THE 2023 TUCSON GEM SHOWCASE
Early February saw members of the gem trade return to Tucson in pre-pandemic numbers. Jennifer-Lynn Archuleta and Olga González FGA DGA learned about the trends anticipated for 2023 by visiting different locations of this year’s Tucson Gem, Mineral & Fossil Showcase. This article was published in the Spring 2023 issue of Gem-A’s Gems & Jewellery Magazine.
From Uber wait times to lines at restaurants, early February found Tucson bustling with activity. After a relatively quiet few years, when travel was limited due to lockdowns for different localities, gem buyers, dealers and enthusiasts returned to southern Arizona for the three-week Tucson Gem, Mineral & Fossil Showcase, now in its sixty-eighth year. With forty-three shows in 2023, featuring gems and jewellery at all price points, the showcase has something to offer just about every audience. The event has a major impact on the city’s economy; according to Vantage West Credit Union, gem show visitors spend an average of $394 (£319.60) per day, with international visitors making up 70% visitors who spend more than $1,000 (£811.16) per day.
If locals were delighted to see their city back in action, that was nothing compared to the members of the trade who were basking in the company of their colleagues and enjoying the gorgeous gems on display. There were definite changes this year — the Gem Shuttle, once a staple used to travel the showcase, did not run this year, and some vendors faced issues with new travel restrictions, leaving booths to be shuffled at shows at the last minute.
Still, there was lots of activity at all the shows, with enthusiastic people lining up to see what each vendor had to offer and, in the words of jeweller-designer Brenda Smith, “they were looking to buy.” The numbers at the shows seemed to bear this out. Lowell Carhart of Eon Expos, which has run the22nd Street Show since its inception in 2010, said that “Attendance was the highest ever. Every Saturday and Sunday around lunch time, the lines would start forming, up to fifteen-people deep. We can only estimate attendance because our show is not ticketed, but based on the above dynamic, as well as parking revenue, we are comfortable stating a 50,000 attendance over last year’s 45,000 visitors.”
The enthusiasm started as early as 28 January, and as far north as Phoenix, where the Centurion show kicked off the Arizona-based events in the historic Arizona Biltmore, and hosted 330 stores.
“The Centurion Jewelry Show is the better jewellery store’s favourite show for more than 20 years,” said president Howard Hauben. “Jewellers showed their strong support at the event with the Centurion’s highest turnout in its history.” Though the invite-only event in Phoenix ended on 31 January, the animated feeling soon spilled over from Arizona’s largest city to its second largest, just 116 miles (187 km) to the southeast.
Overall, people we spoke to about their time in Tucson were both enthusiastic and optimistic about the year ahead, particularly in the realm of coloured gemstones. John Ford, the new CEO of the American Gem Trade Association, stated, “Many of our exhibitors were pleased with sales during the show. Some even had record years. The shortage of unheated rubies and sapphires and consequent higher prices has not stopped demand. If anything, many are realising the rarity of coloured gemstones and if they don’t buy a gem they like when they see it, it will not be available again.” The excited mood was certainly enhanced by the fact that AGTA celebrated its fortieth anniversary this year, which it marked with a celebration at the Tucson Convention Center on 31 January after the close of business.
All our contributors had positive feedback about most, if not all, aspects of this year’s showcase that echoes Mr Ford’s sentiments. While diamonds and pearls certainly made their mark among the public this year, colour continued to be a major draw among gem and jewellery aficionados. Foot traffic at shows was strong, especially among international buyers. John Bradshaw from Coast to Coast Rare Stones, whose
booth has been in the same place at the GJX show since 1997 and had ‘almost all repeat customers’, told us that “80–90% of our Tucson clientele is foreign dealers.” People are continuing to look for pieces that are not only fiscally valuable, but that have meaning to the wearer. As fine jewellery designer Svetlana Lazar, a Melee Show participant, explained, “Among designers, I think there was a consensus around the continued popularity of gold, and symbolic jewellery with a strong story and personal connection for the wearer.”
