Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Take My Money, Please: The Tucson Gem Show

Arizona is basically a collection of various rocks and minerals peppered with a few bits of vegetation here and there. Turquoise, malachite, pyrite, copper, fossils embedded in sandstone, and even petrified wood abound. Rock hounds and geologists have been attracted to Arizona for centuries; digging through our layers of rocks is like thumbing through a history of Earth.
      In 1955, several rock hounds and mineral collectors from the Tucson Gem & Mineral Society got together and decided to showcase their finds. Formally calling this show the Tucson Gem, Mineral, and Fossil Showcase, it was a success, prompting the Society to make it an annual event. After a few changes in venues over the decades (each one needing to be larger than the previous), and still hosted by Society volunteers today, it can be referred to simply as the Gem Show--and most people will know what you mean. The name is sort of a misnomer, however. It's not "one show" as many people who have never seen it think it is. The formal Showcase is still held in one venue, but there are multiple shows in many areas around the city held in temporary metal buildings, some the size of football fields. Hundreds of canopies and tents line Interstate 10 going through town. A couple dozen hotels are filled with vendors, their rooms often only open to those with wholesaler licenses. This is the place many businesses from around the world go to fill up their inventory for their stores, from diamonds to geodes to beads.
Multiply these tents by 1000
and you start to get the idea
     One can find just about anything, and not everything is related to rocks. African vendors sell things ranging from trade beads and woven mats to statues and crocheted hackey-sack balls. Scarves from central Asia, from $50 silk or cashmere to $3 rayon, abound. All sorts of trinkets, hats, arrowheads, vintage buttons, wood carvings, blankets, carpets, and even furniture are there for the buying. Jewelry--earrings, rings, necklaces, bracelets--from leather to diamonds are everywhere. Designers sell their own amazing jewelry creations that you simply can not find in shops and stores.
     And, of course, there are rocks, minerals, and fossils. Everywhere. Amethyst geodes over 5 feet tall. Fossil replicas of various dinosaurs, ancient crocodiles, and prehistoric birds are perched next to a guy carving pigs out of birchwood. Delicate copper filigree jewelry designs are adjacent to old Persian rugs or geode bookends--or sinks (yes, bathroom sinks) made of stone embedded with raised fossils. It is simply overwhelming, crazy, breathtaking, exhausting, mind-blowing, and really, really fun.  
     And the people. Thousands upon thousands of people descend upon Tucson in late January through mid-February for the shows. Good luck finding a hotel room if it occurs to you to just show up on a whim. Tucson offers an extensive shuttle network shuffling hundreds of people at any given moment to the various main venues. Some shows are so huge, the parking lot is big enough to require their own shuttles to take people from their car to the show buildings. It's so big, though, that the various shows, while somewhat crowded, aren't mind-numbingly paralyzing. It's not bad. Everyone is there to have a good time, too.
Bead show: tables of beads and
a ton of people
     Did I mention beads yet? You know that I am a maker of "fine" beaded jewelry, right? This is my "raison d'etre" for being in the middle of this melee. It's all about beads. There are at least four national bead shows that set up shop at the Gem Show. In a typical two-day visit, I try to hit all four, plus a few shows, canopies, and tents along the interstate for grins and giggles. I never make all four shows, but I try valiantly. One or two are missed either due to exhaustion or the fact that I'm already broke. 
    The absolute best part about bead shopping at the Gem Show, however, is that I get to do it with some great friends. Most are co-workers who share a similar hobby--jewelry-making. I happen to have a wholesale license and can get myself and others (as "buyers") into some of these shows. My friends bring forth multiple sets of eyes, hands, and their own creative juices along, and they open my mind up to new designs and different concoctions of beads. To top it off, they're all up for a good stiff drink after a day of shopping, too.
As with any major venture with more than two people involved, logistics play a major role. Where will we meet, where can we park cars, which show(s) to hit on what days, and perhaps most importantly, where to meet while at a show. Separation anxiety is not allowed, as it is a fact of life that we all shop at different speeds. We pick a spot to meet up at a certain time, and then we move on.
Meeting up at the dinosaur
    Let's start describing what is generally purchased for jewelry-making, because it's not always beads. To make jewelry, one needs many components, often called "findings": clasps, preferably in assorted styles, shapes, and material to match the style of your beads; "spacers" (those metal thingies that often separate beads and which can be simple or a part of the design); earwires for earrings; pins for stringing beads for earrings; and more. Many of these things can be found in various metals, from sterling silver, gold vermeille, copper, and pewter to antique brass and gunmetal black. It's nice to have a selection of all when you make your creations. My motto: Inventory is good; lots of inventory is even better.
    Beads themselves can be made from stone, paper, porcelain, ceramic, glass, plastic, bamboo, wood, and also metal. Vintage lucite and bakelite beads are available. Re-designing old Mahjong game pieces into pendants is often popular, and even old typewriter letter keys can be found as beads. Vintage German and Czech glass beads are prevalent. It should be pointed out, too, that most vendors really prepare for this show; they don't bring just a minimum of product--they bring TONS. All of which of course have a "Gem Show Special" price: cheap.
    So lets get to a few more photos, concentrating on beads. This will help show you how hard it is to not spend money. Everything is on sale, everything is a deal, especially at the wholesale shows. You simply must buy these things or risk having to pay two or three times as much at a store. Spending all this money SAVES me money in the long run. I have a hard time convincing my husband of this, but it's true.
A few shots of the outdoor vendors along the freeway; strands sell for about $2 each. Not the best quality, but some great deals can be found:

