Getting Ready for Tucson

If you’re ready for adventure, Tucson’s your place. The gem shows that take place there in February – there were 22 last year – have grown over the years to become the most influential colored gemstone events in our industry, offering many choices in both merchandise and educational opportunities. Whether you stay a few days or more than a week depends on what you hope to accomplish.

Planning for Tucson begins with the basics – a room. If you’re smart, you’ve already reserved yours. Each year, thousands of hotel rooms become booked six months in advance. Last-minute planners will find one nearby only by stumbling on a cancellation. Otherwise, they face a daily drive of 20 minutes or more into town.

Once that’s taken care of, it’s time to really plan for buying gems at the shows.

Predicting the trends. Before you leave home, find out what the fashion experts predict will be hot sellers. Remember, however, that you’re buying in February for spring, summer, and early fall needs. So while black, for example, is forecast to be a strong color this winter, will it still be popular by next winter?

Check trade publications for trends. But remember that experts often disagree, so don’t be surprised if some predictions don’t fully materialize. The Tucson gem shows themselves set trends for the coming year, so ask dealers what is selling well. If you like the potential of a gem they are pushing, go for it.

Pearls have been a hot fashion item for quite some time, and that’s expected to continue next year. Many pearl varieties are available, from inexpensive freshwater to pricey Tahitian blacks, and all will be in Tucson. Don’t miss this buying opportunity.

Here are some trends to check out at the shows. It has been predicted that blue and green, which sold well last year, will do well again. Tanzanite should be a good seller. However, supplies will be tighter, so expect to pay 10% to 30% more than last year – or even more than that. Sapphires will continue to sell at affordable prices. In greens, look for peridot, tsavorite, chrome tourmaline, chrome diopside, and demantoid (for collectors) to lead the way. New names for garnet will include “grape” and “fireball.” Tanzanite, chrome diopside, and garnet are appearing in many ads in trade publications these days. Such marketing efforts should help boost sales of these gems in Tucson.

Cutting remains traditional, with probably 90% of gemstones cut into standard shapes. But the other 10% can be the best thing that ever happened to your business. The cabochon cut is one popular trend. The preference now is for “buff-tops,” gems with a smooth top and faceted bottom. These should sell well in Tucson, as the price is generally reasonable and the look distinctive.

Many other new cuts will be available in gemstone varieties such as amethyst and citrine. Cutters are willing to experiment with less expensive gems before moving on to more costly material, such as aquamarine. Carvers have taken to sunstone, agates, and druzy quartz, for example.

The first real cutting innovations began in the early 1980s with Bernd Munsteiner’s “fantasy cut.” Today, that style seems almost ancient as cutters let their imaginations run wild. Glenn Lehrer and Steve Walters, two California natives adept at carving, are leading the way in the gem industry. A “webbed halo cut” by Arthur Lee Anderson took first place in this year’s AGTA Cutting Edge Awards. What cutting trend will be next?

Making a list. You can find some buying tips in an article titled “A Colored Stone Inventory that Moves” in JCK’s July 1998 issue (p. 110). Among the suggestions:

  • The best way to learn is by getting out into the trenches and buying. You gain valuable experience from both your successes and your mistakes.

  • Before you start buying, make two lists and a budget. The first list should include gems for your customers; the second, gems for your overall inventory. Make sure you budget enough. It helps if you can be flexible and exceed that budget. Tucson is like a candy store to a kid. Right after you make your last purchase and spend your last bit of money, you’ll inevitably find the one gem you must have.

The July article included shopping lists to aid in setting up a colored stone inventory. Here we’ll assume you already have a basic inventory but need a budget and list specifically geared toward the shows. This is your chance to buy some innovative gems that will set your store apart.

Designing the list is simple. Start with what you need to fill customer orders. The money allocated here shouldn’t be a part of your overall budget, since you should be able to recoup it as soon as you return home with the merchandise. Suppose that in addition to these standing orders you wish to spend $25,000 in Tucson.

Customer orders As needed

Staple items, 30% $7,500

Fashion influence, 20% $5,000

Unusual gemstones, 30% $7,500

Innovative cuts, 20% $5,000

Staple items will include ruby, emerald, sapphire, tanzanite, amethyst, tourmaline, and any other gems, including birthstones, that typically sell in your store. Most will be standard gem shapes and cuts.

If fashion trends call for blue gemstones, for example, you’ll spend more on gems such as tanzanite and sapphire. You’ve already included these gems in your staple purchases; now you’ll buy a little more.

