Dazzling in the Desert
There are two names in the jewelry, gem and watch industry that need no further explanation. On the watch side, there is “Basel.” On the gem side—and increasingly for jewelry—there is “Tucson.” Located in the southern part of the Arizona, there is no place in the world like this small desert city that turns into a multitude of gem and jewelry shows during the month of February in 2016.
By Cynthia Unninayar
On my connecting flight to reach Tucson, it was abundantly clear that it was the period of the gem and jewelry shows. The majority of passengers were decked out in a wide variety of jewels, from artisanal beads to southwestern silver and turquoise to higher-end designer pieces. Even many of the men had interesting stone-set bolo ties or gem-set necklaces and bracelets. All around me, passengers were talking about the latest opal find, the merits of Oregon sunstone, a recent fossil find or where to find some of Nature’s most unusual gemological oddities.
The attraction of this southern Arizona town is that February is really a gem lover’s paradise. “We don’t even find this variety in Hong Kong,” stated a buyer from Germany who visits the show every year.
While most of the 40 shows scattered around the city in large halls, hotel rooms, and sprawling roadside camps are open to the public, a few are restricted to the trade. The main B-B shows are AGTA GemFair, located in the Tucson Convention Center in the heart of the historic old town, and GJX, held in a massive tent across the street. The small JCK Tucson show was held at a Starr Pass resort up the mountains, about 30 minutes from the AGTA and GJX shows.
The overall reactions at the three shows were mixed, although sentiment seemed to be the most positive at AGTA. “This was one of the best shows we’ve ever had,” stated Douglas K. Hucker, CEO of AGTA. “The buzz about this show started a few months ago, and continued straight through to closing day. I honestly can’t remember a show where everyone I saw, from exhibitors to buyers, walked around with a smile on their face all day long. This type of positive, infectious energy is one of the reasons why GemFair Tucson remains firmly entrenched as one of the favorite shows around!”
One of AGTA’s exhibitors, Simon Watt of Mayer & Watt, located in Maysville, Kentucky, also had a smile on his face: “Eighty percent of my business at the show this year was new business.” Noted designer and gem dealer Philip Zahm also had a good show, with interest both in his gemstones and original jewelry. Gary Lee, of Princut, who creates novel ways of recycling diamonds, said he was very happy with both the turnout at the show and with sales of his unique diamonds.
Over at GJX, however, where a number of national pavilions featured beautiful gems from around the world, sentiment was more muted, with most of the exhibitors I spoke with describing the show as “slow.” Several, however, said they came with low expectations given the global economic situation, but that show finished on a positive note. “The budding designers may have stayed home this year, but the serious buyers with long-established businesses could not afford to miss the show,” said Reema Keswani of New York-based Golconda, a jewelry and gem brand. “After Christmas, retailers and manufacturers need to stock up on goods for inventory.”
Reaction at JCK Tucson was also quite mixed, with half of exhibitors expressing satisfaction while the others lamented that the show was very quiet. German designer Marcel Roelofs was among those who were happy with contacts he made during the show. “I’ve seen good, quality buyers so cannot complain,” he said. Similar comments were heard from Lord Jewelry.
Trends & Prices
With shows as vast and diverse as Tucson, it is hard to say that there are dominant and specific trends. Exhibitors tend to specialize in certain gemstones and colors, which may or may not be the “flavor of the month.” Having said that, however, in addition to the vast range of product, a few standouts were noted: the neon blue of Paraiba, in both translucent and in matrix forms, a rainbow of spinels, a delicious array of grape garnets and rutilated quartz.
Opal in all its forms and colors were available, notwithstanding the completely unfounded rumors that Ethiopian opal was treated with resin. A number of jewelry designers were featuring zircon, especially the blue variety, but bemoaned the fact that consumers are totally confused by the name “zircon” believing these stones to be the fake “cubic zirconia.” More than one suggested that the name of zircon be changed.
On the jewelry front, many designers were looking for uncommon jewelry stones such as dendritic agate or natural diamonds, emeralds and sapphires. “In the colored stone world,” continued Keswani, “the Tucson shows are known for a great selection of weird oddities, but nothing was cheap this year. These items were commanding serious prices and created real competition among exhibitors.” She sees this going from a modest trend to a real bifurcation in the industry. “There is a huge market developing for unusual gems that designers are using, including natural and icy diamonds. It used to be that there were one or two people at these shows who serviced these niche markets. Today, that is no longer true. These are not one-off esoteric purchases.”
Keshwani observed that this new market extends beyond the United States. “My clients from Colombia and Uruguay are buying non-traditional diamonds for markets in South America that were not traditionally known for using these diamonds. The creativity shown by American designers using untraditional stones and metals is having a ripple effect in other markets.”
In terms of prices for more traditional gems, exhibitors admitted that they have dropped a little—not surprising since the Chinese are not buying as aggressively as before—but that they are beginning to stabilize. Others admitted that smaller stones were moving more quickly than the larger ones as Keswani explains, “The United States is a strong market for 2-carat to 5-carat sapphires, for example, but to sell a 5-carat to 7-carat stone that is $10,000 to $15,000 per carat at Tucson is tough.”
In Hucker’s opinion, retailers were the main buyers at the show. “Many are learning to manufacture in-house, so they are here to buy. The typical retailer does repairs and buys stones as they need them, but when they really look at their inventory consumption and changing margins, they realize that it makes sense to buy more stones down here.”
What’s in a Name?
A quick glance down the main corridor of the AGTA GemFair reveals the booths of all the major organizations in the gem and jewelry sector. Tucson is also the time for their annual parties, receptions, and meetings. A relative newcomer to the Tucson gem scene was GIT, the Gem & Jewelry Institute of Thailand, whose director, Dr. Pornsawat Watkunakul, introduced three sets of important ruby and sapphire grading tools called Master Sets.
With the industry in need of consistency in determining the specific color of gemstones, these Master Sets are a welcome addition. “Certain colors, such as Pigeon’s Blood Red, Royal Blue and Cornflower Blue, are especially prized by consumers. Unfortunately, one lab’s ‘Royal Blue’ may not be the same as another lab’s.” In order to increase customer confidence and standardize color nomenclature, the GIT has spent years developing these three color series in consultation with gem dealers and gemologists. It also makes these sets available to other laboratories, in the objective of bringing coherence to the industry.
“Among the 4C’s, color has the greatest impact on price, particularly at the high end of the price scale,” Watkunakul adds. “The ultimate goal is to use these standards as tools for promoting the color stone trade and building consumer confidence.”
The next Tucson gem shows will begin January 31, 2017.