you alluded to before what you like. Nice, bright, so that the stone doesn't look like it's dirty and you need to try to clean it all the time. So of those stones that are heat treated, there's a process involved.

The technology is not rocket science. It's just high-temperature ovens that use oxidizing in reducing atmospheres, and much like baking a cake, the people who know the recipes and produce the best cake and also the ones who have figured out the right recipe to heat treat the Rock Creek sapphires. They don't share with you the details. But I can tell you, to put things into perspective, it's a triple burn process. In other words, when they take the first heat treating, they put it up to a certain temperature in oxidizing atmosphere, and then let it cool down, look at it, and say, "Okay, so this one we should push it more this direction for colour, so we'll put it into reducing atmosphere. This one we should push it further with an oxidizing atmosphere." So then some of the sapphires go to oxidizing in the second burn, some of them go to reducing. And then after those three burns, they allow the stones to cool down and then you have the nice finished stone that improves the colour the most.

 

David:
I know when we were together last, water came up. You said that you opened up a new plant in 2019 and you were explaining to me – again, me not being on mine sites, take things for granted. Can you explain to us exactly how important water is in the mining process, and what you've done with that?

 

Warren:
Yes, good question David. If we didn't have water, we wouldn't be able to process our gravels because the gravel processing technique requires water. What we do is we run the muddy gravels over what's called a jig, and the jig pulsates and separates and washes off the murky water, the muddy water. And also the lightweight material floats off with the flow of the water over the jig. What's left behind is the sapphires, and the other heavy minerals are concentrated in the jig. But you need water for that process to happen. We're at the top of the mountain, our new processing plant is at the top of the mountain, and we have some water in the spring, occasional showers in the summer, but there's not a lot of water up there on the top of the mountain. This was the reason that the old time miners never mined up there, because they had no pumps. So what we do is we keep the water and we recycle it. We put in what's called a water clarifier. A water clarifier is something about the size of a school bus but taller. It's about 30 feet tall, about the same length as a school bus. And the many many hundreds or thousands litres of water go into that thing muddy and the water comes out clean. It looks like drinking water when it comes out. And then we use that clean water to recycle it back into the jig for processing. And I'll explain why you can't use muddy water to wash: because if you're using muddy water, the density of the water is different and if there's too much mud in there, it starts to carry your sapphires away. So it's very important that you have clean water absent of mud, so that your density of water is acceptable for the processing circuit. Now I'm not aware that any other miners in the past have recycled their water. To our knowledge, we're the only sapphire miners in the world that actually recycle 80 to 90% of our water. It's two-fold: it's beneficial to us because of the shortage of water on the top of the mountain, and secondly it means waste water is not entering the environment. So we're not making the creeks muddy and we're not making Rock Creek, which flows near us. Rock Creek is  famous blue ribbon trout stream. Fly fishermen come from all over North America to fish. We drive by them every day as we go to work. We see the fly fishermen in Rock Creek, fishing. If we put mud into that creek, we'd be a very nasty neighbour to them. So it's important to us. First of all, that's why we stay at the top of the hill. Secondly, we recycle all our water and we capture any muddy water or waste water and let it settle. And then any ground we disturb at the top of the mountain, we also rehabilitate. So water's very critical to processing for sapphires.

 

David:
That's really amazing. So you kind of have a set amount of water and you're just recycling that over and over again.

 

Warren:
That's true. We do use some makeup water. In the summer months when it's hot and dry there, we use some wells that give us some makeup water. We have a little creek that dribbles into the catchment basin and we capture the water there. So that's enough for us to use for makeup water.

 

David:
That's really impressive. Now, is there any risk of chemical contamination during this process of either, like you said, Rock Creek, or the surrounding area?

