Teaching Tucson

Teaching is in Nancy Schuring’s blood. “I’m always searching for an audience,” says Schuring. Before becoming the owner of Devon Fine Jewelry, Schuring was a high school home economics teacher. Years later, after 20 consecutive Tucson AGTA GemFairs (and counting), Schuring’s past professorial role has been helpful in educating her retailing contemporaries on how to best navigate the world’s largest gem fair.

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During this year’s Tucson Show, Schuring discussed the history behind her colored stone knowledge and how she shares gemological information garnered over the years with retailing peers at the Tucson GemFair and, even more important, customers at the store with post-show educational events that stimulate interest and sales in color.

In 1990 Schuring attended her first Tucson GemFair. With a lot of ambition and a little gemological knowledge, the then colored stone novice set aside $9,000 as her “tuition” money to ride out the peaks and valleys of successful gem buying at Tucson. “That was the money I allowed myself for buying colored stones at my first show that had acceptable losses built into the budgeted amount,” says Schuring. “All things considered, I did pretty well with most of the stones selling quickly after coming home.”

The only exception to an otherwise near flawless first gemstone buying fair was a muddy, brownish amethyst that just wouldn’t sell. “I’ve kept it for 20 years,” says Schuring. “It’s a constant reminder to buy for good color, not for a good price. That’s one of the first lessons I teach people about buying colored stones.”

In her Wyckoff, New Jersey, market, Schuring differentiates herself from the competition by not only carrying fine samples of the color classics (ruby, sapphire, emerald as well as tanzanite), but a number of less commonly known colored stones, from the once “racy” colors of Paraíba Tourmaline to today’s cool light-green mint colors as well as the warm, fiery oranges of Spessartite and Mandarin garnet varieties.

But it was the then rare, eye-popping electric blue of the tourmaline from Brazil’s state of Paraíba that set the hook for Schuring. “Paraíba Tourmaline is the stone that began my relationship with colored stones,” says Schuring.

As that bond strengthened, Schuring began taking a staff member each year to the Tucson GemFair. That’s how the teaching component to the gem fair got its start. “To this day the staff still talks about the show,” says Schuring.

She has not only created excitement for colored stones from the top down for her staff, Schuring has also tutored three retailers on the inner workings of Tucson. At this year’s Tucson GemFair John Carter, executive vice president and COO of Jack Lewis Fine Jewelry, joined Schuring for the fifth year running.

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The two jewelers met at a Business Resource Services peer group meeting in 2004. At that time Carter was looking for ways to increase his custom jewelry sales. Inherently he knew colored stones would ultimately be an integral part of giving this portion of his store’s inventory some traction.

Color accents on bridal jewelry and branding the store through its own Premier Jewelry Collection have not only stimulated sales and interest in colored stones, but also offers unique, quality products in his Bloomington, Illinois, market.

For Carter, the Tucson tutelage isn’t about a lack of gemological knowledge. He developed an affection for colored stones early on as a teenager when he began working at the Jack Lewis Fine Jewelry store in high school. Years later he became a Certified Gemologist Appraiser through the American Gem Society, which requires annual recertification.

As Schuring says; “John’s a natural at identifying quality color.” Regardless of his colored stone instincts, Carter needed some help navigating the Tucson show and finding reliable contacts.

“Nancy was glad to show me the ropes,” says Carter. “Being introduced to Nancy’s contacts at the show gave me quick credibility with key wholesalers of quality color goods who I knew I could trust.”

After five years, the student-teacher relationship has evolved to a mutually beneficially partnership when working and walking the gem shows together. “We make a good team at the [gem] shows,” says Carter. “I help her buy and she reciprocates. What’s most helpful is having two sets of eyes on goods we’re interested in buying. We often share insights and opinions when visiting exhibitors, which helps buy with more confidence.”

The Tucson Twosome has developed a proven strategy for buying. Schuring arrives early and walks the shows, surveying the gemstone landscape and asking lots of questions. When joined by Carter, they make all of their significant gem purchases on their first day of the show. The rest of the fair is dedicated to buying goods that complement the first day’s buys in terms of color, size and how well certain goods will fill inventory at home or even add a vital component to colored stone display case.

“For me, displaying color is a lot like displaying a designer,” says Carter. “You can’t buy three pieces and call it a day. You need to display a good variety of pieces, or in this case color, without overdoing it.”

