JCK’s Guide to Tucson From A to Z

In honor of the first-ever JCK Tucson show Feb. 3-8, we’ve highlighted 26 places to go, things to do, and shows to shop to round out your sojourn in the Sonoran Desert

Every February, the population of Tucson, Ariz., swells with thousands of visitors—emissaries from the gem and jewelry universe—who come to enjoy 75-degree wintertime temps, authentic Mexican food, and the greatest selection of gems and minerals on earth.

For more than 30 years, the Gem & Lapidary Dealers Association show occupied a sacred place on the Gem Week calendar. But earlier this year, JCK Events and GLDA president Arnold Duke came to an agreement to allow JCK to purchase and transform GLDA into an event unlike any of Tucson’s 39 shows. Naturally, Duke couldn’t refuse.

The inaugural JCK Tucson will be less formal and smaller than JCK Las Vegas, but it will feature all the networking opportunities, education programs, and great design you’ve come to expect from JCK—with the added bonus of taking place within the inviting confines of the JW Marriott Starr Pass, a AAA Four Diamond resort. Think outdoor patios, a mountainous backdrop, a golf course, and a spa. And that’s just one of Tucson’s myriad wonders! We’ve spelled out all your see, dine, and shop options in alphabetical detail below. Should you find yourself reluctant to leave the JW Marriott, don’t blame us. We warned you!

A—AGTA GemFair

The epicenter of the Tucson gem scene is the American Gem Trade Association GemFair, located at the Tucson Convention Center (260 S. Church Ave., Tucson; 520-791-4101; cms3.tucsonaz­.gov/tcc). From Feb. 4–9, the show will play host to 350 exhibitors, many specializing in spectacular one-of-a-kind gems. Log on to agta.org for more information.

B—Buying Days

Designer jewelry takes center stage at JCK Tucson on Feb. 6. (pictured: Erik Stewart’s Elizabeth ring in palladium, colored diamonds, and Arizona turquoise)

You’ll find the same deep diversity of product at JCK Tucson that you’ve come to expect at all JCK shows. But the Tucson event also will shine a spotlight on some of jewelry’s most in-demand product categories. Each day of the show (with the ­exception of the first and last days) will boast a category theme, featuring programming—events, education sessions, ­buying incentives, and special events—pertaining to that theme. Fashion jewelry is the specialty Feb. 4; silver is the star Feb. 5; designer and luxury jewelry steal the spotlight Feb. 6; and bridal ­jewelry takes center stage Feb. 7.


Gem Week and JCK Tucson coincide perfectly with the 55th annual Tubac Festival of the Arts, Feb. 5–9. The historic Arizona ­settlement—which dates back to 1752—lies just 40 miles south of Tucson and a quick drive down I-19 (take exit 34). The tiny town holds some 100 galleries devoted to sculpture, painting, ­pottery, jewelry, and more. It’s great for shopping any time of the year. But the five-day fair is an art lovers’ paradise, amplified by typically near-ideal temps and framed by a postcard-perfect view of the Santa Rita Mountains. (P.S. Hungry? Try Stables Ranch Grille or the 86-year-old Elvira’s, formerly of Nogales, Mexico.)

You can pick up paintings like this Michael McCullough watercolor (right) at Tubac’s annual Festival of the Arts (left).


Photograph by Jeffrey Scovil
You’ll find beauties like this beryl aquamarine on display at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

Fifteen miles west of town, in Tucson Mountain Park, lies the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (2021 N. Kinney Road, Tucson; 520-883-2702; desertmuseum.org), a zoo–slash–­botanical garden–slash–art gallery that offers visitors an unparalleled introduction to the flora and fauna of the surprisingly lush Sonoran Desert. Home to more than 230 animal species, 1,200 kinds of plants, and 16,000 fossil and mineral specimens, the museum features two miles of walking paths set amid a series of living exhibits that simulate the natural habitat of desert critters big and small. Don’t miss the chubby denizens of the prairie dog village—they’re a highlight!


