Top 5 Takeaways From the 2016 Tucson Gem Shows

Judging by dealers’ surprisingly good moods, the colored stone market is thriving

It wouldn’t be February without a trip to Arizona for the Tucson gem shows. And this year, with the debut of a new designer-focused JCK Tucson, the city felt buzzier than ever. Here’s what struck me as I walked the shows.

1. Americans are buying color.

Gem dealers at the AGTA GemFair and the GJX show (aka “the Tent”) were in (surprisingly) good moods. That can only mean one thing: They were selling. 

“We had a strong two first days,” said Jerry Romanella, co-owner of Commercial Mineral Co., a dealer exhibiting at AGTA. He attributed the positive performance to the relative strength of the holiday season.

“Christmas was okay—not great,” he said. “But people sold, and now their color stock is down and they need to replenish it.”

At the Omi Privé booth at AGTA, president and designer Niveet Nagpal confessed that he was so busy on day one of the show that he didn’t have time to go to the bathroom. “People are realizing that color is a way to differentiate themselves,” he said. “They seem a lot more interested.”

2. Gem prices are stable.

A few years ago, Tucson was flooded with buyers from China, the upshot being a surge in prices on fine quality goods. Now that the Chinese economy has hit the skids, and the government’s anticorruption measures have taken effect, gemstone prices are no longer under intense demand-side pressure.

“Sapphire and ruby prices might have dropped a little,” said Michael Couch, a dealer exhibiting at AGTA. “Obviously, the Chinese are not buying as aggressively. In general, they’re down a little, but stabilizing.”

3. Opal remains the blockbuster gem (but stones in Pantone’s Rose Quartz and Serenity hues are close on its heels).

I ran into designer Victor Velyan and Soraya Cayen, owner of the Cayen Collection in Carmel, Calif., while walking the floor of AGTA on day one of the show, and they walked me over to the Hopkins Opal booth to show me a stash of opals that Velyan had bought. “I’ve been selling the hell out of true Australian opal,” he said.

He’s not alone. Opal’s popularity is hardly news to gem junkies, but it bears repeating: If the GemFair was the Super Bowl, October’s birthstone would be its most valuable player. From affordable boulder opals to black opals to Lightning Ridge priced in the six figures, the opalescent gem remains a designer darling.

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Front and back views of a 13.65 ct. Lightning Ridge crystal opal at Hopkins Opal, about $50,000 retail (and no, that’s not my finger!)

Elsewhere, dealers sang the praises of stones that resemble Pantone’s twin colors of 2016, Rose Quartz and Serenity. At AGTA, I wandered into the tools and equipment section and was shocked and delighted to see a familiar face: my old friend Tom Cushman, a gem dealer specializing in gems from Madagascar. He hasn’t exhibited in Tucson for a few years and decided it was time to dust off his inventory. “Aqua has been very good this year,” he said. “Of course, it’s the Serenity color.”

Anecdotal reports suggest that gems in peachy-pink tones are also in demand, chief among them padparadscha sapphires. At Omi Gems, Nagpal showed me two picture-perfect pads: a 2.51 ct. for $6,000 per ct. wholesale and a slightly more orangey 4.52 ct. gem worth $9,000 per ct. wholesale. I fell in love with both of them.

4. The oxidized look is back in fashion.
Among dealers and designers of finished jewels, oxidized silver and black rhodium-plated gold are the new black (literally). The look was everywhere. My friend Jen Thomas, who drove from Los Angeles with my sister, Julia, to join me in Tucson, was so taken by the Nina Nguyen blackened hoop earrings she spotted at JCK Tucson that she swooped them up within minutes. (I love that the hoops come in small, medium, large, and OMG sizes!)

Blackened metal isn’t limited to the fashion jewel category. Tamir Pinchasi of Tamir Jewels in New York City showed two spectacular rings at AGTA, both in unique blackened metal settings. One, a 5.55 ct. mint green tourmaline, wholesales for $9,900, while the other, a 5.56-ct. unheated yellow sapphire from Sri Lanka framed by 6.59 cts. t.w. diamonds, wholesales for $22,900.

“The technique is antique,” Pinchasi said. “It’s a plate of blackened silver over yellow gold.”

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5.55 ct. mint green tourmaline ring in a blackened silver and yellow gold setting, $9,900 (wholesale), by Tamir Jewels (photo courtesy of Tamir Jewels)

5. The gem shows were suffused with good energy, but no one story dominated.

Tucson is a bellwether for the jewelry industry. On the heels of the holiday season, the gem shows can tell you a lot about how the market is doing. Are people in decent moods? If so, you can assume the gem trade is in reasonably good health.

“I’ve seen good, quality buyers,” said Marcel Roelofs, a German designer showing at JCK Tucson. “I got a nice, new New York City customer yesterday, so I’m not complaining.”

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A pietersite pendant in stainless steel with an 18k yellow gold grill, $5,340, by designer Marcel Roelofs (photo courtesy of Marcel Roelofs)

As far as I can tell, the only drawback to a nice, mellow, steady marketplace is the lack of drama—and therefore, the lack of anything truly juicy to write about. I’ve been coming to Tucson since 2001, so you can trust me when I say the gem shows were a bit boring this year.

To be clear, I’m not talking socially. On the contrary, the events at JCK Tucson, from the chat I moderated with designers Todd Reed and Sarah Graham to the screening of the gem trade documentary Sharing the Rough, were well attended and buzzy. But unlike past years, when controversial stories about the gem trade’s potential ties to terrorism and shady new sapphire treatments dominated the conversation, this year had none of the Sturm und Drang that has made prior years tense but interesting. I suppose we’ll have to rely on the presidential race for that!