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A Complete Guide to attending the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show as a First Timer

So, you’re thinking about attending the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show for the first time? That’s great! However, if you’ve done any research yet, it can be a bit confusing and daunting to fully wrap your head around what it takes to have a successful trip down to this very large and expansive show.


I’ve been attending for a couple years now & I’m here to tell you what I’ve learned so far. In this article, I will explain to you how, as a novice to this show, you can go feeling prepared, navigate when you get there, budget before you go & make the most of your trip overall.


For a quick bit of background about me and the perspective I bring to this topic: I own a full-time, moderately sized jewelry business. I don’t have an unlimited budget & I certainly had to wait a few years before I was generating enough profit to attend this show. I’m also an extremely thrifty person, so keep that in mind when you read this blog. My frugal nature is an asset for a trip like this however, because it can be very easy to spend way more than you’re expecting if you don’t have a plan and stick to your budget. In order to stick to your budget, you need to be informed- and that’s why you’re here!


Every business is different & your gemstone budget may be half of what mine is or 10 times as large, but with my guide you can be sure to make the trip down to Tucson worth every dollar you spend.



So what actually is the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show?


The name of this whole topic…The Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, can be a bit confusing. Why? Because it kind of has two meanings…


It’s a specific show and it’s a town-wide event.


Technically, the “main show” put on by the Tucson Gem & Mineral Society is called the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. Confused yet? I was too before I actually went and sorted it out for myself. This is a Tucson based society that back in 1955 put on the first public rock show in the town. This trend grew rapidly & now the whole city of Tucson holds a larger gathering around this main show.


The first year I went, I attended the main show, but honestly, don’t prioritize it anymore. It costs around $13 per person to get in & although you can find some cabochons and other jewelry making supplies, this show mainly exhibits rare and expensive gemstone specimens, fossils and other items that while super cool, are not useful to me as a jeweler looking for supplies. However, each year they have an awesome exhibit included in the price of admission, which definitely adds to the value. The first year I went it featured phosphorescent rocks and crystals & that was really fun to see. Also! This show is air conditioned, unlike many of the other shows, so it could be a good place to take it easy if you need to cool off.


Overall, if it’s your first year going, definitely stop into this show. From there you can decide if it’s worth spending your time there over the other free shows with a higher concentration of cabochons and ready to use gemstones.


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In a more general sense, the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show is a town-wide event, with a seemingly unlimited amount of shows to attend. This is what people usually mean when they say that they are attending the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. Each year this event takes all over the town for about 4 weeks between the middle of January and middle of February. If you try to pin down the exact dates of the show overall, things get confusing, with different sources saying different dates. This is the best source I’ve found & it lays out all of the shows in chronological order. More on which shows specifically I like to focus on below.


To break it down, there is the town wide, one month long event, generally called the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show...you can think of this as the umbrella term for the whole thing. Within that month however, different shows are put on & each shows only takes place within a certain time frame of that month, typically for about 10 days or so. Then, within each of those shows, there are multiple vendors who sell their goods. So, if you wish to visit a certain vendor, you need to first find out which show they are a part of & what the time frame that show takes place & then you can find a show map to pinpoint where their specific booth will be.


In other words, not all vendors or shows will be happening throughout the entirety of the wider show...



Minimum budget & length of time you’ll need


If you want to make this trip, I'd say that a budget of at least around $2250 is required. Based on my personal accounting history, this roughly breaks down to: $1000 for the mandatory travel expenses including plane tickets, somewhere to lodge & transportation. Then, another $250 for food and drink costs…I have a section below in which I explain how you can save money in this category, but you’re no doubt going to want an occasional coffee or dinner out with fellow jewelers. So that leaves $1000 for the buying of actual gemstones. $1000 may seem like a lot of money to you or not that much as all, depending on where you’re at in your business, but as a minimum, I don’t see it being worth all the travel and hassle to not buy at least that much while you’re down there. $1000 goes real quick, but can also get you quite a bit for that amount if you know how to shop.


