A First-Timer’s Guide to Shopping the Tucson Shows
I remember the first time someone told me that the biggest gem show in the world was in Tucson, AZ, every February. I remember thinking, ‘You must be mistaken. I’ve been to Tucson . . .” Then I went; boy, was I wrong.
For those who haven’t been to Tucson (and everybody in the industry just says Tucson) it’s like taking a drink from a fire hose. It isn’t one show, it’s over 40 shows. Gems, minerals, stones, and jewelry take over the entire town for three weeks. It truly is unbelievable. When tackling Tucson for the first time, there are a number of things you need to do to prepare.
Prepare for the Tucson Shows
Get the Tucson Show Guide. That’s the first step, so you can see where all the shows are and who is at which. There’s also the weather to take into account. If you’ve never been in the desert in the winter, you may think it’s always hot. While it’s usually sunny and 70, it can get chilly in the evening, even downright cold. I remember one morning a few years ago, we got up to go to breakfast at 8:00 a.m., and it was 18° outside! It was not a shorts and flip-flop day. Tucson can also be windy — to me, the worst part of desert weather. It can make you miserable, and about all you can do is as always dress in layers and then just hope you get lucky. And hot or cold, Tucson is also usually very dry (although it does rain sometimes), so drink plenty of water because you will need it.
Assuming you’ve planned ahead and have a place to stay and three or four days to spend at the shows, you’ll want to try to figure out where to spend your time. There is no way to hit all of the shows. You have to ask yourself, what do I want to buy? Because let’s face it, Tucson is all about buying. Do you want beads? What kind of beads? Do you like mineral specimens? How large or how small? Do you want finished stones? Cabochons or faceted? Diamonds, rubies, agates, turquoise, variscite, tanzanite, tourmaline, et cetera, et cetera. It’s all there. Do you want rocks? By the pound? By the ton? Do you want slabs? Polished or unpolished? Are you starting to get my drift?
There really is too much to choose from in Tucson. You will never get it all figured out on your first trip. The best you can do is try to make a plan and see what you like and what you don’t. Every year, I take notes on the shows and dealers and restaurants and hotels to remind myself the next year of what to do and not do. There’s a certain Biker Taco Restaurant that I’ll never go back to, for instance, though it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Start your plan with your Tucson Show Guide, reviewing the shows, the dates they’re open, their locations, and the kinds of dealers and merchandise they have on offer. Don’t get wed to it because your plan will definitely change as you make your way around the shows, but it will be a starting point. Bear in mind that some shows are open to the public and some shows are wholesale only. You may think a certain show is just what you want, but you may not be able to get into it. Check each show out before you get there. You have to preregister for some, and I highly recommend it as you don’t want to spend your time in Tucson standing in lines and filling out forms.
And another thing: one of the things I love about Tucson is that I get to see all my jewelry peeps from across the nation.
Find Your Favorites
Everyone’s interests are different, and everyone’s Tucson is different, too. With that in mind, let me tell you about some of my favorite shows and why they work for me. The first stop I would recommend all newbies go to is “the Strip.” It’s really a number of shows that are set up in the hotels along the I-10 service drive (called Freeway) as you get into Tucson. One of my favorites is the Pueblo Gem & Mineral Show at the Ramada by Wyndham (formerly the Riverpark Inn). They have a wide variety of merchandise from finished jewelry to raw stones. There is some fabulous turquoise at this show. It is also where Bill Fretz sets up and sells his fabulous hammers and stakes. (I never get out of there without buying something.)
Another favorite is the Kino Gem & Mineral Show at the Kino Sports Complex. There is a lot of rough — which I love — dino bone, Tiffany Stone, etc. For you lapidary buffs, there is a lot of equipment there and tons of slabs and cabs. Speaking of slabs and cabs, gemologist John Heusler is usually there selling. Be sure and stop by and say hi. He’s one of the most knowledgeable people in the industry and a genuinely nice guy. Kent’s Tools also used to have a big booth there. They now stay at their store location, but if you’re looking for tools, it’s a must-see. Speaking of tools, another nice guy and fount of knowledge is Kevin Potter of Potter USA. You’ll have to look them up, but you can go by his place during regular business hours and see where the magic happens. Believe me, it’s worth a little side trip.)
Another show that I would recommend for first timers is the G&LW show at the Gem Mall (and its “sister” show, the Holidome Show). You’ll have to look up the location, because it’s really just a big field with some of the biggest tents you’ve ever seen! You have to register for the shows, so again, preregister so you don’t have to stand in line. You literally could spend all day here. They have a lot of beads, specimens, jewelry, cabs, a little rough, curios, and much more.
A much smaller show I like to visit is the American Indian Arts Exposition at the Flamingo Quality Inn. It’s a little north of downtown, but worth the drive. Native Americans display their art, from rugs and pottery to jewelry. There usually are also some really fine turquoise cabochons for sale, and it’s just fun to talk with the artists about their work.
I have always liked going to the To Bead True Blue Show, which moved south to the Casino del Sol in 2018. It’s definitely a drive, but a great show and well worth it. It also has some of my favorite people and classes there.
The J.O.G.S. show at the Tucson Expo Center is another show I never miss. They have all kinds of stones and jewelry and rough and jewelry and clothing and jewelry and turquoise and jewelry. And I always say hi to my buds from JewelryTools.com.
If you’re into minerals and fossils and dinosaur bones, the 22nd Street Mineral, Gem, Fossil & Jewelry Show is for you. As advertised, it’s on 22nd street (part of the Strip). And last year, they added a Showcase tent which displays some of the coolest fossils and meteorites and other wild rocks. Not only that, but as you walk in the tent, you’re confronted by full-size, complete skeletons, saber- toothed tigers, and more! The Showcase was so successful in 2018 that the show expanded in 2019.
Shop the Big Shows
Now on to the big shows. The AGTA GemFair is at the Tucson Convention Center and is a sight to behold. You must qualify to register for the show, but if you do, it’s like Disneyland. They have an amazing array of colored gemstones, pearls, and high-end jewelry. And just across the street from AGTA is the GJX Show. They have a fabulous assortment of jewelry, stones, findings, pearls, cabs, and lots of other goodies.
Truly, this is just a brief overview of a few of the shows in Tucson. There are also a lot of classes available each year, and it seems to be growing. JewelryTools.com at the J.O.G.S. Show has a number of classes with lots of great teachers. Art Retreat in the Desert has classes at the Hilton East. Last year, Richard Salley, Susan Lenart Kazmer, and yours truly taught there. To Bead True Blue has a number of classes. In 2018, my buddy Deb Mauser was teaching there. You will just have to dig in and find what you’re interested in.
Buy It Then!
A couple final words of advice — if you see something you like, buy it! I know you think you’ll come back or maybe find it somewhere else a little cheaper, but it probably won’t happen. Just buy it! Also, whatever you buy, write it down. Write down what it is and who you bought it from. I always think I’ll remember, but when I get home, I have all of this stuff and I look at half of it and wonder, “Where did that come from? What was this stone?”
All in all, Tucson is an adventure. I love going there, seeing what’s new, seeing my friends from across the country, talking shop, and catching up. You never know who you’ll run into or what you’ll find!
First published in the 2019 Tucson Show Guide.