You need to budget a little more for unusual gemstones mainly because they often cost a bit more. Just one or two Paraíba tourmalines or alexandrites might take the entire budgeted amount. Other choices could be demantoid, tsavorite, red spinel, fine imperial topaz, or imperial jade. This is your chance to turn a customer into a collector.

Innovative cuts are a fun category that need not break the bank. As stated, most new cuts involve inexpensive rough because of lower yields. Twenty percent of your budget should be enough to get started with many gems.

Shopping the shows. The numerous gem shows that overlap in Tucson can overwhelm a first-time attendee. Start by accepting that you will not see everything. Using a show guide, list dealers and shows you wish to visit.

The following list is in no way all-inclusive; it gives a flavor of the various shows you can attend. Each offers its own variety of gem products.

  • The American Gem Trade Association (AGTA) show at the Tucson Convention Center has featured some of the finest gemstones in the world over the years. It’s designed primarily for the sale and promotion of colored gemstones. This is the only show that restricts what dealers exhibit and requires enhancement disclosure to the trade. The show also offers a full program of seminars. This is a dealer-only show, with strict admission policies.

  • The Gem and Jewelry Exchange (GJX) show, held in a large tent across from the Convention Center, has been in existence for only a few years. Last year saw increased attendance and an influx of fine gemstone dealers. Several AGTA vendors now exhibit here, too. Although the show is restricted to the trade, its admission requirements are looser than AGTA’s.

  • The Gem and Lapidary Dealers Association (GLDA) show at the Holiday Inn Broadway, next to the Convention Center, once was the main show in Tucson. While still impressive, covering more than three levels of the hotel, it’s lost several key dealers over the years – replaced mostly by firms selling lower-priced merchandise.

This year, GLDA is expanding its show to include the Doubletree Hotel about 61/2 miles away. Plan on taking the shuttles from one location to the other. This remains one of Tucson’s main gem shows – even more attractive this year because of the addition of educational seminars.

  • The Gem and Lapidary Wholesalers (GLW) show at the Holiday Inn Holidome is a little out of the way, but it’s usually worth the drive. A shuttle can also take you there. Booths are located on the main floor of the hotel and in a large tent outside. This event has included some quality exhibitors over the years, and show shoppers say they usually can find a bargain with enough effort.

  • A stretch along the I-10 freeway measuring about a mile and a half long features exhibits at a half-dozen motels with several roadside setups and tents in between. Although show sponsors staff registration tables at some of the motels, it is quickly evident that anyone can shop these shows. Buyers’ badges are issued, but no one checks as you walk from room to room. There may be official hours, but you often can shop as late as 10 p.m., as long as doors remain open. Many dealers set up a full week early, now known as “jump start” week in Tucson.

The I-10 strip is sometimes reminiscent of a flea market. You’ll find everything, including mineral specimens as well as fossils, petrified wood tables, Indian artifacts, and many non-jewelry items. Gem rough also is available, as is a full range of cut gem varieties priced from pennies up to thousands of dollars per carat. This is a fun area to shop but a purely hit-and-miss adventure unless you’re looking for a specific dealer.

Learning opportunities. Allot a few extra days for learning. The AGTA show at the convention center includes the largest selection of seminars; most are free. The Gemological Institute of America also offers seminars (generally for a fee) at that location, which it promotes through AGTA. GLDA recently added some free seminars at the Holiday Inn Broadway. Various gemological and appraisal organizations plan events and lectures, as well. Some are held during the week before the main trade shows open, so advance planning is crucial.

Don’t want to sit through a seminar? Tucson offers many informal educational opportunities. Simply walking around the various shows and asking questions will increase your gem knowledge. Most dealers are friendly if you don’t monopolize too much of their time without buying. You can get firsthand stories of mining operations and talk to dealers from many different countries. In addition, you can learn about geology and view just about all of the 2,000-plus minerals that exist.

Marketing Tucson. Jewelers often use follow-up mailings and special events to promote overseas diamond buying trips, but they fail to try the same promotion with colored stones. Customers probably won’t think of Tucson as an exotic location, so it’s up to you to make the trip sound as exciting as it is.

Start your promotion by saying something like this: “I have just returned from the most important colored gemstone buying event in the world. I brought back gemstones unlike any you have ever seen. Please come to this exclusive showing featuring innovative gem cutting and unusual collectors’ specimens.” When you expose customers to new gem varieties, they’ll come back year after year to see the new purchases from Tucson.

Richard B. Drucker is the president of Gemworld International and publisher of The Guide, a pricing periodical he began in 1982. An international gemstone consultant, he has published numerous books on the jewelry industry.