How to Tackle Tucson

For gem lovers and jewelry makers of all stripes, from hobbyists to professionals, “Tucson” is more than a city — it’s the premiere event for buying, selling, and exhibiting jewelry-making stuff.
tucson sky
Last year was my first time attending the fabled Gem Shows of Tucson, Arizona. The biggest thing that I learned was this: no matter what anyone tells you, you just won't know what to expect! It is an enormous, marvelous, overwhelming experience that every jewelry maker should try for themselves someday!

When I set out to write something this year to help newbies like myself, I realized that I don't have enough experience under my belt to offer good advice. So I'm happy to share this article that my friend Hazel Wheaton wrote for Art Jewelry magazine back in 2008. I've updated certain details for 2018, and shared some of my own photos from last year. 

I'll be in Tucson for five days next week, and Julia Gerlach of
Bead&Button magazine and a few of our other colleagues will be there as well. Be sure to follow us on Facebook and Instagram for live updates! ~kk
metal stamps
Not just gems, but tools of every type. 

Every February, the gem and jewelry world makes a pilgrimage to Tucson, Arizona, for roughly three weeks to buy and sell and see. In this context, “Tucson” doesn’t mean going to the city of Tucson (like you’d say “going to Des Moines”), but rather attending an event that transforms a quiet Southwestern city into a bustling destination for visitors from all over the world.

Tucson isn’t one big gem and mineral show; it’s a vast network of shows, large and small, that sprawl throughout the city, occupying seemingly every available space in hotels, convention halls, and community centers, and then some.

Together, the shows sell everything you’d need for any jewelry-making process: Take a look at the materials and tools & supplies lists from any project on Facet; you’ll be able to find everything on those lists somewhere in Tucson. And if that’s not enough reason to go, the opportunity to see an unprecedented selection of gemstones in person certainly is.

So, if it’s your first time going to Tucson, how do you prepare? What should you expect? Take it from someone who is currently in her second decade of going to Tucson — you can’t prepare for everything. If you try to map out every day in advance, if you try to make a meticulous plan for all the shows you’re going to cover and all the booths you’re going to visit, you’re going to drive yourself crazy.

Many shows take place in hotels, where vendors set up their wares in their rooms. Depending on the vendor, hotel rooms can be transformed into miniature galleries, complete with glass cases and museum-style lighting. Or, you might encounter goods spread out on the beds, illuminated by tabletop lamps and the sunlight slanting in through sliding glass doors. And then there’s the overflow, as exemplified by “the strip” (as it’s known to seasoned Tucson-goers) — a series of tent shows that occupy parking lots along the frontage road that parallels Interstate 10.

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HISTORY

The show that started it all, which is still referred to by experienced Tucson-goers as “the main show,” is the Tucson Gem and Mineral Society (TGMS) show, which in 2018 will take place from February 8-11 at the SMG-Tucson Convention Center. The TGMS was launched in 1955 in a local elementary school. It started as an opportunity for members to show off their collections to each other and anyone else who might be interested — it ended up attracting more visitors than anyone expected.

The TGMS show immediately became an annual affair, rapidly growing in size and reputation. Its standing as the premier annual gem and mineral show came in the early 1960s, when the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History exhibited a selection of its specimens at the TGMS show. The Smithsonian has sent an exhibit every year since and has been joined by other prestigious institutions, such as the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

So, Tucson grew from one of several notable international gem shows around the world to the renowned destination for anyone in the gem and mineral world. But instead of growing up, Tucson grew out (the shows are literally spread throughout the city). As the TGMS show grew, more shows arose to fill the less formal but equally personalized and professional role of the pioneering small show. The roster of shows now numbers more than 50, which includes innumerable vendors, and new shows pop up each year. The Tucson Gem Show Central website provides a great roundup of the shows, but even this long list may not be inclusive!

tassels
Will tassels still be on-trend this year? 
BOOK YOUR ROOM AND PREP YOUR PAPERWORK

If you haven’t already done your planning and booking for Tucson this year, it’s probably too late to find a hotel room close to the city center. If you’re lucky, there may be some last-minute cancellations, but many Tucson hotels were fully booked for that crucial three-week stretch as soon as last year's crowd cleared out. If you’re lucky enough to have friends or family who live in or near Tucson, you’ll be able to save on lodging, because hotel rates zoom up during show time.

There are options, however; the area around Tucson has numerous small hotels and guesthouses -- be sure to check AirBNB! If you have transportation (you may still be able to find a rental car) and you don’t mind a commute, you should be able to find space. If you find a hotel you like, ask when they’ll begin to take reservations for next year's show season. Then write yourself a reminder to book a room when that date arrives; rooms get snapped up quickly.

Have your paperwork ready

Some of the more than 50 shows are wholesale only. If you’re representing a company or you are a company, the vendors at shows that are open to the public may give you wholesale prices as well. Entry to the wholesale-only shows is strictly controlled, and you will not get past the gates if you don’t have a photocopy of your business license and your tax ID resale number. You probably won’t need further documentation, but it’s not a bad idea to carry business cards and copies of any office supplies — checks, invoices, or letterhead — that bear your company logo.

