Lines of people snaking through the convention center lobby waiting to pick up badges on opening day set the scene for a buying frenzy inside
“I’ve never seen more people show up on first day of the show,” remarked Doug Hucker, president, AGTA, to JCK on Feb. 2, opening day of the five-day AGTA GemFair Tucson show. “It was like Disneyland with ropes to manage crowds—2,000 showed up at once.”
Once inside, the throngs of attendees rushed to buy their colors of choice: long pearl strands at Mastoloni, the remaining inventory of retiring dealer Jack Lynch of Seahunt Pearls, aquamarines at Robert Bentley—“ones that are slightly polished and wearable in modern architectural shapes and with contrasts and inclusions,” he explained—and fancy-color sapphires from Omi, including a 4.07 ct. emerald-cut purple sapphire from Sri Lanka that sold for $25,000 on the first day of the show.
“We’ve had lots of interest in rubies and fancy sapphires like peaches and purples and soft pastels,” observed Niveet Nagpal, Omi’s president.
It’s a similar story at Mayer & Watt, another purveyor of high-end gems. “The purple rhodolite has been selling like hotcakes,” says Simon Watt.
The first days of AGTA continue to drive the most sales of the best material, but it’s the buyers themselves that stood out to some dealers this year. According to Jerry Romanella, partner in Commercial Mineral Co. “It’s all American buyers, and foreign buyers are out,” he says. “We’ve been selling.”
Ditto for Afshin Hackman, principal at Intercolor, a seller of top-quality sapphires and tanzanites. “We’re seeing very strong attendance, which is surprising because of a relatively soft Christmas,” he explains. “I’m selling lots of small sapphires—not so many high-ticket pieces—but it’s a sign of the times.”
Michael Couch of Michael Couch & Associates has noticed a similar phenomenon.
“Prices might have dropped a little—obviously, the Chinese are not buying as aggressively—but in general, they’re stabilizing,” he says. “I’m seeing demand for peach and a pink-orange color similar to padparadscha. And exotic gems, like green cat’s-eye tanzanite, are becoming more popular.”
Besides the design community out in force to shop, Hucker credits savvier retailers as among the biggest buyers at the fair. “Many are learning to manufacture themselves, so they are here to buy better,” he says. “The typical retailer does repairs and buys stones as they need them, but when they really look at their inventory consumption and changing margins, they’re realizing it makes sense to buy more stones down here.”
Fran Mastoloni of Mastoloni Pearls is well aware of these brighter buyers. “They are more educated and aware and are buying better quality and better colors,” he says.
Still, that’s not to say that bargain hunters aren’t doing their best to grab great deals. “Prices went up and up and up, but they’re flat now and it’s good—especially if you’re a good bargainer,” notes Tim McClelland of McTeigue & McClelland. (Additional reporting by Victoria Gomelsky)