Tucson Treasure Hunting
With dozens of shows and an entire world of shiny objects on display, exploring the Tucson Gem & Mineral Show is an incredible adventure
Exploring the Tucson Gem & Mineral Show
By Suzanne Wright
I’m what’s known as a “Navy brat.”
Every two years throughout my childhood, we’d move. While dad would go ahead to the next base in Germany or Alaska or Maryland, mom would shift into pack-it-up-and-go-gear. My two younger sisters and I got stern instructions: clothes, books, games and stuffed animals were boxed up for our next home; everything else extraneous was jettisoned.
From a young age, I was a collector; I still am. Collecting stamps or shells satisfied the packing restrictions simply because they were lightweight. Rocks, however, presented a problem.
For a bookish, awkward young girl who was uprooted so frequently, making friends was difficult. I believe that’s why the things I acquired took on larger importance. So I was loathed to give up my cherished collection, which included smooth black river stones, smoky quartz, glinting pyrite, marbled agate, amethyst, bluest turquoise, feldspar and pale green jade.
I was cunning. Careful to distribute my treasures—and thus, the weight—between boxes, I secreted rocks into the toes of shoes and tucked stones up the sleeves of sweaters. To this day, I have no idea if my mom knew what I did.
As an adult, I’ve moved a number of times and rocks still find their way into my home. I keep a polished chrysanthemum stone on my desk to palm between paragraphs when words are slow to emerge. My dining room table features a small pile of rough red rocks and chrysocolla found on hikes here in Arizona. Friends have gifted me with iridescent labradorite and a heart-shaped malachite.
“Rockhounds” like me are legion. And there’s no better place to buy, trade or simply gawk at them than at the annual Tucson Gem & Mineral Show.
Rocks and Stone and Jewels, Oh My!
Billed as “the largest, oldest and most prestigious show of its kind,” it attracts 55,000 attendees—hobbyists, dealers and the curious—from across the globe. Mention you are going and anyone with even a passing interest in rocks says, wistfully, “I’ve always wanted to go.” Or “I went once with my husband and daughter. I want to go again—alone this time.”
My Iowa grandparents had a subscription to Arizona Highways, so I’d known about the show’s existence for years. A few years ago, I was able to attend for a day; of course, that was not nearly enough time. I was completely overwhelmed by the sea of brilliantly colored jewels of wildly varying textures and sizes in booth after booth, aisle after aisle.
During my browsing time, I ogled beautiful loose stones including diamonds, rubies and sapphires, intricately patterned African beads, fascinating fossils and sparkling geodes. Some sold for as little as $1; others ranged into hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some dealers were open to bartering—with a gentle touch, of course—and with reasonable expectations; others were firm on their prices.
I spent a long time admiring a faceted lemon yellow citrine shaped like a teardrop. It was a bit out of my budget, but I thought it might be worth splurging on. Alas, I hesitated, moving on to other shiny distractions. A few hours later when I returned to the dealer, it had been snapped up.
Lesson learned: if you see something you like, buy it on the spot.
My disappointment was slaked when an hour or so later, as closing time neared, I found a breathtaking boulder opal. Its luminous iridescence literally took my breath away. I plunked down my credit card in under a minute. Yes, it ate into the monthly mortgage payment. But I had it set into a pendant that brings me delight—and fond memories of Tucson—every time I don it. I looked up the meaning of the stone: its rainbow hues symbolize hope and luck. That’s worth stretching my budget for, I rationalized. You, reader, may prefer to forgo jewelry purchases for a period of time in advance. Without question, there are good deals to be had here.
The gem show is actually multiple shows—at least 45 are planned for 2016—spread out over multiple venues. Some are open to the public; others are wholesale only. It runs for two weeks and takes over all of Tucson. Be forewarned: hotel rooms are both scarce and pricey for procrastinators.
The kind of military precision my mother honed moving us around the world would have come in handy for this immersive experience.
Numerous blogs are dedicated to helping first-timers navigate its enormity. Key takeaways: Bring a wheeled duffel bag with water, sunblock and wet wipes; stow your purchases inside said bag. Wear sturdy shoes; flip-flops won’t cut it. Use the free shuttles. Fuel your show trekking at one of the new many restaurants that have enlivened downtown since the installation of light rail in summer 2014. Finally, forget about trying to see it all—that’s impossible. Instead, plan a return trip.
Austin-based Nicole Richards is a TV show host for the Liquidation Channel and a graduate gemologist. She’s attended the show both professionally and for fun four times. Shopping networks are big customers; her colleagues found 26 new gemstones “with potential” last year.
“If you’re looking for something and you can’t find it in Tucson, it can’t be found,” she says.”Even if it’s not here, someone at the show will know where to find it.”
Though many come to Tucson specifically for the Gem Show, they stay for a host of other reasons. The winter weather is amazing. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is an open-air destination like no other. There’s first-rate shopping. And the tamales are worth a trip themselves.
I love the friendly western ambiance at Li’l Abner’s Steakhouse and JW Marriott Starr Pass’s patio views. Like most visitors, I was bewitched by the beauty of the land.
During my last visit to Tucson, I asked some locals about places to view a great sunset and several of them mentioned Gates Pass. The drive takes you through mountains covered with cactus and there are hiking trails into the desert. While in Gates Pass I watched the most beautiful sunset that I have ever seen in my life and then experienced an amazing view of the city lights while driving back into town. It's definitely a ‘must do / must see’ while in Tucson.
I’m already planning to score a few new rocks for my collection at an upcoming show. I might even tuck a few into my well-worn cowboy boots for old time’s sake.
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