DESERT FINDS IN TUCSON
February is a month that is anticipated by many of the world’s gem dealers, jewelry designers, rock-hounds and gem aficionados, who trek to Tucson every year to sell and to search for the unusual and the spectacular. During thirty days, the small Arizona city turns into a vast bazaar of gems, fossils, geodes, minerals, rock sculptures, dinosaur eggs and just about everything under the desert sun you can imagine. Cynthia Unninayar reports...
Spread over more than 45 shows, Tucson is the premier destination for buying and selling gemstones, but over the last few years, the small Arizona city has also become a venue for jewelry designers who come to promote their pieces under the warm desert sun.
During the shows, which take place from the end of January for several days or weeks, depending on the show, people come from around the world to seek out a wide variety of desert finds.
The majority of gem dealers we spoke with during the three main shows (AGTA GemFair™, GJX and JOGS) reported “good” to “excellent” shows. One dealer at AGTA even enthused that this show was his “second best ever.” AGTA also reported record numbers of buyers on opening day, from 90 countries, who came to see the wares of more than 300 exhibitors.
There is always something new in Tucson and, this year was no exception. The main buzz centered on emeralds from Ethiopia. While we heard talk about these gems last year, and a few dealers were selling them, they were not widely shown.
This year, however, Ethiopian emeralds were more available, with discussions centering on the gem’s saturated green color. Among the dealers offering these emeralds was Mayer & Watt. “Ethiopian emeralds are blowing people’s minds,” enthused Simon Watt, explaining that the gems are comparable, if not better, than Colombian stones, but at around half the price.
Among the green gems he offered were 6.1-carat and 5.8-carat faceted emeralds, with no oil treatment. “Some 30% to 40% of production doesn’t require oil,” Watt smiled, clearly excited about the new addition to the marketplace.
Adding to the interest in these Ethiopian emeralds is the social responsibility and sustainability factor. The mine is owned and operated by a tribe of 3000 people. Because all the money goes back to the tribe, proceeds are already building roads and other facilities. There are also plans to train local people in cutting the gems. Everyone benefits and profits.
Another gem that attracted a lot of attention—including filming by a TV crew from one of America’s largest TV shopping channels—was the Gold Sheen™ Sapphire, whose name was recently trademarked by Thailand-based Genuine Gems & Jewellery. When I passed by the booth for an interview with owner Tanzim Khan, he was constantly interrupted by a steady stream of buyers. Although Khan is at the beginning stages of marketing these unusual sapphires, the word is getting out. Global brands such as John Hardy, Cartier and David Yurman have recently used the unique gems and I saw several pieces set in gold by smaller designers in Tucson.
These shimmering gems exhibit a range of colors from gold to translucent blue and green and remind me somewhat of an interesting cross between rutilated quartz and labradorite. Found in only one location in a remote region of Kenya, the mine is now depleted. “As soon as I saw the rough a few years ago, I knew that I had something special, so I purchased the entire mine’s production,” explained Khan. He has had them analyzed by several laboratories, which indicate that the gems are natural, unheated sapphire.
The Big Three gems were in abundance at the shows, with fabulous examples at many booths. Blue sapphire seemed to be the most popular, although there also appeared to be strong interest in violet and gray sapphires.
Sapphires from Montana, promoting their USA origin and responsible sourcing, seemed to fly off the counters, in all colors and fancy cuts. A few booths even had rare red beryls from Utah. Spinel and garnet in many colors were also quite popular and seemed to be selling well. The ever-popular Paraiba tourmaline was one of the bestselling gems according to a number of dealers, who indicated that prices were holding steady.
The way colored gems are being used in jewelry is changing. While diamonds have long dominated the wedding world, we are seeing increasing numbers of brides opting for color. Doug Hucker, CEO of AGTA, commented recently that the bridal category in AGTA’s Spectrum Awards grows every year, with original rings and other jewels incorporating a variety of colored stones.
While the main gems in bridal jewels are sapphire, emerald and ruby, other types such as tanzanite, opal, pink and other colors of sapphire and morganite are enjoying increasing popularity. With the announcement of Princess Eugenie's engagement and her ring set with Padparadscha sapphire, this gem is also enjoying interest from consumers. Dealers indicated, however, that it is difficult to find good stones.
Dealers reported growing interest in some of the more uncommon gems, among them clinohumite, goshenite and sphene. A few exotic and traditionally non-jewelry gems were showcased in original designs seen at the shows, from dendritic agates to jasper, from diamond crystals to malachite, from fossils to petrified wood, and from vesuvanite to pietersite, as consumers discover and appreciate these more atypical stones being used in fine and demi-fine jewelry.
Ethical sourcing was on the minds of many dealers and customers, who indicated that the Millennial and Centennial generations are more concerned with the integrity of the supply chain than with price. These young people also appreciate a good gem “story,” preferring to know that their purchase is helping and not harming the miners, cutters and their communities.
Many dealers reported strong gem prices at the high end since supplies remain tight. At the low end, however, oversupply is keeping prices depressed. Mid-range gems seemed to attract only average demand.
Here are a few of the many beautiful gems and jewels seen at the shows in Tucson in February 2018. As always, the city remains the number one venue for everyone seeking spectacular desert finds.