The Tucson buying trips have paid off for Carter. Since 2005, the year he started buying colored stones at Tucson, his custom jewelry business has increased 40 percent. As his custom work has grown, Carter has noticed that men are just as interested in colored stones as women. “For guys colored stones are like fossils for big kids,” says Carter. “They’re interested in information such as the origin of the stone and crystology – the technical stuff behind colored stones, while women like the color and how it looks.”

Carter aggressively promoted color at one time but soon discovered a couple years back that reaching out directly to customers who have demonstrated an interest in colored stones, custom work or unique finished jewelry designs has the most impact in advancing colored stones in his market.

Back in the store shortly after this year’s Tucson shows, Carter already has customer visits scheduled. “We haven’t even inventoried the goods yet,” says Carter. After attending Tucson for 20 years, loyal customers call or stop by Schuring’s store to see the many gemstones sourced from the GemFair.

Colored stone events have proved to be lucrative for Carter. In the past he has done colored stone roundtables. This year he’s planning a “spin off” of the roundtable concept, but wanted to test the waters and fine tune the event in his market before discussing the particulars of his new approach.

Schuring also does post-Tucson events, but is better known in her market for educational events that stimulate interest, and ultimately sales, in colored stones. She routinely schedules color education events by inviting vendors to talk with staff members and customers and is well known in her market and the industry for Geminars, seminar-type sessions where colored stones are discussed in a fun, relaxing educational format that includes wine and hors d’oeuvres. Gemborees and gem sales are also part of the post-Tucson store events.

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Of the top 150 commonly traded colored stones, Schuring has carried roughly 86 gemstone varieties since her travels to Tucson began 20 years ago. Unusual gemstones are another goal for Schuring. Like a new stamp in a passport, unique gemstones in her inventory become part of Schuring’s gemstone journeys not just to Tucson, but to gem-producing centers including Chantaburi and Bangkok, Thailand, as well as Ilakaka, Madagascar. Such exotic destinations in developing countries are not for the faint of heart. But, for Schuring the pictures and the memories become part of her color lexicon in sales presentations to customers and reinforcing product knowledge with her staff.

One of her early adventures in gemstone buying included rutilated quartz. “I started buying it long before it became popular,” says Schuring. “In my market we’ve become known for unique, quality rutilated quartz.”

It’s not just the new gem varieties that make the trip worth the effort for Schuring it’s also the different color varieties. At this year’s Tucson show she was particularly excited about zircon available in a range of champagne colors.

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Buying at Tucson is all about color for Schuring. “People are inherently collectors,” she says. “And with colored stones it’s all about the quality of the color and collecting varieties of colors. If a customer likes blue I can offer them different shades, hues and intensities giving them a range of a single color or offer a palette of colors – whatever they chose. I’ve found that people relate to a certain gemstone and its color.”

She has also brought home chrysoprase, Zultanite (a color-change diaspore sourced from Turkey that went from being a collector stone to mainstream stone in 2006), spessartite garnet, prehnite and even Fordite (fossilized paint found from old automobile manufacturing plants).

Of course it wouldn’t be a trip to Tucson without some signature stones and specimens to spruce up certain areas of the store or liven up colored stone displays.

Much like a home has a special piece of furniture that serves as a “conservation piece,” on this year’s trip to Tucson Schuring purchased a 40-carat blue moonstone. “Moonstones are my new thing and I just had to have this big beautiful blue stone,” she says. “This is the kind of stone that will really stay with people. Without visiting my store, most people would never have the opportunity to see such a large, lovely gemstone like this. Eventually I can fashion this into a large pendant.”

Schuring also brought home interesting ore, mineral and gemstone specimens. “I give small inexpensive specimens to kids who come into the store,” says Schuring. “I also give talks in schools on colored stones and minerals and hand out specimens when I’m done. I think I’ve got some inspired future gemologist on my hands.”

What moonstones were to Schuring on this trip spinels were to Carter for Tucson 2010. “Spinels in the lavender and purple colors have been working well for us,” says Carter. “Customers haven’t heard much or anything about them, so it’s a mysterious and interesting color alternative for their jewelry. For our displays back in the store, I purchased a spinel specimen with a facet-grade stone still in its host material. Visual aids like this specimen help a lot in not only creating interest [in colored stones] but even tipping the sale.”

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The Tucson GemFair did more than just restock inventory. It had a rejuvenating affect on Schuring and Carter, as well as other retailers, ready to get another year of retailing off to a good start.

This year the Tucson Twosome had a similar mindset about the year ahead. The retail sector has seen the worst of the recession and try as they may, are working hard at staying optimistic about 2010 and beyond. One thing is for certain for Schuring and Carter, colored stones will be part of future success stories.