Among the show’s fashion-friendly exhibitors: Zeghani (pictured: 14k rose gold ring with 22.3 ct. amethyst, 0.42 ct. t.w. diamonds, and 0.62 ct. t.w. pink sapphires)

JCK Tucson has 120 exhibitors, but they won’t be the standard vendors you find during Gem Week. The show’s point of difference is that it offers something jewelers won’t find anywhere else in town: finished fine jewelry! JCK Tucson’s focus is design—in particular the silver, fashion, bridal, designer, and luxury categories—giving it the distinction of being the only finished jewelry show in the city.  


“Food” sounds a bit pedestrian for Tucson’s blazing-hot dining scene. Long known for its authentic Mexican cuisine (see “M”) and bigger-is-better steakhouses like Li’l Abner’s (8501 N. Silverbell Road, Tucson; 520-744-2800; abnerssteakhouse.com), the city has witnessed a gourmet renaissance in recent years, thanks to enterprising chefs like Pendleton Jones of the Latin fusion restaurant Contigo (1745 E. River Road, Tucson; 520-299-1730; eatatcontigo.com) and Addam Buzzalini at Maynards Market & Kitchen (400 N. Toole Ave., Tucson; 520-545-0577; maynardstucson.com), a downtown foodie destination located in a historic train depot.

G—Getting Around

Having a rental car makes navigating Tucson’s 39 individual shows easier. But if you’d prefer to be chauffeured, JCK Tucson will offer ­continuous shuttle service to shows located citywide, including the AGTA GemFair (and for all intents and purposes its neighbor, the Gem & Jewelry Exchange show, aka “the Tent”). The GemFair also offers free shuttles between the convention center and participating hotels (visit agta.org for more information). For ­public transportation purists, there’s always the bus; go to ­suntran.com for schedules.


Take a hike! (But be sure to come back for the show!) Organizers have set up group excursions that leave from the Marriott lobby bright and early.

Surrounded by five mountain ranges—Santa Catalina, Rincon, Santa Rita, Tucson, and ­Tortolita—Tucson is a hiker’s paradise, with plenty of saguaro cactus, petroglyphs, and ­javelinas (wild pigs) to color what many mistakenly assume to be a barren scene. Though the prickly pears won’t bloom until spring, there’s no shortage of raw beauty among the canyon paths surrounding the JW Marriott Starr Pass. During the JCK Tucson show, meet in the lobby on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday at 6:30 a.m. to join the Southwest trekking hiking tour. Cyclists can venture out from the Marriott lobby ­Tuesday and Thursday at 7 a.m. for a mountain biking adventure through Tucson Mountain Park (the hotel has rental bikes).

I—(Tucson) International Airport

Tucson is the gem world’s No. 1 gathering point; at least 40 countries will be represented at the AGTA and other shows. Past editions have brought buyers and exhibitors from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Expect to see people from all over at the local airport, which is served by most major carriers and easily accessible from the trade show action.

J—JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort & Spa

Unlike Tucson’s historic Hotel Congress—where John Dillinger and gang holed up in 1934—the JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort & Spa (3800 W. Starr Pass Blvd., Tucson; 520-792-3500; marriott.com/jw-marriott/travel.mi) doesn’t trade on infamy. What it does trade on is its outstanding locale. Situated about five miles west of downtown, the 8-year-old property has a commanding location on Starr Pass Road, a stark and scenic route that culminates in Saguaro National Park, home to the age-old petrogylphs of the Hohokam. The hotel, described as a “wellness resort” by some travel writers, has a fine dining restaurant, the Mediterranean-inspired Primo; a deluxe spa (see “Y”); and, best of all, a terrace offering some of the best views in the city.

Left: Talk about rooms with a view. That’s what awaits you at the JW Marriott Starr Pass; right: the resort’s airy, Southwestern-style lobby.


Once you’ve sampled all the great Southwestern cuisine, the JCK Tucson show—like all JCK events—will have plenty to feed your mind as well. The show has recruited self-described ­“jewelry activist” Diane Warga-Arias to discuss “Redefining Fine Jewelry” (Mon., Feb. 3, 8:15 a.m.); sales training veteran Brad ­Huisken to speak on “No More Clerks, Only Sales Professionals” (Mon., Feb. 3, 2 p.m.); Linda Cahan, of Linda Cahan & Co., to address “The Best of Retail Design and Smart Tips for Visual Merchandising” (Thurs., Feb. 6, 11 a.m.; Fri., Feb. 7, 11 a.m.); and JCK Las Vegas favorite Shane Decker to talk about “Selling Diamonds” (Fri., Feb. 7, 8 a.m.).

