Once a year, during the month of February, the small city of Tucson, in the southwestern state of Arizona in the United States, becomes a vast bazaar of gems, fossils, geodes, dinosaur eggs, minerals and just about everything under the desert sun you can imagine.
By Cynthia Unninayar
In reality, however, the Tucson gem fair is not one show, but around 45 fairs of all sizes sprawled across the city. Large tents, hotel rooms, and roadside exhibits make this February gathering a must-attend for tens of thousands of visitors from the Americas, Europe and Asia. While many shows are open to the public, others are reserved for the trade, including the two largest—AGTA GemFair™, in the Tucson Convention Center, and GJX, located in an enormous temporary tent across the street.
The wide selection at AGTA and GJX included something for every taste and budget, from small melee to rare unheated stones to unusual and museum quality gems and minerals. Tucson is also growing as a destination for jewelry designers and artisans who showcase their wares at AGTA and GJX as well as a number of other shows in the desert city.
Against the backdrop of 1,669 jewelry businesses that discontinued operations in the United States (a 50 per cent jump from 2015), it was understandable why sentiment was mixed among the exhibitors this year. Some reported good shows although most others said the shows were quiet. While nearly everyone lamented the lower buyer attendance, the majority noted that those who showed up were “serious” and ready to buy. These results were not surprising considering the pattern of trade fairs over the past year.
No Big Trends
There may have been fewer buyers, but there was certainly no lack of product. In terms of trends, nothing dramatically stood out. The big three—sapphire, ruby and emerald—seemed to be the main sellers. Blue sapphires were popular as were rubies that are benefiting from the increased supply from Mozambique. Burmese rubies have yet to make a large appearance in the USA, despite the lifting of the ban late last year. We are also seeing an increase in sales of sapphires and rubies for use in engagement rings, which undoubtedly has helped sales.
Emeralds have become more popular these last couple of years and one very exciting discovery is the new deposit coming from Ethiopia,” explained Philip Zahm, CEO of California-based Philip Zahm Designs. “At this point, I don't know exactly what we can expect to see coming out of Ethiopia, but the gem I have, a 2.64-carat oval, is a fantastic color, very bright and open, and is certified totally natural from GIA.”
Aside from the big three, a number of dealers noted strong interest in Paraiba tourmaline. “Paraiba received a lot of attention,” says Samuel Sulimanov, CEO of New York-based Samuel Sylvio, a Spectrum Award winner. “The demand is rising although availability is decreasing, which means prices are going up.” Another brand reporting strong interest in Paraiba was New York-based Caroline C, also a Spectrum Award winner. “The neon blue of Paraiba is enchanting to so many people, and a number of buyers were looking for larger pieces,” commented Caroline Chartouni, owner of the brand, who indicated that some of her clients are using Paraiba in bridal pieces.
Numerous other stones also garnered positive interest. “We had a lot of calls for spinel this year,” explains Philip Zahm, “although production of fine spinel has really dwindled. The Mahenge material is essentially mined out and the Burmese material is very hard to come by. Most sought after is fine red spinel since it looks much like fine ruby.” He goes on to say that demand for tsavorite is also increasing. “At the show, we had many requests for small goods and fine single stones. Availability of beautiful 3 to 8-carat stones is a bit better right now although the prices have increased dramatically.”
Another tsavorite specialist, Arizona-based Bridges Tsavorite, also noted strong sales. “It was a very good show for tsavorite,” said Jim Walker and Bruce Bridges. “Buyers were very serious this year, and we also did well with garnet and tourmaline.” At AGTA, the exhibit by the Smithsonian Museum also paid a touching tribute to the late Campbell Bridges and the 50th anniversary of the company he created.
In terms of prices, nearly all dealers surveyed indicated that the very high end and the low end are doing better, with prices fairly stable and even rising on the upper end of the quality spectrum. Prices in the mid-range, however, are still undergoing a correction. Sailesh Lakhi, CEO of New York-based Sparkles and Colors, explained, “Demand for high quality stones is up—gems above $200,000 sold well—but the middle is not doing that well, i.e. 5 to 15-carat range.” He also mentioned that rose cuts and moonstone saw a fair demand. Sudhil Jain, of New York-based FEI, which sells mostly the big three, commented that quality gems in 10 carats and up were doing well, with prices stable. Below that, prices are in a correction.
