Gems Show Their Colors Amid So-So Business In Tucson

Did Tucson really feel like “Tucson” this year?

OK, the weather was delicious. The flora and fauna were still Southwestern, and so were the architecture and steaming meals served up all over town. But some critics who attended the city’s annual gem and mineral shows in late January and early February questioned whether the usual excitement was there this year.

The buying mood, which once enveloped Tucson like a down comforter, the tall tales exchanged over foaming evening beers and the reportedly whopper gem sales of yesteryear didn’t seem to be a big part of Tucson this year.

Some blamed the growing number of overlapping shows (22 at last count) and resulting squeeze on hotel space. Others said buyers have too much trouble reaching Tucson, especially when winter weather in northern-tier states hampers travel – as it did this year.

The situation drew enough concern among members of the American Gem Trade Association that a survey was conducted recently on the possibility of moving the AGTA GemFair from Tucson to Phoenix. But that survey, discussed at AGTA’s annual town meeting in Tucson, found only 21 members in favor of moving, with 161 in favor of staying. As AGTA member Antoinette Matlins of Woodstock, Vt., put it, “There is a very special magic about Tucson.”

Business: Magic or not, many exhibitors were disappointed with business. “It was just not as good a show as last year,” said master gem carver Michael Dyber of Rumney, N.H., who exhibited at the Gem and Lapidary Dealers Association show. “There are just too many shows with too many dealers and not enough buyers.”

But some were pleased. Gina Latendresse of American Pearl Co., Nashville, Tenn., said business was up 20% over last year. “A lot of the customers were stranded due to bad East Coast weather and had less time to shop when they finally arrived,” she said after returning from the show. “But we got a lot of follow-up orders once we came back to the office.”

Michael Avram of Gemtech International Corp., New York, N.Y., felt the same: “It was the best show I ever had, exceeding my goal by 20%. Maybe it’s because I’ve tailored my inventory to carry only what my customers want.” His best-seller: tanzanite.

Gems of note: Tanzanite in fact was more plentiful than ever, especially in larger sizes. High-quality goods in calibrated sizes were scant, however, and in high demand. “One customer offered to buy my whole line,” said Avram, “but we could only sell him a portion because we had to keep something to show at our booth!” Prices for calibrated tanzanite were higher than last year’s, yet the abundance of tanzanite led to lower prices overall. The prices ranged from $250 per carat wholesale for medium goods to $400 for extremely fine goods.

Last year, buyers got their first look at limited gem material from new finds of peridot in Pakistan, bicolor tourmaline in Brazil and bicolor topaz in Russia. Supplies were more plentiful this year. At the Holiday Inn, Ruedisili Inc. of Sylvania, Ohio, exhibited “Kashmirine” garnet from Azad in the Kashmir region of Pakistan. The bright orange of this spessartite garnet is likened to mandarin garnets from Namibia.

James Alger Co., Manchester, N.H., and some other exhibitors at the GemFair showed garnets from a recently discovered source near the villages of Diakon and Duvale in southwestern Mali, an African nation. These grossular garnets range from deep green (akin to tsavorites) to pale yellow and brown. Prices go from just over $100 to several hundred dollars per carat for bright green gems.

Andrew Sarosi of Los Angeles, Cal., showed a collection of deep blue sapphires from a new find in Madagascar. And several dealers, including Viana Enterprises of Bangkok, Thailand, exhibited alexandrites, spinels and beryls from the Ural mountains and other sources in Russia. Viana, part of the Gems and Jewelry Exchange show, also showed a cross section of synthetic beryl, quartz and other material from Russia.

Fire opal from Buriti in the Piaui State of Brazil was in the spotlight for Vasconcelos Pedras Ltda. of Governador Valadares, Brazil. Carlos Vasconcelos said that while the area has been known for 20 years, this was the first time material was shown at Tucson. It is mined as a surface alluvial deposit, with the distribution about 10% pale yellow, 10% dark orange and 80% yellow orange material, much of it a semitranslucent cabochon grade. Many of the gems exhibit strong color zoning, but are cut to face up with the strongest color. Qualities from the alluvial source are considered good since there is little or no crazing. Prices are $25 to $40 per carat.

