SECRETS OF SHOPPING THE TUCSON
GEM & MINERAL SHOWS
Tucson is a unique town.
We embrace and take pride in our vibrant multi-culturalism, our colorful artistic quirkiness, our love of the desert landscape, and refer to all who live here as Tucsonans. However, we are split into two camps on one very important subject — the gem and mineral shows. There are those (such as myself) who live, breathe, touch, taste, smell and empty our pockets during the shows, and those whose only goal is to avoid them entirely. While I can’t explain the irrational behavior of the latter group — and I’m free to write this as they won’t be reading this website anyway — I can give the reader an insider’s view into why the gem show lures, attracts, and ultimately changes the lives of many Tucsonans, and how we’ve left our own indelible mark on this international event.
Lucky is what we local show attendees call ourselves, since we don’t need to find a place to stay or pay inflated hotel fees, and we know all the secret parking spaces. For those of us here in town, the shows start in mid-October, gear up in December, come to a full boil in late January, and don’t lose steam until the end of February. We are out there early scouring the stock of newly arriving vendors for unique offerings, setting up display racks, delivering the Tucson EZ-Guide and getting our own goods ready for sale. By the time the tents are down, the freeway-side hotels are back to $29.99-a-night double-occupancy, and the last bottle of vodka the Russian meteorite dealers brought for “drinking the health of their customers” is empty, we need a two-month vacation. But we love it with all our hearts and cannot imagine Tucson without the gem and mineral shows.
Locals have the benefit of comparison-shopping, and have developed a strong sense of when to immediately purchase a never-seen-before or will-never-see-again specimen, and when to walk away. In fact, I established a personal rule five years ago that I would not buy from rude sellers. I’m admittedly one of those cagey buyers who will gladly leave behind a painstakingly selected tray of merchandise at a booth if the seller’s attitude needs adjusting. Locals have learned from experience that another vendor, just a few booths down the line, will often have equal or superior merchandise. Furthermore, I’ve noticed that my own finished jewelry pieces fashioned from materials purchased with good intention come together better, more quickly, and also sell faster.
Such consumer confidence comes only with the ability to be at the shows all three weeks, everyday, and has proven to be quite empowering.
One aspect of the shows that astounds me is the vast amount of knowledge represented in a concentrated area—experts from every field related to the rock, fossil, and jewelry businesses congregate in Tucson for the better part of a month. For those willing to listen and learn, the experience is akin to studying for a master’s degree. As a local Tucson silversmith, jewelry designer, and writer, I have benefited professionally through developing strong business and personal relationships with an international array of buyers and sellers. When you deal one-on-one with mine owners, direct traders, and multi-generational family businesses, the up-to-date information you receive comes straight from the horse’s mouth. Arriving from the far corners of the globe, experts bring with them a melting pot of languages, ideas, textures, and sights. The combination can be overwhelming or reassuring, depending on your mind-set.
As for insider secrets during the shows, there are more than a few I am willing to share. I always carry loads of extra business cards, photocopies of my business license, and a hardbound notebook to detail, for tax purposes, my many small cash purchases. Sturdy, worn-in cowboy boots or sandals (depending on the weather) are imperative. My good friend Geoff carries with him, everywhere, a container of antiseptic wipes, partly to avoid catching the “dreaded gem show flu,” and partly because “rocks can be quite dirty.” My sister Beth heads down to walk “the strip” with me every year and stock up on Chinese silk backpacks for her and her girls. I thriftily accumulate inexpensive bits and pieces to give out during the year for birthdays, anniversaries and no-reason-needed gifts. Near-daily excursions to the African Village for food keep us nourished and energized for more shopping, while temporarily transporting us to an unexplored part of the globe.
Many local buyers are not able to shop the wholesale shows, but show up in force to peruse and purchase at roadside tents, or borrow a wholesale pass from a friend. Nearly every household in Tucson boasts at least one amethyst cathedral, unique piece of jewelry, exotic textile, fossil specimen or handicraft purchased at the gem shows. Even those who don’t prowl the show themselves cannot avoid receiving its goods as gifts or buying them retail (amateurs!) at local shops.
I have many fond personal gem show memories, but the best times involve socializing after a long day of shopping and selling. This is when you hear the true behind-the-scenes gossip, both personal and business:
“Did you hear some new ‘mystery’ buyer dropped $75,000 on one meteorite?”
“Naresh at Rodeway has faceted multi- colored sapphires for thirty dollars a strand!”
“Donde puedo comprar una botella de tequila bueno en este pueblo?”
These snippets remind us that serious international-scale business is always being conducted in Tucson, yet it doesn’t preclude a little fun and laughter. Fraternizing after hours around the pools at the InnSuites, Holidome or the Riverpark, you will find buyers unloading their finds of the day, rediscovering forgotten purchases in the bottom of a purse or rolling bag, and exclaiming over their new acquisitions with colleagues, friends, and rivals.
Tucsonans often find themselves playing “tour guide for the day” to out-of-town visitors. New friends wind up staying at my centrally located house each year, filling my home with excitement and laughter. I benefit from these visitors by seeing things through their fresh perspective and knowledge, and by recharging my sometimes waning enthusiasm late in the show. Just when I think I know it all, some first-timer will introduce me to an unexplored corner of the show, proving that even after fifteen years of scouring the shows this “old-timer” can still learn new tricks. That’s the beauty of the Tucson gem and mineral shows, they are flexible and ever changing, and there are always a slew of new vendors — sometimes even entirely new shows — waiting to be discovered.
Some visitors come to Tucson to attend the shows and end up moving here permanently, or visiting Tucson at other times during the year. Many hardworking Tucson corporate types have been wooed by the allure of stones and threw it all in to buy and sell rocks. Other Tucsonans have created an entirely new market at the gem shows by drawing attention to a little exploited area of trade — as with the famous Robert Haag who helped make meteorite collecting an international phenomenon. Still others have developed a reputation or built a new career due, in part, to the global attraction the Tucson shows receives.
Each Tucsonan has her or his own personal story of the show, but we all share visitors’ excitement, wonder, frustrations, and appreciation of everything that makes Tucson the world’s premier international marketplace.
Tucson invites you to get out and explore the many wonders of our unique small city, and most importantly to enjoy the 2008 Tucson gem and mineral shows. Who knows, maybe you will be the next to give into the urge, move to Tucson and become an insider like us. So, when you see a black Toyota truck with AZ plates feel free to follow me on my quickest short cut to the next show. But don’t even think about stealing one of my secret parking spots — I’ve worked too long and hard to find them.
article orginally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the 2008 edition
of The Tucson EZ-Guide and is presented here by kind permission of the editor
and publisher. © 2008 by Xpo Press. All rights reserved.