Since 1955, Tucson has hosted an annual gem show. At first a local affair, today 65,000 global visitors crowd the city every February to buy and sell gems, minerals and fossils in the world’s largest such event. From $5 curiosities and quartz crystal balls the size of your head to fine rare rubies and ultra-expensive dinosaur fossils, Tucson has it all. Here’s a fine jewelry designer’s guide to the show!
Look, let’s just go ahead and say it. A lot of people think Tucson is just for rockhounds. And while, yes, it has its fair share of meteorites in the parking lot of the Econo Lodge (but I mean, still kind of cool, right?) and A LOT of what are basically, rocks, it’s also chock-full of some of the best gemstones and jewelry available in the world.
So, what is the Tucson Gem Show exactly? For starters, it’s not actually “a” gem show, but rather a convergence of thousands of gemstone merchants, mineral specimen sellers, and fine jewelers in the town of Tucson for about a month at the end of January and beginning of February. There are dozens of shows happening simultaneously and sprawling across the city, with exhibitors from, quite literally, all over the world. Some shows are found in cheap hotel parking lots and hallways, while the headline shows are at venues like the Tucson convention center. And if you don’t know where to look, it can be overwhelming.
So for starters, it’s safe to say that those in the fine jewelry trade will spend much of their time at the AGTA and GJX shows downtown, but these require wholesale buyer or student registration. This is where the ultra-nice (and expensive) gemstones are found.. and my version of heaven on earth : )
But of the shows that are open to the public, 22nd Street and Pueblo are my favorite. Before breaking these down though, let’s address a couple more practical questions!
Where to stay?
If you’re splurging
The Miraval Arizona or the (totally reimagined) Omni Tucson, both have beautiful spas and soothing rooms. If you’re truly looking for the desert spa experience, book a couple of extra days in Scottsdale or Sedona – but if it’s a quick out and back (like me), these do the trick!
If you splurging on jewels (and saving on accommodations)
I highly recommend one of the many van or camper rental companies in the Phoenix/Tucson area. While Tucson itself (imo) is surprisingly not pretty, it’s spoilt for nature on all sides. We have had kids with us a few years and used camper vans for ease of movement as a family, and it was SO fun. A word from the wise (learned the hard way): bring lots of warm clothes, especially if camping out by Mount Lemmon. Tucson is desert environment–so warm by day, but it can be oh, so cold at night!
Where to eat?
If after you’ve ogled all the Ethiopian opals, you’d like to stay on trend with some incredible Ethiopian food, go to Zeman’s Too. A staple in Tucson for over 30 years. Try the spiced cauliflower, you won’t regret it!
Tumerico is another favorite. Tucson is a rare solo trip for me (safe enough to go alone, short enough not to bring the kids), so I love to savor a place that’s just all about the kind of food I like to eat. Exotic, colorful (yes, like my jewelry) and vegan. And, it’s all about the fresh juices.
Maynards serves beautiful food and drinks in coupe glasses garnished with flowers all in a historical and atmospheric venue.. need I say more? Don’t miss a quick look at their chef’s garden.
Where to get coffee? (yes, that’s its own category!)
We love super fancy coffee (even if it is decaf) from a company with a hip (but refined) ethos when traveling. As I said, we’re picky, so here’s where we go in Tucson.
Exo Roast Co. Unique, strong, refined and served in real glasses. We love the local specialty drinks served here.
Raging Sage Coffee Roasters. Sustainability, strengthening community, and an incredible glass of coffee? Yes, please. The atmosphere is good, too.
So, now back to the gems! Here are my favorite shows open to the public:
22nd Street Mineral, Fossil, Gem, and Jewelry Show
This show is fun (and welcoming) for all ages. And it truly has a little bit of everything: from dinosaur bones, to vintage jewelry (like, the nice kind), to good gem-quality rough (gemstones before they are cut into pretty polished shapes). Some of my favorite booths to visit at this show are:
Lewis and Clark Sapphires: pretty Montana sapphires in everyone’s price range. They have beautiful rough as well as cut stones and even sapphire gravel bags (bags of gravel from the sapphire deposit that might contain little bits of sapphire rough…kind of like a grab bag!?)
Green River Fossil: okay, so not gemmy in the least, but hopefully one day we all would be so lucky as to have a custom fossil fireplace surround (don’t believe me, take a look on their website, the epitome of fly fish chic).
LarimarCA Inc: if you love turquoise and you love the turquoise blue of the Caribbean, check out this booth. Larimar is a mineral found only in the Dominican Republic and it’s said to have properties that can improve communication. I’m not usually a huge fan of carved stone, but even I could make room on my desk for one of these heart-shaped cuties.
Smart Opals: yes, if you love opals, you’d be smart to stop here. Steve Smart imports opals from the Lightning Ridge and Queensland fields and cuts them all himself. The quality (and quality of the cutting and polishing) is top notch.
Vter Young Gemstones: as a direct importer of east African gemstones ourselves, I’m always excited to see quality tourmalines, tsavorites, and garnets from the region at these shows. This booth has some beautiful, sizable pieces at competitive prices.
The Pueblo Gem and Mineral Show
Admittedly, by the look of this show the first time I checked it out (it takes over an 8 acre Ramada hotel and people sleep in the same rooms where they sell gemstones) I didn’t think I’d need more than 20 minutes to rule it out for sourcing – but boy was I wrong. Now it’s one of my favorite places in Tucson to find good deals on beautiful gemstones. Some of my favorite exhibitors are:
Cape Town Matrix Crystals: I love me some Umbra River sapphires and I always like them best when they are well cut. This is the best of both, plus – if you are interested in quality sapphire rough to cut yourself, it’s usually available here – which is saying a lot because it’s not that always easy to come by.
Gems by Nomads: another favorite place of mine to see (and sometimes buy) beautifully cut quality gemstones. It’s a plus that they often have sizable stones… you know, my favorite. And like many of these exhibitors, the team has direct relationships with the mines. Stop and chat with them, they’re really nice!
Ammolite Stones: ammolite is rare, iridescent, gem-quality material cut from the fossilized shells of extinct sea creatures, and found exclusively in the Canadian mountains. Such a fun and colorful stop!
John Dyer: a renowned gemstone cutter who really does elevate the artform of cutting. While I find that many of his more intricate cuts don’t really suit my taste for setting in jewelry, his magnificent stones are worth seeing as they show the extreme abilities of precision faceting combined with creativity.
Okay, and so here’s the thing. There are many other really special vendors that come to the Pueblo Show and elsewhere, but I can’t tell you them all (sorry!) because I’m keeping them to myself (not sorry!).