Southwestern Treasure Hunt

Writing and photos by Star Soza


Mention the name Tucson to anyone associated with the jewelry industry and you’ll see the light of recognition flash in their eyes along with wistful longing and excitement. What incites such a response, you might ask? Well the renowned Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, of course. Not just one show, but a conglomeration of over 45 unique events and venues over a two week period every winter that attracts tens of thousands of people to the desert city.  

That single word, Tucson, describes a panoply of trade shows, flea markets, street vendors that cover literally miles of the Interstate 10 corridor. Back in 1955, the Gem Show started as a humble mineral club show. Over the years the focus expanded and other promoters added specialty events. Now you’ll find not only minerals but also incredible fossils, meteorites, crystals and geodes, gemstones in both their raw crystalline forms and exquisitely faceted, pearls and beads in every color and shape, native artifacts and products from around the world as well as a fascinating array of colorful characters hailing from over 25 countries.

What started in a couple of Quonset huts in 1955 is now housed in a modern convention center and huge permanent tents with carpeted floors and air conditioning. Nearly every hotel along the interstate hosts a separate show with vendors lined up in their parking lots, central courtyards, ballrooms and even in the guest rooms. Each venue can have a specific theme. A festive mood prevails among the visitors while the vendors, who are often there for weeks at a time, simply strive to endure the long hours and exhausting interactions. The influence of this now massive undertaking is vast, injecting over $120 million into the local economy, not to mention the global wave of money that ripples all the way from dusty mine shafts worked by artisanal miners in remote corners of exotic countries to the polished counters of some of the finest jewelry stores.  

One posh highlight is the annual award dinner at The Spectrum Awards, hosted by the American Gem Trade Association. Something that Susan and I have both attended on various occasions over the years as we collected our own trophies and accolades for our jewelry designs. The Spectrum Awards are sometimes likened to the jewelry trades version of The Oscars. The similarity extends right down to the red carpet and the fashion photo shoots that include celebrity models wearing the winning designs.

I have personally attended the Gem Show for about 30 years running. In the early days, I was on the hunt for raw materials like opal and turquoise to have cut into unique cabochons and to inlay into gold jewelry. Later my search evolved to seeking out new colors and shapes in gemstone and pearl beads that I would craft into fashion jewelry for my store. For the past six years, I have been joined on my journey by my in-store designer, Susan Drake. Our emphasis tends to be on exotic fine gems, baroque Tahitian and South Sea Pearls, ancient artifacts and coins, and new jewelry designers to supplement Spectrum Fine Jewelry’s collections.

Just this year we met with and purchased from vendors from Brazil, Africa, China, India, Australia, Russia, Germany, Mexico, Thailand, Turkey, Afghanistan and more. Sometimes we deal directly with the person who mined the material, the one who cuts the gems, or with brokers who travel the world to purchase from local miners out in the bush to bring back materials for their cutting shops to process. Some businesses are vast in scope and take over an entire tent the size of a football field. Others are tiny operations focused on one specific product or mineral. All have fascinating stories and their own particular perspective on the world. There are a large number of family-run businesses, often with multiple generations that grow up in the trade. Over the years I’ve watched kids playing around some booths until they step up and I find myself negotiating with the next generation.

While attending the shows is highly educational, there are many opportunities for learning outside of the tents. The bigger trade shows offer seminars and symposiums. The tools and equipment suppliers have training sessions. The Gemological Institute of America (GIA) hosts some of their lab courses where jewelers can gain credits toward their Graduate Gemologist degrees. The bead shows give demonstrations of stringing techniques and lampwork glass bead making. For instance, Tucson is where I got a chance to preview the new laser welder I purchased earlier this year. I even tried it out and ended up blowing a few holes in an old ring (on purpose, for the fun of it). Good thing my jeweler is more skilled with it than I am. Every year the Gem Show is an excellent resource to learn the latest developments in the jewelry industry covering everything from new mineral finds, industry trends, ethics and standards, technology both in the workshop and at the jewelry counter, just to name a few.

Each visit I prefer to attend with an open mind, ready to be surprised and delighted and seduced by something new and different. One year it was amazing fossil sculptures created by an artist from Germany. Another time we discovered a talented Russian American knife maker. Among this year’s highlights was a coin dealer with a wealth of knowledge about ancient Greek and Roman Coins. At another road-side show, I purchased several large sliced and polished agate and crystal geodes, something I have been coveting for many years. Susan and I were both entranced with rose-cut gems and purchased a colorful collection in Tourmaline, Moonstone, Tanzanite, Aquamarine and Spinel. You can expect to see these highlighted in our new jewelry collections in the months ahead.

I can honestly say that attending “Tucson” is one of the highlights of my year. It inspires and enlightens and helps jumpstart me into new directions in my jewelry business.