A Trip to the Tucson Gem Shows

James T. Murray

American jewelers flock to Arizona for raw-material inspiration.

“This one is dinosaur bone. We thought we had too many, but we actually had to go back and buy more,” says jeweler David Yurman, pointing to a tray that holds an assortment of rocks and large mineral slabs. The dinosaur bone, found in Moab, Utah, is a deep-red color with flecks of black that make up an intricate, scaly pattern. Elsewhere on the tray are chunks of silvery metal—meteorite—and something called Chinese Writing stone.

“We always come back with a lot of stuff,” says Yurman, seated next to his son, Evan, at their headquarters in New York’s TriBeCa neighborhood. “This year we flew back on a smaller private plane, and we were overweight—we had about 1,500 pounds of material. A lot of it was specimen crystals: black quartz, amethyst. We had the boxes on the plane seats to help distribute the weight!”

The Yurmans are talking about their latest trip to the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, part of the two-week Gem, Mineral & Fossil Showcase in February—the biggest in America for minerals and other such raw materials—that draws thousands of gem dealers, miners, experts and jewelers who buy, sell and ogle specimens that range from top-quality Australian opals to animal fossils and hunks of meteorite. David has been going annually for more than 20 years. “The most inspiring elements of jewelry are the stones, and Tucson is where you seek inspiration,” he says. “It is a mecca.”

Although the most official event happening in Tucson is the gem show, it is the simultaneous small-scale exhibits, housed in roadside tents and makeshift hotel-room displays, that give the occasion its quirky character, bringing independent miners and hard-core collectors—and just plain eccentrics—to display and sell their unusual wares. “There’s always some psychic selling crystals,” says designer Irene Neuwirth, who discovered lapis, moonstone and opal for her bright baubles on her first trip here ten years ago. “I already have regular dealers who I work with year-round for larger orders,” she adds. “But these small shows are wonderful for those one-of-a-kind pieces.”

“One of a kind” in Tucson can mean anything from an untreated rare sapphire to the aforementioned dinosaur bone to ordinary agate stones, which David first worked with in the 1970s. “I buy the things my dad used to buy,” says Evan, 30, who, in collaboration with his father, designs the brand’s men’s, timepiece and high-jewelry collections. “He’ll look at pieces and say, ‘In ’68, I paid $14 for that!’ ” Picking up a large, rusty-colored agate, Evan points to a specific area. “The challenge lies in cutting the stone, in framing it,” he says. “If you don’t have a discerning eye, you can miss the most beautiful part.”

That discriminating eye is essential to the show, which usually requires a hands-on approach. “It’s not the type of place where you dress up,” says designer Monique Péan. “I’m in jeans and a T-shirt, elbow-deep in barrels of rocks.” For Péan, who uses only sustainable and ecofriendly materials, the show also requires doing some homework. “A lot of stones are passed around from one person to the next, to the point where no one is sure of its origins. It can be disheartening to find something and then learn that it’s chemically mined,” she says. Despite the tedious process, Péan has found two materials in Tucson that she regularly uses: cavansite and pietersite; the former is a soft material with delicate crystals, the latter a midnight-blue stone found in Namibia.

Designer Kimberly McDonald finds similar challenges. “There are a lot of treated and heated materials,” says McDonald, who found her first pair of geodes on her initial trip, turning them into what are now her signature geode and diamond earrings. “The quality of the materials you find relies totally on the relationships you have with these dealers,” she adds. The Yurmans agree and depend on both their established network of dealers along with tips from experts and collectors who know which minerals are new to the scene. “It’s a fluid market,” says David. “Next year, we’ll start from scratch.”

Editor’s Note: Though the gem shows in Tucson are open to anyone, navigating through the hundreds of dealers can be intimidating. Finding those unique, one-of-a-kind stones is more likely when accompanied by a jeweler or gemologist, and the best shows to start with are the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show (February 14–17, 2013) and the American Gem Trade Association GemFair (February 5–10, 2013).