OBSERVATIONS IN TUCSON
The exhibitors that we spoke to all mentioned the foot traffic at the shows this year, noting that foot traffic was up now that COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted. Eric Braunwart of Columbia Gem House, which works with responsibly sourced coloured gemstones and American-made coloured gemstone jewellery, and which exhibited both at AGTA and the Ethical Gem Fair, noticed that many of the people at his booths this year were younger, and ‘nearly all’ of them were women. Brian Cook of Nature’s Geometry, which also exhibited at AGTA and the Ethical Gem Fair, noticed a good number of buyers requesting information about provenance and artisanal mining.
While, as it was last year, bold colour continues to be king in Tucson, magenta is having its moment in 2023. Viva Magenta is the current Pantone Color of the Year. The colour is considered to be vibrant, sexy and fun – what Pantone has called ‘an unconventional shade for an unconventional time’ — and designers were prepared for that palette, creating a plethora of jewels in magenta and similar shades. Dealers reported an uptick in ruby inquiries, particularly unheated specimens. Pink sapphire, rubellite, pink spinel and pink tourmaline were seen throughout the gem shows. Monica Stephenson of ANZA Gems which, like Columbia Gem House, showed at the Ethical Gem Fair, reported “there was tremendous interest in pinks, from moody, blushy tourmalines, zircons and garnets to the most vibrant pink spinels. I feel like perhaps Pantone’s Color of the Year has collided with the general zeitgeist!” Rhodochrosites were also popular this year, as John Bradshaw from Coast to Coast Rare Stones noted, showing that the colour is impacting gem purchases from the classic, ever-popular ruby to rarer material.
Magenta isn’t the only colour that was getting attention this year. Interspersed throughout the shows we saw the resurgence of goth through
the presence of black diamonds. While white and coloured diamonds have often been marketed for engagement rings and self-purchased jewellery, not much attention has been paid to black diamonds. Designers are starting to pay attention, giving these gemstones their time in the sun. Black diamonds look great in platinum or silver, with skulls or on dog tags. They are edgy, sparkly, and a bit macabre, a look which definitely attracted folks this year. They were put to good use in John Varvatos’ Stardust collection, which was on view at Centurion. Salt-and-pepper diamonds were getting attention; Talking Tree Jewelry had salt-and-pepper jewels displayed at their Melee Show booth.
Pearls also had a presence at this showcase, though perhaps not the classic white pearl strand necklace of yesteryear. Alec Rupp-Smith of Aloha Pearls informed us that this is the company’s twelfth year in Tucson, and notably missing from their booth were the shoppers – usually people in their 70s and 80s – that have traditionally been their biggest customers. Perhaps that accounts for the change in pearl purchases; while large white South Sea pearls did move, the most popular items at their Pueblo booth this year were Tahitian and keshi pearls. In fact, he said, “we are specialising more and more into keshi pearls, from keshi Tahitian and keshi South Sea pearls to akoya keshi and Edison keshi.”
In a similar vein, fine jewellery designer/maker Brenda Smith finds that her pearl jewellery sells precisely because it is unusual. “My goal with pearls is to use them in ways you may not have expected,” she said, and she had at least one customer that said that she purchased a pearl ring for exactly that reason. Isabel Dennis of Kima Jewelry also uses pearls in different ways within her work. A first-time exhibitor based at the Melee Show, she was delighted by both the reaction to her pieces and to meet, and exceed, her sales goal. Dennis specialises in designer-maker fine jewellery using classic diamond-setting techniques combined with fresh and modern materials.
But almost everyone reported that people were interested in bright, striking colours. Mary van der Aa, our cover artist and winner of three 2022 AGTA Spectrum Awards, works with gemstones across the rainbow. She informed us that visitors to her space at the Pueblo Show were looking for spinel and sapphire in a variety of hues; she also noted that ‘spessartine garnet is more in demand this year as well.’ While other vendors found that their clients made requests for other stones, depending on the customer’s need and the gem dealer’s own specialty, the overwhelming consensus was that people were seeking colour.