 Some bead show examples:

One of my favorite vendors: Clay River Designs
See below for what I bought and already made
Freshwater pearls in a million colors are everywhere
Stone beads from green garnet to jaspar to Russian jade
Glass pendants in the shape of ammonites

Glass buttons
Glass faces from Bronwen Heilman

Vintage-style brass findings
   So do you now see how easy it is to drop a wad on this stuff? I save up all year for the big shows, and give myself the freedom to basically get what I want, within some sort of slightly-beyond-normal limits. When you see "$3 each, 2 for $5, or 5 for $10", that $10 goes right out of the pocket. A ten here, a twenty there...while you wander among literally hundreds upon hundreds of vendors... well, money gets spent.
   Out of all those choices, you may wonder what I end up with after all is said and done. Here's a glimpse:

Various stone beds, from blue lapis and kyanite to green and red garnet,
jaspar, and some mixed small stone beads
Various crystals to go in between the beads 

Metal spacers from Bali-style to butterflies
Vintage-style antiqued brass filigree pieces and chain
Odds and ends: cords, danglies, pendants, buttons, etc.
Over the past day or so, I've had a bit of time to play with my goodies. Here's what I've put together so far:

From this, a bird pendant, clay beads, and silk cords, all from Clay River Designs:

To this set of a necklace and pair of earrings:

From the strands of multi-colored small cylindrical stones:

And a quick pair of earrings made from silver spacers and green sea glass beads:

The Tucson Gem Show--you really have to see it to believe it. Here are some parting shots of miscellany:

Bone necklaces, silver buckles, and crocheted hackey-sack balls
The quintessential geode bookends; every Gem Show
attendee gets a pair eventually
Crocodile fossil with candy in its jaws--just try taking a piece
What are these guys, triceratops?
Dinosaur foot compared to Lynn's hand

Prehistoric bird

A bathroom sink, there it is, fossils and all
African woven mats

Turtle with inlaid stones
Jewelry example

And another...
And another...
And another!
Lynn, Sue, and Fran finding great deals
   Thanks go to my Tucson and Phoenix gem show circle of friends--Lynn, Fran, Sue, Jean, Maria, and the others who have joined us in years past--Gail, Mardi, Diana, and Melissa; and to my other Tucson friends who make the evenings and off-shopping hours fun and filled with laughter--Nancy, Tina, Jen, and all the Tucson office staff. You are the best. Really, the only reason I make a point to hit the Gem Show is to spend time with you all and enjoy the fun things in life!

1 comment:

  1. Sue this is Fabulous!! Who knew all this happening in Tucson. The pictures are great and the necklaces you made - rather quickly I might add - are beautiful. You are so talented. Can't wait to see your creations in person. xxx Julie