When you hear the phrase, “gem show,” what comes to mind? A trade show? A full convention center? A week of crowded hotel ballrooms and suites? Tents and booths along the road? A stadium-sized parking lot jammed with hundreds of vendors? Meetings of like-minded aficionados and tradespeople who share knowledge? Lectures, after-hours elbow-rubbing events, lunches and seminars? World-class exhibitions from famous institutions? Private sales of one-of-a-kind items with prices that would make the Smithsonian blush? Wholesale, retail and anything for sale, sale, sale? The annual Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, or Shows, in southern Arizona, is all of those things and so much more.
Started by some very enthusiastic and energetic rock-hounds and a lapidary club, what began as a row of tented booths (Tucson is hot, even in January and February) is now the largest gem, fossil, and jewelry trade and retail show in the world. Think about that for a sec.
Think about people all over the world moving not tons, but hundreds of tons of fossils from Madagascar, Russia, Morocco, Germany and elsewhere. There are whole shows of museum grade and collector grade gem and mineral specimens from Brazil, Mexico and India. Crates of pearls are emptied from China, Tahiti and the U.S.. Huge tubs and buckets of raw uncut opals, jade, agates and more come from Peru, Nevada, Australia and Ethiopia. On display in the convention centers are endless lighted cases of cut and faceted or polished diamonds, emeralds, sapphires, rubies, aquamarines, turquoise and just about any other gem you can name. There are tents for jewelry manufacture and gem-cutting and polishing tools, and table after table of gemstone beads. You can find already made jewelry, from gold-plated costume rings with crystals and imitation ivory necklaces to strings of natural sapphires and tens-of thousand-dollar diamond rings. And there are booths to the end of the horizon selling everything from art to hand-made Algerian rugs to aromatherapy soaps to scarves to purses to knives.
Now realize that all this commerce and craziness happens over a month and a half, from the end of January to mid-February, in many different areas of the otherwise conventional small retirement and college city of Tucson, in parking lots, hotels and convention centers. Are you panting from exhaustion yet? Well, you’re just getting started. And so was I, 15 years ago when I went to my first show. I had no idea what to expect, but what I’ve learned is that of all the things you might hear about the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, the word “show” is perhaps the most misleading.
During that 6 or so weeks, they turn over the convention center again and again, filling and emptying it like a recycling bin (only with minerals and gems) every week. The city swells to take in the amount of people, money, traffic, and sheer chaos that comes with the shows. And I consider myself blessed every year to be a part of it.
Every Spring I meet old suppliers and find new ones. I shop for specific items for clients and restock my own store of raw materials. I visit my mentors and talk shop. I look to see what is en vogue and what no one is buying or selling, and I compare and gauge prices on every aspect of the gem trade. I see what new materials are on the market and I gawk and rubberneck and ooh and aah. Most of all, I learn.
At the gem shows, I seem to learn more in that week or two than I learn all year long. Gem show people are generous, kind, knowledgeable, and eccentric. They are also rude, secretive, boorish and downright weird. But there seem to be many more of the first sort than the latter, and that will keep me going for many more years.
My children, along with my sainted in-laws who live in Tucson (and host us every year,) are the main reason we began going to the shows. And I am thrilled that our kids have continued to want to go with me every year. I have learned with the kids alongside me, like little sponges, shaking hands and learning to bargain and negotiate, enjoying the experience, and being wide-eyed at all the sparkle. And we do meet the most amazing people.
We met a guy who told my son that a meteorite would help him evolve his spirit, and some people that informed us which crystals would guard against psychic attack. I met a gem cutter and trader named David Epstein who hired me to edit his book on the gem trade for a new edition. My son met a professor at Arizona State who insisted on giving him an armful of fossil samples. We’ve had backstage tours of museums and collections that made our eyes just about pop out. I picked up a custom job from a man who’d just bought a very nice opal for his girlfriend who had recently been diagnosed with cancer. These are not just stories: they show how the gem shows have touched our lives and allowed us to participate in the lives of so many cool people.
Andrew and My Son, Colin, Carving Opals and Acting OutFour years ago my son met an Australian mine owner and black opal-polisher named Andrew Kemeny from Lightning Ridge, Australia who generously decided to teach my son his craft of polishing and finishing gem quality black opals. I met a crazy Russian lady who saw my daughter and would not let us leave until she had bought her some pretty pendant we’d been admiring. I’ve been hugged inappropriately and appropriately, and met each interaction with the proper response. I’ve met panners, flint knappers, prospectors, miners, gem dealers, experts and authors, Jaipur ruby cutters, Hasidic diamond merchants, geniuses, hustlers, and charlatans of every color and kind.
Yes, the Tucson Gem and Mineral Shows are awesome, and a nonstop joyride. But I will go back as much as I can because the knowledge I gain there (and the fabulous gems) is passed on to my customers in terms of quality and cost. I am a better jewelry designer, gem buyer and all-around person, because of them. Thanks Tucson! There’s a lot more to you than cowboys and cacti.