What started out as a small gem and mineral show held in a school in Tucson, Arizona, has grown to become a world-class destination for fossil, rock, and mineral enthusiasts, bead and jewelry fans, and those who want to experience a truly international vibe. There is no one show. In fact, during “Tucson gem show” each January and February, you’ll find tents filled with gems, minerals, and goods from around the world lining parking lots and filling hotel courtyards and ballrooms.
Major indoor event venues all have booths galore with brightly lighted gems, jewelry, and surprises from places like Brazil, Africa, and the mines of Mexico. As you walk through rows of outdoor exhibits, you’ll smell East Indian curry being cooked, see unusual things for sale such as African carved stone sculptures, and hear languages being spoken from around the world. Gem show time can be overwhelming, especially for first-time visitors. But I have some recommendations for how to experience the cultures of the world all in one Arizona city.
Tucson Gem Show Basics
The show takes place each year between late January and mid-February. This online guide gives opening and closing dates for the larger shows. It’s always best to do a little research and decide which shows interest you.
The original show, the Tucson Gem & Mineral Show is the largest public show and is held at the Tucson Convention Center on the final weekend of all this gem show craziness. There is an admission charge and tickets are available online. In 2020, the show is held on February 13-16, 2020. The Tucson Gem & Mineral Society and Tucson's gem show history will give you a sense of how a small event has grown into a city-wide International phenomenon.
Some of the shows are wholesale only, but many are mixed. If you decide to make a purchase, ask the vendor if they offer retail pricing. Bring cash and checks as well as your credit card. And be prepared to encounter both slick salespeople and simple vendors who speak little English.
Parking can be difficult, especially if you arrive just before a show opens. Some parking lots around popular shows charge $5 to $10 (bring cash). Others offer valet parking for a charge. The easiest way to get around is by the free GemRide Shuttle.
Tucson Gem Show App
The Tucson gem show features some of the earth’s most amazing geologic treasures. With one main event and more than 50 events throughout Tucson, navigating can prove difficult. Visit Tucson has come to the rescue with an informative free app. Download the app (or access the website from your desktop) and you’ll have most everything you need to know about when and where each event is held, type of event (public, wholesale or both), GemRide shuttle, streetcar locations and routes, and dining options. This is a tremendous help for planning.
The Tucson Gem Show Experience
Imagine people from all over the world gathering in a place that offers winter sunshine making huge amethyst specimens and crystal globes sparkle with life. This is the magic of the gem shows. The beauty of the natural gems, fossils, and minerals will fascinate you. Enter one of the shows set up at a hotel like the Pueblo Show at the Ramada by Wyndham. There, you can pick up a free show guide and map or just wander through the ballrooms and tents. This is a wholesale show that frequently offers retail pricing as well.
I parked at the $5 lot just off the I-10 freeway and walked through the first tent I saw open. A heavily lighted display featured huge lifelike white stone eagles with golden talons looking down on me from stone pillars. Inside the booth, I met two lovely women who were eager to assist me but spoke only Portuguese. As I admired the parrots, cockatoos, and hummingbirds made from delicate carved Brazilian gemstones, their colleague, who did speak English, arrived and explained how each tail feather is made separately and how the birds’ feet are coated in 14 karat gold.
I continued through the tent and passed vendors displaying tabletops made from natural stone as well as small stone carvings in the shape of animals ($3 for a package of 10). As I left this first tent, I saw 10-foot-high amethyst crystals (visitors were taking selfies in front of them) and signs leading me into the hotel lobby and courtyard. The sun warmed the tables in the courtyard as people sipped coffee and leafed through the show guide.
I decided to explore the hallways of the hotel because I learned that each room houses a little shop of sorts. I first peeked into a room decorated with Tibetan flags, banners, and brass bowls. The vendor beckoned me to enter and I found some amazing jewelry and brass statues. In the next room, I encountered a lighted display of pastel-colored crystal “singing bowls” used in meditation rituals. Other rooms were filled with goods such as Australian opals, rough turquoise, and unfamiliar stones with names I could not pronounce.