Of course, there are many jewels that encompass multicoloured gemstones for a ‘rainbow’ look. While there are many reasons one might want to ‘wear the rainbow’, for many, embracing inclusivity and diversity is what comes to mind when looking at a rainbow accessory. For others it is hope, or the metaphorical ‘pot of gold’ at the end of the rainbow. Its formation after the rain has an otherworldly beauty, encompassing all colours and bringing joy. In jewels, gemstones lend themselves well to placement in the order of the rainbow’s colours, and many designers are creating eye-catching pieces, particularly using multicoloured sapphires. After troubled times, people want joy and hope. Acclaimed jeweller Oscar Heyman had this in mind when creating their rainbow bracelets. “Starting off 2023 by getting together with the jewellery community in Scottsdale and the gemstone community in Tucson positions us to plan wisely for the year ahead,” said Tom Heyman. “While Oscar Heyman’s jewellery designs are timeless, we look forward to feedback from our industry as we have the ability to react in real time to the demands of the market because we produce our pieces in our own New York City workshop.”
UNIQUE DESIGNS, RARE STONES AND UNUSUAL SHAPES
There was a clear consensus among show participants that attendees were younger than in past years. A good number of these youthful buyers were looking for unique pieces rather than classic cuts or traditional jewels. Customers wanted pieces that would call out their own originality, and many exhibitors were able to fulfil those needs, either through design, gemstone variety or cut. Svetlana Lazar enjoyed the attention her creativity brought to her booth. This was her second booth in Tucson, although her third time exhibiting with Melee (which also has a New York show). Lazar has been in the trade for fifteen years, and her pieces have a whimsical, playful twist that her customers love. “My best sellers continued to be the Wishing Well collection rings,” she explained. “They are designed around a setting I invented that gives the illusion of water moving beneath the gem. It’s something unique and has a great story for retailers to tell their clients.”
Brenda Smith, who specialises in jewellery inspired by fine art, has collections at different price points for those who want designer jewellery at affordable prices. She sees her customers as people who wants something outside the norm; she believes there is a market for everyone. This year, she found her Faces collection to be particularly popular. These pieces, she explained “feature faces created in the millefiori style with gemstone accessories, inspired by Gustav Klimt, famous for the painting The Kiss. He utilises realistic faces with clothing in geometric shapes. For me, I envisioned gemstones as those geometric shapes. Since my one-of-a-kind are miniature sculptures, most people (who come to the booth) want to know the story behind the design.”
While Smith has been at AGTA for eleven years, this was Gina Marie Pinzari’s first year exhibiting at Tucson. Pinzari formed Talking Tree Jewellery after she started making jewellery as a full-time endeavour in 2018. She explained, “I design and make unique sculptural jewellery from fine materials, using traditional techniques and a few I developed in my studio through many hours of trial and error.” Pinzari’s experience at the Melee Show was excellent. “I noticed there was interest in my most lavish and conceptual designs, which was very encouraging!” Her pieces incorporate gemstones, unique textures and sculptural elements that make her work easily identifiable. “Buyers seemed to be drawn to the things I make that are the most extravagant, that I put the most time into designing, and that used my experimental techniques. As you can imagine these are also my favourite things to make, so that was rewarding feedback that is already shaping my future pieces. I hope to become known for that element of my work.”
Sometimes inspiration for original design comes from the jeweller’s own life. Kelsey Simmen, who has been creating jewellery for the past thirteen years, transformed her experience with type 1 diabetes into her muse. She explained, “my work features sugar as a main theme. I create textures in my pieces by growing, manipulating and building with its crystals, from tiny sanding sugar to large rock candy; I then cast the pieces in gold and silver.” This process makes for jewellery that is texturally unique and visually arresting. Ms Simmen displayed jewels that used Chatham lab-grown specimens as well as diamond, emerald and padparadscha at her Melee booth.
Empowering the customer to create their own jewellery and, ultimately a unique look, is a cutting-edge move. The magnetic ring builder display pioneered by Shah Luxury – allowing each user to mix-and-match looks before committing to a purchase – is simply groundbreaking. Yash Shah explained, “One of our goals at Shah Luxury is to make the adventure of customising and buying jewellery an exciting experience. Our online ring builder allows us to tap into people’s creativity and facilitates the flow of expression for those comfortable in a digital world. We created the in-store ring builder to reach a wider audience and to get people’s hands on actual jewellery. In doing so, we open the customer’s world to an omni-channel experience that is simple, elegant and makes self-expression luxurious.”