L—Look for…

Be on the lookout for open-work looks to coordinate with spring fashions. (pictured: Supreme Jewelry 18k rose gold and 2.78 cts. t.w. diamond drop earrings)

If fashion-savvy shoppers are your bread and butter, knowing what’s trending in jewelry will streamline your buying process. When it comes to metal-only items, consider pieces that are substantive, strong, and unembellished—such as sculptural gold cuffs, contoured necklaces, and chunky gold and silver fashion rings. Logo-laden pieces—which haven’t been in vogue since before the recession—are having a moment as are openwork looks, translucent and punchy-bright gems, and hip-hop–inspired baubles (fashion darlings Rodarte showed ­jewelry with padlocks for spring 2014). ­Floral-themed jewelry—also prevalent on the spring runways—is a perennially strong seller. Last, expect turquoise and coral to again brighten up sales once the weather warms.

M—Margaritas and Mexican Food

Alina Solovyova-Vincent/Getty Images
In the mood for Mexican food? You’ve come to the right city!

You’ll find both in abundance in and around Tucson: Just 15 minutes from the Marriott is the city’s oldest Mexican restaurant (and purported inventor of the chimichanga), El Charro Café (311 N. Court Ave., Tucson; 520-622-1922; ­elcharrocafe.com), regularly voted the best margarita in Tucson. Tip: If you’re looking for lighter fare, try the chopped chicken fajita lettuce cups.… Guadalajara Grill (750 N. Kolb Road, Tucson; 520-296-1122; thefiestagrill.com) is great for groups. And after the massive margaritas, handmade fresh tortillas, and made-to-order tableside salsa (make it as spicy as you want!), you almost won’t believe the reasonable prices. Reservations are a must.… When you’re at the AGTA GemFair, El Minuto (354 S. Main, Tucson; 520-882-4145; ­elminutocafe.com)—across the street from the convention center—is the spot for tamales and enchiladas, plus bargain $6.98 weekday lunch specials.


Each morning at 7 a.m. (Monday–Friday) join your fellow showgoers on the ­Marriott’s Salud Terrace for the Mitakuye ­Oyasin ­morning ritual. The centuries-old Native American ­ceremony—which incorporates an eagle feather ­blessing and a sage burning—takes its name from a Lakota Sioux phrase meaning “all my relations.” As you watch the sun rise, reflect on the interconnectedness of humans, plants, animals, and (appropriately for Tucson) minerals.

O—Other Shows

There are 39 of them, to be exact. Pick up a Tucson Show Guide to get your bearings. The venues range from formal—the AGTA GemFair at the convention center—to casual (a table set up on the road that parallels I-10), and include dealers hawking fine gems, rare minerals, and offbeat fossils. If you can’t find it in Tucson, it probably doesn’t exist.

P—Paraiba Tourmalines

You’ll find Paraiba at JCK exhibitors like Atelier Zobel’s Peter Schmid (pictured: ring in 18k and 22k gold and silver with diamonds and Paraiba tourmalines)

One of the best reasons to attend the Tucson gem shows is to find a robust selection of stones in colors, qualities, and price ranges to suit every kind of buyer. That goes double for rare (and trendy) gems like Paraiba tourmaline, the Windex-blue stone from Brazil, or its teal-tinted cousin from Nigeria and Mozambique. You’ll find the best paraiba selections at the AGTA GemFair, the Gem & Jewelry Exchange show, and, of course, at JCK Tucson, where exhibitors such as Atelier Zobel will showcase the gem in appropriately exalted settings.

Q—Quick Tips

To enjoy the full Tucson experience, rent a car; there’s a lot to cover in this sprawling city. Just be sure to reserve it soon. The rental companies have been known to sell out during the shows.… Stash a portable humidifier in your suitcase. They’re small, cheap (under $30), and work wonders in ultradry weather.… And last but not least, prepare to have your budget blown once you get a load of the sales and splendors available during Gem Week.


