Perusing the Annual Arizona Gem Shows

Top finds in Tucson: From pinks and peaches to a range of blues, dozens of fairs across the city delivered vibrant color, even as steep prices left buyers cautious.

April 2, 2024  |  Jennifer Heebner

Rockhounds routinely delight in shopping the annual gem shows in Tucson, Arizona, which take place over several weeks each January and February. And with more than 40 individual fairs all over the city — including the American Gem Trade Association (AGTA) GemFair Tucson and the Gem & Jewelry Exchange (GJX) show, which both ran from January 30 to February 4 this year — there’s much to see.

Business was decent at the 2024 editions, according to most exhibitors, though foot traffic seemed light. Buyers who attended bought boldly, with no hesitation. However, high prices and shipping bills still plagued most dealers, with two major wars and a general rise in prices forcing up costs.

For Dudley Blauwet of the eponymous wholesale gemstone business, shipping costs skyrocketed nearly 25% from 2022 to 2023. This year, one international shipper raised its prices three times in January alone.
“There must be huge premiums to ship out of a war zone,” he speculates. But even parcels going to non-warring nations are expensive. He recently sent a package to Sri Lanka, and it cost $800 — much higher than in the past.

“Everything has gone up, the dollar is weak, and I can’t see where the relief will be,” he laments. “The Chinese market is weakening a bit, but there are just no margins left; you can’t buy a gem for $200,000 and hope to sell it on a 10% margin.”

Blauwet’s massive inventory — he brought more than 20,000 gemstones to exhibit at two Tucson shows — served him well. From Ukrainian-sourced topaz, kite-shaped gems, and garnets of every color, to unheated sapphires in blue, purple and pink, he had a little bit of everything.

“We brought 80 boxes of fluorescent Malaya-origin garnets to sell, and we were left with 30 [boxes],” he says of the Tanzanian material.

Along with colorful garnets and fancy cuts like hexagons and kites, gemstone trends at the show included Barbiecore (still) and Pantone’s Color of the Year, Peach Fuzz.

Alexander Kreis, principal at Kreis Jewellery in Düsseldorf, Germany, had an exceptional 22.37-carat, no-heat padparadscha sapphire from Sri Lanka with a report from the Swiss Gemmological Institute (SSEF), as well as an appendix letter.

“It was newly mined material from 2022 and is special because of its colors — a perfect mix of orange and pink,” he explains. “It attracted a lot of interest but is still available for sale.”

There’s also a growing appetite for “pastel blues, from cornflower to icy pastel,” says Kimberly Collins, owner of Kimberly Collins Colored Gems in Reno, Nevada.

On the other end of the blue spectrum, Daniel Assaf, owner of Tsavorite Factory in New York, brought an old rough lot of color-change garnet from the production that came out of Lindi, Tanzania, around 2010 to 2012.

“The color is really unique: They are untreated teals that are beautiful,” says Assaf. “We cut the entire parcel into full diamond cuts. It’s definitely a one-time product. The daylight color is teal, and the incandescent-lit color is violet. I only have a total production of 300 carats cut in 1.5- to 2.5-millimeter rounds, and the mine stopped producing a long time ago.”

A 22.37-carat, no-heat padparadscha
sapphire sourced and cut in Sri Lanka, from
Kreis Jewellery. (Kreis Jewellery)
I attend the shows to shop for designers and private collectors. This year, I spied table-cut Jedi spinel with luminous, glowy crystals; Mandarin garnets; and garnets from Mali. I also purchased a 12-carat deep sea scallop pearl from the Bay of Fundy. The pearl has an interesting neutral color with white platelets and flames and looked like a little moon.

I also bought some ancient carnelian beads from Mesopotamia, where they patterned the beads by bleaching designs onto them, typically by coating them with animal dung, which acts as a resist (preventing the bead from bleaching uniformly), and then painting the designs onto them with a highly alkaline solution of lye and vegetable gums. Then the beads were fired. The dung slowly burned away, protecting the body of the bead while the bleaching agent reacted with the carnelian and permanently etched the design into the stone.

I love how everyone is showing the best of their very best — it makes [it possible to curate] the greatest material. I also really love connecting to everyone’s passion and palpable exuberance, which feels omnipresent at the shows.

David Frank

Curator, David Charles Frank, New York
When we go to Tucson, we buy Big Three colored gems, boulder and Australian opals, diamonds, and tourmalines. I also like to see what dealers are excited about; it’s surprising what people pull out of the case.