Coast to Coast Rare Stones works with wholesalers who are looking to work with unusual, fine-quality stones. According to John Bradshaw, ‘demand is still high’ for this rarer material. “If anything,” he continued, “we had to limit what each company was buying so that all our regulars could have a selection to choose from.” Interest was so strong that Coast to Coast, which usually sells 40–50% of their inventory at GJX Tucson, sold almost 70% of their inventory, making this show their single biggest year for number of gemstones sold, and the second-best year by dollar value.
Mary van der Aa has worked at the Tucson trade shows for ten years; prior to that, she came as an attendee. She and her partner, Todd Wacks (Tucson Todd’s Gems) also stock unusual gemstones, and their customers know to expect these specimens in their cases. “(Our clients) like rare, unusual and absolutely one of a kind,” she noted. “People are still searching for the unusual things such as sphene and phenakite.”
As far as unusual shapes in jewellery go, the hexagon seemed to be the shape of the year — it was everywhere we looked. It appears that this six-sided shape will be a major jewellery trend in 2023. It symbolises harmony and the balance between female and male energy. Modern and sleek, designers are using it as a bezel set, in prongs, as a chain link and as a gemstone and diamond cut. It offers a refreshing alternative to those looking for something that stands out from the crowd, reflecting individual style. Lapidaries, goldsmiths, and diamond cutters alike are embracing the hexagon, appealing to clientele looking for a jewellery wardrobe refresh. Geoffrey Good and Paula Crevoshay are just two jewellery designers who are incorporating the shape into their work.
Unique and bespoke gemstone cuts were also sought by buyers. Gem cutter Justin K Prim, co-owner of Magus Gems – whose unusual set-up at the Pueblo Show allowed visitors to try faceting out for themselves – shared that his customers came looking for unusual cuts or even custom-designed gemstones. “We were showing off a large batch of Umba sapphires in a variety of colours and cut into bespoke shapes,” he recalled. “We also had a collection of unheated tanzanites that show a beautiful combination of green, blue, and purple that we cut into unique designs like shields and Old Mine cuts.” Such faceting choices outside the usual cuts are becoming ever-more popular amount today’s jewellery clientele.
NAVIGATING THE SUPPLY CHAIN
As with last year, many dealers still had outstanding issues with sourcing inventory, although others have found workarounds. Brenda Smith clarified for us that she does not rely on any international suppliers, thus she did not experience any real hardship in this area this year. Gina Marie Pinzari of Talking Tree Jewelry reported, “I am blessed to work with a very talented local caster and have access to a local master setter for production. Both of these people live within 30 minutes of me, so I was not affected by these issues.” Mary van der Aa indicated that she and Todd Wacks also avoided some of this difficulty: “We had no issues with the jewellery as it is all made by us in the United States.”
However, this has not been the case for many gem dealers and jewellery designers. Ms van der Aa did note that she and her partner had some issues with obtaining rough, stating “sourcing rough for new cuts has become a little more difficult as much of it comes from overseas.” Alec Rupp-Smith of Aloha Pearls said that, while generally supply was normal, “there were fewer pearl auctions in Hong Kong and Tahiti.” Kelsey Simmen shared that “gold is really expensive. I ended up taking work back from a few consignment stores to fill my case up.”
This is not just an issue surrounding gemstone inventory; rather, it reaches into all aspects of the industry. Justin K Prim explained, “One of the things we sell is a tool kit that we put together that has all the tools that a new gem cutter needs. We were not able to get these on time for the show because many of the things we put in the kit had been out of stock for months from our suppliers in Bangkok. Also, one of our best sellers last year was a very nice, but affordable gem-cutting lap that is made in small batches from a single maker in Russia. Due to the outbreak of war, it’s impossible for us to source these. This is sad news for our customers, for us and for our Russian friend who makes them.”
The vibe in Tucson this February was one that combined excitement, hope and, for many, joy. People were happy to be back among the glitter of the gemstones and the beauty of the jewellery. The buyers, returning to Tucson in droves from regions that had been under lockdown for the past few years, tended to be young, enthusiastic about ethical issues, and seeking colourful pieces that were unique and helped to express their individuality. This, it seems is just how our exhibitors liked it. So many of our contributors told us that they hoped nothing would change nothing at all about the Tucson experience. As Susan Wheeler said, “Tucson always makes me optimistic!”