It’s not too late to register for the inaugural JCK Tucson show! Visit tucson.jckonline.com to view the registration qualifications and submit the attendee form. Want more information? Head to the website or call 203-840-5684.

S—Show Specials

Bargain alert! Look for 5–25% off deals at JCK. (pictured: Zina Sterling Silver baroque pearl beads in silver
on leather)

Who doesn’t love a good deal? The first-ever JCK Tucson show will be full of them. Exclusive Exhibitor Show Specials will see select product marked down 5–25 percent. Offered daily—and often in conjunction with the show’s daily buying themes—these limited-time deals are an opportunity to nab your favorite designer collections for less. 


At 6 p.m. Monday–Friday, Feb. 3–7, show­goers can gather on the JW Marriott Salud Terrace, to enjoy a beautiful sunset as well as a unique local ritual: the tequila toast. They also will get to hear the celebrated “Legend of Arriba Abajo”—the story of a man who will win a woman’s hand in marriage only if he can drink more tequila than her father. We won’t tell you how it ends, but you’ll enjoy listening and toasting the tale with “arriba, abajo, al ­centro, al dentro.”

U—University of Arizona

Take a (nostalgic) trip back to your college days with a stroll through U of A’s nearly 400-acre campus. Pop into the Arizona State Museum (statemuseum.arizona.edu) for a peek at its massive collection of American Indian basketry, Southwest Indian pottery, Navajo textiles, Mexican folk masks, and hundreds of thousands of other archaeological artifacts; admission to the Smithsonian Institution affiliate is only $5. Later, sit out front and nurse a beer at popular local pub Frog & Firkin (874 E. University Blvd., Tucson; 520-623-7507; frogandfirkin.com).


We all know that Tucson is a great place to get deals on colored stones and obscure rocks—from the world’s most precious gems to million-year-old dinosaur fossils. Of course, there’s the AGTA and related shows. But Tucson veterans know that some of the best deals can be found in the hotel shows along the I-10, where people sell gems literally out of their hotel rooms. If you are looking for it, it’s in ­Tucson—and at a great price!


Tucson is famous for its toasty-warm temps, but we’d advise packing a sweater or light jacket before heading to the picturesque desert town. Average lows in February range 41–44 degrees Fahrenheit. Of course, the days typically heat up—with temps ascending to an average range of 66–71 degrees by afternoon. And definitely leave your trench in the closet; the chance of showers in Tucson is slim-to-none.

X—(Mission San) Xavier del Bac

Known as “the White Dove of the Desert,” this Jesuit mission was founded in 1692, and the Mexican Baroque-style church built about 100 years later. Go for mass, go to gawk at the late-18th-century architecture (the ornate ­interior is a marvel), or go for the Indian fry bread (mmm!) sold in the adjacent plaza on Sundays. (1950 W. San Xavier Road, Tucson; 520-294-2624; sanxaviermission.org)

Y—Your Downtime

Among the many services available at the Marriott’s on-site Hashani Spa: hot stone massage, cupping, aloe and mud wraps, peels, an Arizona copper facial. We’re eyeing the Desert Exfoliant, which combines a blue corn scrub followed by goat milk shea body butter. Are you relaxed yet? (For an appointment, call 520-791-6117, or dial 6117 from any resort phone.)

Hot stone massage anyone? When you have some downtime, consider a visit to the Marriott’s Hashani Spa (right).


In finished jewelry or loose—like ZULTGEMS’ 53.65 ct. princess cut (pictured)—Zultanite is surely a show-stopping stone.

In the market for the offbeat, the esoteric, and the obscure? Tucson’s got it. From ammonites to Zultanite—a naturally color-changing stone found only in Turkey’s remote Anatolian Mountains—the gem shows are excellent sources for the mineral world’s wild and weird. See the vendors at the Howard Johnson Gem & ­Mineral Show off of I-10 for fossilized dinosaur bits, the Pueblo Gem & Mineral Show exhibitors for carved quartz tissue box covers, and the crew at the Gem & ­Lapidary Wholesalers on S. Palo Verde Road at the Holiday Inn/Holidome for a can’t-miss selection of super-cute carved gemstone animals.