This year, we bought lots of interesting shapes like portrait and shield cuts, and since Peach Fuzz is the Pantone Color of the Year, dealers showed me pinks and reds and adjacent colors and variations.

What I love most about Tucson is how it’s a huge source of inspiration. We hear stories from dealers who bring us the gems, like padparadscha sapphires, and those play into our inspiration process and designs.

In Tucson, we are reminded that we are a part of a bigger process and community, and how these gems came out of the earth. It’s mind-blowing, and a feast for the eyes. Some of our new acquisitions will be featured in a new Wonderland collection that will debut at Couture. It’s playful, made in the spirit of rock candy and fun influences taken from Alice in Wonderland, where we play with soft shapes and round edges mixed with angular details.

I also get to visit my favorite Tucson restaurant — The Silver Saddle Steakhouse!

Lena Agdere

Brand Manager, Lord Jewelry, Los Angeles
This year, we sold all kinds of akoya [and] South Sea pearls, including some Cleopatra strands. My grandfather developed them years ago. Cleopatra strands are side-drilled baroque akoyas with a silhouette inspired by the wide necklaces that Liz Taylor wore in the 1963 film Cleopatra.

Cleopatra strands used to be in torsades, but now they are worn as singles. We have them in white, blue, pale golden, and ombré mixes. I love exhibiting in Tucson, as it has the most international feel.

People come from all over the world to sell some of the most interesting and incredible things that you don’t see at any other show.

Anil Maloo

Owner and designer, Baggins Pearls, Los Angeles
A cushion-shaped, 3.10-carat padparadscha sapphire
from The Rare Gem. (Jeff Mason)
I love the Tucson shows because it’s like my New Year’s celebration — I see friends and family and people from mines and countries of origin that I only see once a year. It’s not just another trade show where I have to put on a suit; it’s as much the people as it is the gemstones.

Production in source countries has been difficult, so we didn’t have too much newness [this time]. But we did launch a Precision Cut Program this year, in which we switched up our cutting methodology and brought in some amazing master cutters [who] lent a new level of professionalism to our inventory.

Today, a beautiful gem is valued differently; it has to be cut well. Cutting isn’t an afterthought, and our customers are demanding better products. We still do most of our cutting in Jaipur, but we also have some in Tanzania and Sri Lanka.

My best seller was mint Merelani garnet, followed by Montana sapphire. Buyer mood was okay; 2023 wasn’t stellar, but it wasn’t terrible, either. The diamond business is in deep turmoil, with mined prices dropping and a chaotic landscape for lab-grown diamonds. Gemstone prices [at the source] are still extremely high; [they] do not relate to real selling prices. We’re selling more old stones because the new-stone prices aren’t acceptable to buyers.

Still, most of [my buyers] are hedging their bets on color, [as] that business is an important part of their growth for the next few years.

Jaimeen Shah

Partner, Prima Gems USA, New York
I go with a shopping list of special pieces that customers want me to source, as well as gems for my own designs in-house. I have a master jeweler who has won many Spectrum awards, and we collaborate on pieces.

This year, I found two sources for Montana sapphires, because they have been a huge call for us. I picked up lots of pink things — tourmalines, rubies, and sapphires in that hot pink and magenta to soft pink. I picked up strands of natural black diamonds, and I found some Paraiba melee that I needed. I also found a killer piece of opal that I’m going to have a hard time parting with if we make the pendant I want; it’s a boulder opal in an abstract design.

Tucson is just invaluable to me. I know the quality of the gems we’re getting, and year round, when my clients ask where the stones come from, I tell them that we belong to an ethical trade association with knowledgeable dealers and top-quality gems. For example, if I don’t know enough about a particular gem, I can talk to 10 different dealers who sell it, all in the same space.

Dealers can educate me on topics like fracture-filling and show me videos of where gems are mined. So when I bring items home to sell them, I can tell the client about the background of their gems.

Diane Garmendia

Owner, 33 Jewels at El Paseo, Santa Barbara, California

Main image: A natural-light photo of untreated color-change garnet from Tanzania, on offer at Tsavorite Factory. (Tsavorite Factory)

This article is from the March-April 2024 issue of Rapaport Magazine. View other articles here.

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Perusing the Annual Arizona Gem Shows

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