On the periphery of the hotel, in what was usually a parking lot, were more tents. In one, I was drawn to the mystical reflections of light in a display of labradorite from Madagascar. Labradorite, originally discovered in Canada’s Labrador, is a member of the Feldspar family and has a stunning play of color seeming to emanate from the depth of the stone, known as “labradorescence.” The stones I saw at this tent had brilliant blues and yellows that became even more stunning as you turned the stone in the sun. I succumbed to the labradorite and bought a $24 specimen to add to my collection.
By then I was hungry and noticed the food tents at the end of the parking lot and smelled marvelous combinations of spices. There was a vegetarian restaurant, a German wurst stand, and a marvelous East Indian restaurant where I purchased a steaming bowl of Basmati rice and chicken curry. As I ate, I chatted with a woman from Colorado whose husband was one of the vendors. He sold rough turquoise that he had secreted in his garage for many years. It was now considered rare as the mine he purchased it from was closed.
Stories Galore at the Tucson Gem Show
If you chat with vendors at the Tucson gem shows you will come away with fascinating and exotic stories. Over the years I had become intrigued by the growth of a business featuring leather, brass, silver, and copper jewelry creations made in Taxco, Mexico. What had started out as one outdoor booth, had now become two impressive outdoor displays plus an indoor room filled with new creations. I complimented the owner of HP Silver, Jill Crozier, on her success and as I chatted with her and her son, I learned how this family business started.
Years ago, this adventurous family was backpacking in Mexico. They arrived in a lovely colonial city, Taxco, and were enchanted. However, after a few days, they moved on to explore more of Mexico. Once they left Taxco, they encountered several mishaps. It seemed like they should never have left. So, they returned to Taxco and spent the remainder of the time allowed on their visitors’ visas getting to know the people.
What they found was that practically everyone was a silversmith, a jewelry maker, or a seller of the creations. They took some of the jewelry with them back to the United States as well as ideas for beginning a business. HP (Happy Place) Silver was born in the family’s apartment and has grown with both wholesale and retail offerings. Along the way, they tried out several business models. They also got to know the jewelry makers of Taxco well. “If we had a design we liked, we’d seek out silversmiths who had the right skill set to do the work and give them the business.” As tourism declined in Taxco, they found that some of the jewelry artisans were having to take other types of jobs, like driving trucks, to make ends meet. Jill added, “We feel that by giving these artisans work, they can continue doing what their families have done for generations.”
The family now lives in the historic mining town of Bisbee, Arizona and travels back and forth to Taxco, Mexico.
More Exciting Gem Show Recommendations
Highly recommended is the Tucson African Art Village, which runs this year through February 16, 2020, daily from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. You’ll find them set up at 279 South Linda Avenue. At the African Art Village, there are 125 African exhibitors, from various countries in Africa, selling masks, beads, folk art statues, baskets, fabrics, and more. Enjoy African foods for lunch.
At the Kino Sports Complex, you’ll not only find fossils and gem and mineral specimens, but you’ll also find vendors with oriental rugs, tie-dye clothing, beautiful African stone sculptures, and of course, beads and jewelry. There’s something for everyone.
When You Go to the Tucson Gem Show
Gem Show time is so busy in Tucson, that you’ll want to make your hotel reservations and plans in advance. Winter Gem Show takes place next year January 30 – February 14, 2021. Although it is usually sunny and in the upper 60s during the day, it can be chilly at night in Tucson. Pack for layering and bring walking shoes and a hat. Many of the displays are outdoors. Bring your own water and some snacks. Although the larger shows may have an international food court with plenty of options, you may find yourself intrigued by a row of roadside tents with no facilities. But most of all, bring your sense of adventure and thirst for learning to the Tucson gem show.