If you’re traveling from outside the U.S., check in advance about your country’s customs policies regarding purchases you plan to make at the shows.

GETTING AROUND

As long as you don’t mind some walking, it is quite possible to get to most of the Tucson shows without a car. Shuttles organized by the city of Tucson run regularly between most shows; you can pick up a printed schedule at any of the stops. The different shuttle routes are designated by color and, depending on the traffic and demand, are scheduled to pick up passengers at a given stop every 15–60 minutes.

However, the aforementioned traffic and demand mean that shuttles are often behind schedule and crowded. At each stop, there’s a clipboard where drivers sign in each time they make a pickup; it’s a quick and easy way to check how long it’s been since the last shuttle departed, which will give you an idea of when the next will arrive. If the shuttle is full when it arrives, you’ll have to wait for the next and hope it isn’t full as well.

If you choose to rent a car, obviously you won’t have to worry about shuttle schedules or overcrowding. You will, however, have to plan ahead for parking and you’ll have to deal with finding your way around an unfamiliar city.

Many of the shows are held in hotels, which have sufficient parking in their lots, but if you’re heading to one of the downtown shows, the convention center, or the strip, plan to arrive early, because most public parking lots are full by 10 a.m. If you do get a parking spot in one of the lots around the convention center, leave your car there for the day and walk to any of the shows in the immediate area.

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No caption needed here!
RESPECT THE CLIMATE

Tucson is located in a desert. Although you’ll be there during winter and temperatures won’t reach the 100°F (38°C)+ range, you should still be prepared. Carry water and small snacks with you at all times. The air is dry and you’ll be doing a lot of walking; if you hit town during a bright, sunny week, it’s easy to get dehydrated if you’re not used to the climate. I also recommend sunglasses and sunscreen.

WHAT TO WEAR AND WHAT TO CARRY

Dress appropriately

This is the single most important piece of wardrobe advice: Tucson is not the time to break in a new pair of shoes. Wear a pair that’s tried and true. It doesn’t matter if they’re pretty — what will matter is whether you have blisters after your first day of walking. Granted, even in comfortable shoes, your feet will be sore after about day 3 — so why set yourself up for pain before you begin?

The desert climate also means that temperatures drop at night; as tempting as the daytime temperatures of mid to high 70s sound, pack long pants and a jacket for the cooler evenings. Above all, dress for comfort. Most everyone will — those that don’t are likely to regret it.

 
Travel light

This doesn’t refer to what you bring with you on the plane, but what you carry with you during the day. That shoulder bag that seemed only a little stuffed at breakfast will feel like it contains boulders by the end of the day (and who knows, with all the great gem rough for sale, it just might).

Pare down your possessions to the bare minimum (leaving room for water!). Those massive show guides and tour books? Cannibalize. Tear out just the pages you need and leave the rest behind in your hotel room to be cannibalized tomorrow. I usually carry a folder with plastic sleeves as a handy (and light) way of holding and displaying all the paperwork, lists, maps, notes, and business cards I collect along the way.

crystals
I wanted to bring him home so badly last year....
BUY IT WHEN YOU SEE IT

Usually I’m an obsessive comparison shopper, holding back on buying until I’ve checked prices elsewhere and made absolutely certain that I’m not going to find the same item elsewhere at a lower cost. But Tucson is not the time and place for this. Make a shopping list, have a rough idea of what you want to spend, and then, if you see something that meets your standards of quality, buy it. Unless you take exhaustive notes while you shop, you may never find your way back to that particular booth again. (You can pick up show guides at the shows, but navigating can still be tricky.)

If you’re making purchases that may exceed an airline’s luggage restrictions, ask the vendor about shipping the items home. If you return to Tucson year after year, you’ll build a list of favorite vendors and eventually connect dealer names with the shows where they exhibit, but it’s just not reasonable to expect it of yourself in your first year. Which brings me to…

Take it easy

There’s a look — a glassiness to the eyes, a slackness to the jaw — that is all too familiar to anyone who has gone to Tucson. Don’t worry about it. When you simply stop seeing things (and you’ll know when you hit this point), take a breather. A lunch break may be enough, or you may need to take the rest of the day off. For newbies, I don’t recommend visiting for more than 4 days. You will be overwhelmed. Accept it. And then…

Save room for dinner

Tucson is home to an impressive array of good restaurants. At the end of a long day at the shows, the temptation is to just stay in, but take a nap or a rejuvenating shower, and go out — it’ll be worth it. Call ahead for reservations, since you’ll be one of roughly 60,000 people who aren’t usually in the city. Most places will be able to fit you in, provided you have some flexibility as to when you eat. Restaurants range from the really cheap to the incredibly expensive, and everything is served up with Southwestern flair.

 

Stay tuned to the Facet and Bead&Button Facebook and Instagram pages for live updates from the 2018 Tucson Gem Shows. We'll be posting as many photos and videos as we can! ~kk

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