 

Warren:
Well, the wonderful thing about our processing circuit is we're only using water. We do use a material called a flocculent in our water clarifier, which is a benign organic product; it's not a chemical per se. What it does is it takes the suspended clay and forces it to drop out. If you've ever seen those water techs come to your home and persuade you that you need a water filter 'cause they put a little drop of something in a sample of water, and all of a sudden your water clouds and it's a bunch of sediment in the bottom of your drinking water coming out of your tap, and now you're convinced your water's polluted. All they're really doing is putting a drop of flocculent in the water that causes the suspended minerals in that water to precipitate out. That's exactly what we're doing, but we're not trying to sell water filters. We're not using any chemicals. We don't use any mercury to recover our gold, we don't use any chemicals to recover our sapphires. So therefore, none is getting into the environment.

 

David:
So there's zero risk.

 

Warren:
Zero risk. We're using hydrofluoric and hydrochloric acids to clean the sapphires, but we send them down to Butte, Montana which is an hour and a half's drive. We use a professional laboratory in Butte. Butte is a big mining town in Montana, and there's laboratories there that acid clean our stones using these caustic acids with fume hoods and proper protection. Those are the only acids or chemicals used in our processing, and they're done in laboratory under controlled conditions.

 

David:
That's fantastic. Now, while we're on this kick here, talking about the sustainability of the mine itself and just really how clean and responsible it is, can you tell us a little bit about how Potentate is encouraging land rehabilitation in the area?

 

Warren:
Oh by all means. First of all, anybody mining in Montana has to apply for and receive what's called a Small Miner's Exclusion Permit. And even though we may own over 3,000 acres of private land, we're not allowed to disturb 3,000 acres of land. The only thing the Small Miner's Exclusion Permit allows us to disturb is no more than five acres at a time. Because this is a fairly prodigious deposit, it's quite easy for us to do that. First of all, we only strip mine on the surface, so we're digging down to no more than about 15 feet of the weathered bedrock, and we're washing that weathered bedrock and recovering sapphires from it. Then any waste rock from our processing circuit is plowed back onto the areas we've disturbed, and then we put the topsoil back on top of that, and flash reseed it. So we never have more than five acres of disturbed ground at any given time, and anything we do disturb, as we progress during the summer, we rehabilitate the ground we worked on earlier in the season. So I would say that's very responsible, considering when we arrived on the property, the evidence of the damage done by the old timers was very evident. Also, when we arrived, we got 2,600 acres of land that was formerly owned by a forestry company, and every tree of any decent size was cut down on that. So we arrived with two and a half thousand acres stripped of trees, which is a lot more damage than what we're doing on our mining operation. No more than five acres.

 

David:
So you're really kind of, by the time you're done with a bit of land there, once there's a bit of time passes, kind of like we're winding the clock 120 or 130 years to before any mining was happening at all.

 

Warren:
Yes. I mean, the forest generates quite well. The area that had been mined by the miners back in the 1910 to 1935 is now full of trees that are 100 feet, 50 to 100 feet high. It's reforested in that time frame. But at the time, they didn't do any rehabilitation. They just slashed it out, washed it out, and left these big piles of rocks everywhere. 'Cause that's the way they did it at the time and it was accepted, it was using what's called hydraulic mining. Bg, like firehoses shooting water up on the hills and you get these  high-energy slurries coming down and you try to catch the sapphires in primitive sluice boxes. And they had no settling ponds, no water clarifiers, nothing. So that ended up in the valley. In fact, gold miners in San Francisco silted up San Francisco Bay from hydraulically mining gold upriver from San Francisco Bay. So it's, hydraulic mining is now banned in North America. No one does it, and you would never get a permit to do it because it's so damaging to the environment. So how we mine our sapphires is much more responsible than the way it was done previously. We have seen, in some other gem mining operations around the world, where these policies are not in place about rehabilitation, mining permits, and some of the devastation it's done on the environment in areas that are not controlled by this. So we're lucky in Montana, that there is a department that encourages us, and we're very responsible. We have to be, in today's market.

