My 5 Favorite Finds in Tucson

For the uninitiated, the gem shows in Tucson can be a rather daunting experience. Imagine being let loose inside a vast supermarket filled with the juiciest fruits, the rarest truffles, and the most expensive gourmet cheeses—and at the same time being told that you have to cherry-pick the whole lot before your ravenous cohort gets ahold of them.

After a dozen years of attending the American Gem Trade Association GemFair at the Tucson Convention Center and the satellite shows that spring up inside hotels and parking lots in its vicinity, I still feel a frisson of excitement every time I begin my annual walk from booth to booth—and this year was no different. I consider it a test of my memory, my knowledge, and, dare I say, my taste to recognize and report on new colored stones that are coveted by discerning buyers.

The show floor at the AGTA GemFair at the end of day two

While my stay in Tucson this year was shorter than usual, I made the most out of my three days in town. Of all the beautiful gems and jewels that came across my radar last week, here are five that stood out:

Faceted rhodocrosite

Rhodocrosite, a manganese-bearing gem mined in South Africa and Colorado, is generally seen in cabochon form, or in banded slices that would make beautiful coasters for a luxe coffee table. So when you see gorgeous faceted specimens like this 5.91 ct. princess cut and 3.67 ct. emerald cut spotted at Evan Caplan’s booth at AGTA, you instantly do a double take. The gems’ brilliance and singular sunset-colored hue—a blend of orange and pink that would put a padparadscha sapphire to shame—are not to be believed. For less than $4,000 and $2,500 per carat, respectively, Caplan’s pretty cut stones are certainly deserving of my rhapsodies.

“Magical tourmaline”

“We’ve been incredibly busy,” said AGTA dealer Dudley Blauwet when I popped by his booth to admire the breadth of his inventory, a spread of kooky material ranging from adularia, a bright feldspar from Austria, to zircons from Vietnam and elsewhere. “With Hurricane Sandy and the election and reports of mediocre Christmas sales last year, we didn’t have high expectations for Tucson, but we were swamped yesterday.”

Among the buyers checking out Blauwet’s goods was Jeff Ferro of Alex Sepkus, who was scoping unusual gems for the well-regarded designer’s new collection. “The weirder the better,” Ferro said, referring to the specimens of color-change “magical tourmaline” in his tray. “Things on the fringe that you just can’t market.”

Bill Heher’s best

The focus on weird, offbeat, and unusual gems continued at Rare Earth Mining, where owner Bill Heher proudly displayed his best: a mesmerizing selection of minerals that offered a powerful comment on the earth’s gemological bounty. In Heher’s rhodocrosite stalactites, I saw luxe coffee table coasters and in his oversized rutillated quartz from Brazil, I saw the golden Rapunzel-like tresses of a long-lost fair maiden. And after admiring his azurite malachite specimens from the Morenci Mine in Arizona, I realized that American-made doesn’t only refer to things produced on the floor of a domestic factory—unless you’re talking about the earth’s original plant.

“Alexis” the wonder lizard

“Alexis,” the lizard pin sported by Niveet Nagpal at Omi Gems, was so special that she didn’t have a price. “I’m not sure it’s for sale,” Nagpal said, as he flashed a light on the rough Tanzanian alexandrite stones that formed her body. It’s impossible to see in a single photo, but the best examples of the rare, much-sought-after chrysoberyl feature a dramatic color change, from raspberry red to a bright blue-green, that has made the gem a collector darling. Large, clean, saturated examples of loose alexandrite were seen at the show, along with their trademark sky-high prices (think $35,000 per carat). But sly little Alexis stole my heart.

The continuing focus on American-made

A few years ago, I would have been hard-pressed to name an American gemstone beyond Arizona peridot and Montana sapphire, but this year proved the extent of my ignorance about this rich niche. Chatoyant azurite from Bisbee, Ariz., turquoise from Nevada, rhodocrosite from Colorado—the amount of gems touted in Tucson for their made-in-the-USA pedigrees blew my mind.

This intriguing comet brooch featuring green demantoid garnet drusy and honey-colored andradite garnet, both from Arizona, caught my eye as I cruised past the Black Star Trading Co. booth at “the Tent” (the Gem and Jewelry Exchange show across from the GemFair), where owner Anne Mottek Lucas emphasized her selection of gems mined in the Southwest. Don’t be surprised to see scores of dealers jump on her bandwagon.