ETHICAL GEM SUPPLIERS AND THE ETHICAL GEM FAIR — TUCSON
Today’s jewellery customer is more aware of responsible practices and ethical issues than their counterparts in the past, and plenty of vendors at Tucson are just as concerned as their clientele. The third Ethical Gem Fair, held 28–31 January at Tucson’s Scottish Rite Cathedral, was comprised of vendors that have been consistently concerned with the supply chain of the materials they are using in their own work. Having collaborated for years to obtain gemstones and metals from ethical, transparent sources and to work to the benefit of mining communities, these trade members have come together under the name Ethical Gem Suppliers (EGS) to help others achieve these same objectives. According to Monica Stephenson of ANZA Gems, “Our third Ethical Gem Fair in Tucson was a success, with many new faces as well as clients who’ve been with us since the beginning.”
That ‘beginning’ is somewhat nebulous. While the group held their first Ethical Gem Fair in February 2021, with sessions held via Zoom, most participants have been members of the industry for years, some decades. Agere Treasures was started by Hewan Zewdi in 2015 to promote the work of artisanal miners in sub-Saharan Africa, specifically Ethiopia. Nineteen48, which supplies responsibly mined and fully traceable coloured gemstones, primarily from Sri Lanka and Tanzania to wholesale and retail members of the trade, formed as an ethical supplier of gemstones in 2011. Brian Cook (Nature’s Geometry and Quore Jewelry) has worked with rutilated quartz miners in Bahia, Brazil, on various projects to benefit the area for decades; he is currently involved with restorative agriculture in the region. Columbia Gem House, which focuses on loose coloured stones and American-made coloured gemstone jewellery has been in business since 1976. But president Eric Braunwart, who had always followed ethical practices, began setting up trackable-and-traceable fair trade standards in 2000, due to a project he worked on with the World Bank in Madagascar. Each member of the group has a specialisation; Capricorn Gems focuses on the gemstones of Central Queensland, Australia; Perpetuum Jewels works with post-consumer diamonds and coloured gemstones, as well as antique pieces.
The group is focused not just on sales, but on education. Each Tucson show has involved presentations that allow attendees to learn more about traceability, sustainability and issues that face mining communities. Many members of EGS are often on-site at deposits and in mines themselves, speaking to miners and finding out about issues first-hand. They are passionate about these topics and are delighted to find that customers coming to shows are eager to find that their gems and jewellery are ethical, traceable and sustainable.
Such was the case at this year’s Ethical Gem Fair. Susan Wheeler, the founder of both the Chicago Responsible Jewelry Conference and the Responsible Jewelry Transformative as well as a cofounder of Virtu Gem – a social enterprise founded by women which works with artisanal gemstone mining communities in Malawi, Kenya and Zambia – noticed both old and new faces at the Gem Fair. “We had a combination of industry veterans and large companies who had not taken the leap into adding gemstones sourced with ASM traceability into their supply chains, showing up and ready to do business. Then there were individuals who wanted to become jewellers and started their journey at the Ethical Gem Suppliers show. They asked about how responsible sourcing worked, what the conditions were like for the miners and cutters of the gemstones.”
Eric Braunwart of Columbia Gem House and Ian Bone of Capricorn Gems also noticed a greater interest in the story behind the gems. Mr Braunwart explained that “for us, most of the questions were on supportive supply chains that we develop and encourage. We did have some questions on availability.” Mr Bone also found people to be extremely receptive to discussing ethical issues; he found “a continued demand for the back story and evidence of mining, processing and cutting meeting standards and expectations.” Monica Stephenson agreed, and believed that this may have a great deal to do with the return to in-person trade shows. I think attendees appreciate our edited collections that all feature a story of support for the artisanal supply chains we respectively specialise in. The relaxed atmosphere invites lingering and having conversations, which we are all happy to engage in. As much as we’ve all grown comfortable with digital commerce, there is a beautiful alchemy that happens seeing the gems in real life.” This bodes well for those who believe that the future of the industry relies on ethical behaviour from supplier and consumer alike.