Saturday, September 19, 2020

Rock solid: New shop specializes in Yogo sapphires

Daily Inter Lake | August 30, 2020 1:10 AM

Opening The Sapphire Shoppe in Columbia Falls hasn’t been too rocky for Jan and Murry Graham — at least not in any way the gem enthusiasts aren’t used to.

The couple has been running rock shops in the valley since the early 1990s, and their latest venture seems to be off to a strong start since its July debut.

“It’s been great,” reported Jan, who opened her first rock shop almost 30 years ago in 1991 in Hungry Horse.

The Grahams have lived just outside Columbia Falls for almost 50 years. They got into the rock business together after they both worked in West Glacier and developed a feel for the tourists passing through on their way to Glacier National Park.

Their Hungry Horse rock shop lasted until 2018, and along the way they opened a second location in Bigfork. This year, they decided to move their business closer to home and concentrate all of their attention on a smaller shop in Columbia Falls.

Over the past few months, they constructed a new building next to St. Richard Catholic Church along U.S. 2. They opened the doors to The Sapphire Shoppe in July, and so far Jan said the shop has been bustling with a healthy mix of out-of-town tourists and loyal locals, who followed them from Bigfork to Columiba Falls.

“Everybody loves a rock shop,” she pointed out.

There’s a lot to love at The Sapphire Shoppe. The store’s shelves are overflowing with jewelry and geodes, with more to come as Jan unpacks her massive collection from the Bigfork shop. She hand-selects everything in the store, with a special focus on rarities that she said rock collectors will be hard-pressed to find anywhere else.

“There’s a little bit of everything,” Jan said. “There are lots of things that people haven’t seen before.”

The selection ranges from Montana sapphires and agates — the latter hand-cut by Murry with a diamond-edged saw — to rare gems sourced from exotic places such as the Dominican Republic, Afghanistan and Madagascar.

“It’s just amazing what’s out there,” Jan noted.

But the crown jewel at The Sapphire Shoppe is the array of Montana Yogo sapphires, a rare blue stone only found in one remaining location in the world, outside of Lewiston. Yogo sapphires have the classic blue coloring traditionally associated with sapphires in general, but Yogos are never heat-treated to achieve this coloring, unlike almost all other commercial gems. They’re unique, too, because they’re found in ore, while other sapphires are found loose, usually in streams or rivers.

This creates a labor-intensive process for removing the Yogos from the surrounding rock, which the Graham family knows firsthand. They personally mine their Yogos by hand in the mine outside Lewiston. They’re one of only a handful of people with a claim to mine a section of the Yogo source, and the entire family has been working to extract the gems — without the use of any mechanical tools, which are prohibited at the site — for about 20 years.

Since the Yogos are so hard to find, not to mention beautiful, they tend to be the biggest seller at the Graham’s shop.

“They sell themselves,” Jan said with a laugh, herself decked out in a ring, necklace and set of earrings inlaid with the coveted blue gems.

But she pointed out there’s something for everyone at The Sapphire Shoppe, even if the rare blue sapphires aren’t everybody’s first choice.

Jan prides herself on her selection of children’s items, including fossils, paleontology kits, and affordable rocks, crystals and geodes. Her own passion for rock collecting started when her father first gave her a small box to hold her rocks as a little girl, so she’s passionate about inspiring the next generation of rock collectors with an appealing and accessible array of items for young customers.

It’s become a little bit more challenging to accommodate customers of all ages amid the COVID-19 pandemic, since visitors are currently being asked not to handle the merchandise to avoid spreading the novel coronavirus. But despite these hurdles, Jan reported, “so far, everybody’s been pretty good.”

Even after 30 years in the business, three location changes, and a pandemic, Jan remains as upbeat as ever about the family’s latest endeavor.

“We’ve got good tourist traffic, and locals, too,” she said. “We’re really happy with the building. We’re really pleased with it.”

The Sapphire Shoppe is located at 901 12th Ave. W. in Columbia Falls. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., every day during the summer. Private showings are also available. Call (406)-260-6460 to schedule.

Reporter Bret Anne Serbin may be reached at 758-4459 or