 

David:
Now this is going to sound like almost an odd question, especially for a lot of my viewers, because they know that I do have Rock Creek sapphires. But just because you did allude earlier on that some people want just the crystals. So normally we think of sapphires, or at least I think of sapphires as cut gems like what I have on the turntable here. And these are incredible quality stones. The two and a half carat oval is, I mean I've spent I don't know how many hours looking at it. But what I did want to ask is, kind of rewind that, you were talking about the crystals. How much of your material do you think is actually getting cut and polished like these gems as opposed to how much is being sold just as crystals that'll go into jewellery as crystals, or just being sold as crystals to collectors?

 

Warren:
Well that might be a little difficult question for me to answer because the bulk of what we sell as Potentate is rough. Most of my clients are people who are buying rough, and in that rough they get all sorts of qualities of material. Some suitable for nice crystals, others for cutting and polishing. I can tell from my clients who've shared with me that probably about 10 to 15% of what they sell, they sell as natural crystals to jewellery designers. The balance, they cut and polish into faceted stones or cabochon stones. And that's just a rule of thumb; I don't have any hard numbers to back that up with. But based on the trade shows I've been doing, that's about right. I think I got my booth expenses covered by selling flat crystals for jewellery designers in Tucson, and the balance of the sales were rough to other exhibitors who are cutting in Thailand, India, and Sri Lanka. I have cutters cutting in America, I've got cutters cutting in China, cutters cutting in Sri Lanka, India. All of these markets are pretty much closed down right now, so that comes back to that earlier question about COVID. So I would say that it's reduced the volume of our sales a bit, but not much. It's gonna recover quickly.

 

David:
I just have one last question, and that is that there's a 2016 article by GIA. You know that Potentate is selective in forming its relationships. Can you tell us a little bit about that, and you alluded to it a little bit, but tell us a little bit about what you look for in building relationships with your clients.

 

Warren:
Interesting question about the selection of the clients. First of all, most of our clients are rough clients as I mentioned earlier. I've also mentioned earlier that we're reluctant to sell material to people who will diffusion treat or do any flux treating of our sapphires, just 'cause we didn't want it to adversely affect the brand for our material. I learned from the experience of a previous miner that produced some sapphires from an operation in Africa. Because the buyers, the stone buyers at the time, didn't know how to heat treat it, all they simply did is they'd toss it in an oven with Beryllium, so 99% of the material that came from that mining operation was Beryllium-diffused, and therefore the market in this particular area decided that the material was cheap, worthless, and so it's only good for Beryllium diffusion. So when I saw that kind of reaction on some of our test samples we were showing to the market, I said, "Okay, I don't want Rock Creek sapphires or Montana sapphires adversely affected by a wholesale distribution of Beryllium-diffused, deep diffused material coming on the market. So yes, I'm selective in making sure that any of the clients who are likely to do that are not our clients. I can't control what my clients do with the rough, but I can control whether they have a second opportunity to purchase.

 

David:
Well, I mean, you can't control what they do with it after they bought it, but you can control who you sell to. Thank you so much Warren, for joining me and enlightening me and my viewers to the incredible Rock Creek sapphires, and telling us a lot, lot more about them.

 

Warren:
David, thank you very kindly for this opportunity. It's been an honour passing on some of the hard-won knowledge I've had on Rock Creek, and educating people on it because it's really important that people understand that we have a world-class resource here in North America that is just as good as some of the best sapphire resources elsewhere in the world. So it's been an honour being able to share some of my knowledge with you and your clients. Thank you.

 

David:
To the viewers who have stuck with us through this entire interview, thank you for watching. Thank you for joining me. I do have Rock Creek sapphires on the website, www.skyjems.ca. So come on over, join me, and take a look at some of the beautiful Rock Creek Montana sapphires that I have available for sale. Thank you all so much for watching. Have yourself a great day, and don't forget to tell your friends about Skyjems.ca. Bye for now.




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