Edward Boehm, president of Tennessee-based RareSource, indicated that his booth experienced good traffic but that “people are cautious, although quite serious, and looking for large and unusual stones.” Among his large rare stones was a 50-carat color change sapphire and a 31.79- carat Padparascha. Similar sentiments were expressed by Eddie Livi, of New York-based DSL Pearl, which sells a variety of gems and pearls. “While prices are stable, buyers are still cautious for the time being,” he noted.
Shaun Ajodan, president of New York-based Shaun Gems, added, “The show has been active with buyers expressing a positive outlook, but they are looking for more unusual gems.” He noted that quality stones in the 4-carat range were popular, although prices are in correction. Kaiser Abi-Habib, president of California-based Kaiser Gems, stated that while buyers were looking, the show was quiet. One of his most popular gems was morganite, especially in larger size stones, although pink tourmalines were in lesser demand.
As always, Tucson offers a variety of new finds and unusual gems, and a few caught my attention. One of these “new” gems was presented by Idaho-based, Parlé Gems. Frank Farnsworth, president, was delighted with the reaction to this new “Lotus Garnet.” “This has been my best Tucson ever,” he declared. Discovered in late 2015 in northern Tanzania, this gemstone is a member of three garnet families, pyrope, spessartine and almandine. It is found in alluvial mines, usually in conjunction with rhodolite garnet and spinel. Parlé controls the total production of this unique gem, which exhibits a color variation in every pocket mined, ranging from pinkish orange to an orangey pink color. “This makes it an exceptional substitute to Padparascha sapphire, morganite and imperial topaz,” added Farnsworth. Viewed best in sunlight, it also has a slight red fluorescence, which can give the appearance of color change. Parlé sells the loose gem as well as in 14K gold jewelry with diamond accents.
Another relatively new find was seen at Morocco-based Geostone. This unique stone, dubbed “Moroccan Amethyst,” is found in only one location in the world, in the Anti Atlass Mountains in Morocco. Discovered by nomads in the 1980s, it reached international prominence only a few years ago, and in 2012, the Geostone Group in Casablanca obtained exclusive rights to the mine. What makes this gem so exceptional is that it is found as single crystals (not in a geode) without a matrix, singly or doubly terminated. It also contains dendritic hematite inclusions that differentiate this type from other amethysts. Untreated and unheated, the stone is faceted using customized techniques in order to bring out the red needles and color-changing effect. Multi-award winning gem artist, Glenn Lehrer, president of California-based Glenn Lehrer Designs, works with Geostone to create spectacular facetted creations to be used in all sorts of jewelry. It should be noted that Geostone undertakes its mining in a socially responsible manner, and has been awarded the Prize of First Ethical and Ecological Mine in Morocco in 2016.
Ethical mining and social responsibility have become important elements in gemstone purchases, and one brand that has consistently promoted these values is Columbia Gem House. Company president Eric Braunwart indicated that because of their efforts in sustainability and social responsibility, they have a large following. “More than 85 percent of buyers purchased stones from us because of the way we do business. And, people talk about the Millennials and their values. Every new account we open these days is by someone under the age of 30.” While I was visiting the booth, a buyer from England said she comes to the show to buy ethically-sourced gems and has been doing business with Braunwart for many years.
Unusual trapiche gems were on display at Kentucky-based Mayer & Watt. “They drew a lot of interest,” commented Geoffrey Watt, son of the owners. Featured were emeralds, sapphires and rubies, along with some rare tourmaline trapiches. The gem gets its name from the hexagonal structure that is reminiscent of the six-spoke Spanish wheel used to crush sugarcane.
Tucson is fast becoming a destination for jewelry designers and artisans, who exhibited around the city in various venues. Many of the pieces fall into the realm of “traditional” jewelry while others are distinctly “non-traditional.” Among the artist-creators was Helen Serras-Herman, of Gem Art Center. A long-time exhibitor at AGTA, she displayed a variety of beautiful handcrafted creations including a rare carved astorite pendant on a necklace of astorite beads and pearls. Mined exclusively in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado, astorite is a rare rock composed mainly of pink rhodonite along with various amounts of quartz, gold, silver, rhodochrosite and other minerals.
And, there was no shortage of colourful gemstone jewellery at the AGTA booths of New York-based Bella Campbell and Naomi Sarna, whose award-winning pieces received more than a few glances. Artist-creators, such as David Philips, exhibiting at one of the smaller shows, encloses unusual gems such as trapiche emeralds and meteorites with amazing wire wrapping, in his designs for Starchild Creations. We must also mention some of the amazing gem carvers, such as Minnesota-based John Dyer and New Hampshire-based Michael Dyber who create remarkable pieces, and are a major attraction to visitors to Tucson.