A major find in southern Tanzania (JCK, September 1995, p. 58) was expected to yield a lot of chrysoberyl, corundum, spinel and diamond in time for this year’s Tucson shows. It did, but the future is uncertain because the Tanzanian government recently suspended exclusive prospecting licenses for foreign nationals (mostly Thais), said Abe Suleman of Tuckman Mines & Minerals, Arusha, Tanzania. The country’s minister of energy and minerals is expected to put mining back into the hands of Tanzania’s small miners and to require much more in-country sorting and cutting of the gems.

Meanwhile, spinels were abundant. Pastels (mostly lavender, pink and teal hues) from Africa and Sri Lanka were available in numbers rarely seen for this gem. Deep reds and oranges from Myanmar also were plentiful. Interest and prices for these rare untreated gems are rising, said dealers. “Fine 5-ct. red gems may reach $2,000 a carat, and fine pinks or blues may reach $1,500,” said John Bachman of John M. Bachman Inc., Boulder, Colo. “Still, there are bargains with some nice pastel lilacs and blues in the $200-$350-per-carat range.”

C3 Diamante Co., Raleigh, N.C., announced the development of a new synthetic gem material. Laboratory-created moissanite has a hardness of 9.0-9.25 and a refractive index of 2.5-2.7. The material was on display at the Pueblo Inn, but developers said none will be offered for sale until the process is perfected and methods to distinguish it from diamond are clearly established. Known as a very rare mineral found in meteorites, this diamond “pretender” is green and soon will be available in colorless and blue as well. It is a thermal conductor of heat and electricity. (Diamond testers beware!)

The first truly commercial cultured abalone blister pearls were shown by Empress Abalone Ltd., Christ Church, New Zealand. The pearls are vibrantly colored, from an azure blue (the premium color) through a variety of peacock shades. They are sold mostly in hemispherical shapes and occasionally in pear shapes and range from $100 to several thousand dollars for top qualities. “These cannot be compared to other pearls – everything about abalone is different,” says the company’s Michael McKenzie. “There are two major problems: abalones are very mobile and more difficult to control. Secondly, abalones are hemophiliacs, so any incision we make [in the culturing process] is susceptible to bleeding and infection.” The abalones are graded by color intensity, luster and surface blemishes.

When you think of ice, do you imagine colorless and transparent? Larry Gray of The Mines Group, Boise, Idaho, uses the term to describe his new product: a form of colorless labradorite feldspar. Gray said the feldspar’s refraction resembles diamond’s and its color grades resemble diamond’s D-F grades. Prices are about $40 per carat. Gray exhibited a large collection in calibrated sizes, and is also matching them as accents with Ponderosa Mines’ well-known color varieties of sunstone feldspar.

AGTA plus: Major educational events included a number sponsored by AGTA and taught by the Gemological Institute of America. They covered such topics as diamond grading, gem identification, design and counter sketching and synthetics. Talks also were given by such gem industry luminaries as Richard Drucker (“Benchmarks for Buying in Tucson”), Bob Lynn (“Buying Loose to Sell Mounted”) and Cynthia Marcusson (“Bored With Birthstones.”)

Topping the social calendar was AGTA’s dinner dance, during which Bernd Munsteiner of Striphausen, Germany, received an honorary lifetime membership. AGTA honored him for his work as a “visionary stone cutter and artisan.”

Attendance is hard to gauge at many of the Tucson shows. However, AGTA said buyer attendance was up about 8% at its GemFair. The number of exhibitors also increased with the addition of a 70-member Design Gallery. An added GemFair attraction called Gifts of the Earth showcased the artistry of some of America’s most talented gem carvers as well as gemstone bottles, boxes and mineral specimens.