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This cost breakdown is based on my trips that were around 4 days (3 nights)…which I think is the minimum amount of time you need to be there, especially when you take into account travel and that you’d only have 2 full days of shopping. The dollar amount of $2250 is just an absolute base number. You can elevate your lodging quality, the number of days you stay, your gemstone budget or any other factor and your total cost will start to rise. All of this is totally fine, but if it’s your first time attending the show & money is a bit of a stress point for you, I think working off of the $2250 amount over the course of 3 nights is a good place to start.


My first year at the show, I decided to keep my trip simple, short and thrifty. The whole prospect seemed overwhelming, but I knew I just needed to dip my toes in and learn the ropes. Now when I head down there I stay for a bit longer, spend a bit more on gems each time, know which hotels I prefer, vendors I must visit & also will have a bunch of friends to meet up with. It's my favorite trip of the year!


For transparency here was my cost breakdown for my first two shows:


Year One

Flights/Hotel/Rental Car- $930

Food/Drink- $200

Gemstones- $2900

Total- $4030


Year Two

Flights/Hotel/Rental Car- $800

Food/Drinks- $240

Gemstones- $3100

Total- $4140



Cost Breakdown- covering the basics


Getting There


Surely you’ve flown before & know how to take care of this part by yourself. However, I do have one quick tip! If you fly into Phoenix your flight may be cheaper than flying directly into Tucson. This isn’t always the case depending on the outgoing airport, so you’ll have to check, but last year I found that flying into the bigger city made my flight and especially my rental car expenses cheaper. For transparency and a reference point, I fly from my small local airport in Colorado & have typically spent between $215 & $360 on flights. With the drive being just under 2 hours between the two cities, and my rental car taking minimal gas, I found it to be worth it. This may be the case for you too if you want to save an extra hundred or so to spend on gems. If the cost isn’t that much different, definitely fly directly into Tucson.


Also, please note that I am flying from Colorado which is relatively close to Arizona & your plane tickets may be much higher depending on how far you’re coming.


Getting Around


If you’re from out of town you’ll need a rental car. I’m sure Tucson has a transportation system, but you’re going to want to have total flexibility and self sufficiency. Plus, having your own car will save you tons of time and energy. Shopping these shows is actually quite exhausting & trust me, you’re going to want to get into a nice air conditioned car as opposed to a city bus. Forget about Uber or Lyft if you’re there on a budget…the cost of these will far exceed the cost of a rental car. For reference, I typically can find a rental car for about $35 per day out of Phoenix.


Tucson is a proper city, but it’s very easy to navigate and get around, with more of a town feel than a city feel. I’m assuming that during this show, the town surges in population…however, I’ve never sat in traffic there. Also, I’ve always felt safe wherever I venture out, so I’m sure that as long as you’re smart and keep your wits about you, you’ll be safe & will be able to easily get around. Basically, if you’re intimidated by cities, don’t be in Tucson.


Lodging


The options for lodging are endless. You can choose any level of hotel, pool your resources with other jewelers and upgrade to a home rental or probably even stay in a hostel. For this article however, I’m going to focus on the option of the nice mid-level hotel. I like hotels because they are safe and offer me a totally secluded place to end my day and pour over my new jewels.


Truthfully, I’ve always booked my flights and hotels pretty last minute (near the beginning of the year) and I always find a clean and safe hotel to stay in. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to find a hotel in close proximity to the shows. You’ll have a car and no matter where you want to get to in town, it shouldn’t take you more than a maximum of 20 minutes to get from point A to point B. I’d personally rather get the right hotel with a 15 minute commute to the shows than a more expensive one that is 5 minutes away.


Besides being clean and in my price range, I always look for a hotel that has breakfast included. I’m not a super big breakfast person, but I do like to get something in my stomach before a full day of shopping in the heat and sun. Complimentary breakfast makes getting to shopping at my first show that much easier for me.


For reference, I usually find hotel rooms in the $150 per night range.


Food- the last of the basics


There are so many ways to go about feeding yourself while you’re traveling.


For me, my trip to Tucson is a business expense & I like to keep it frugal in this area to a certain degree. I find that planning ahead just a bit goes a long way. My main advice is to pack snacks!!! I like to make it a priority the day I get into town to hit a grocery store and get myself a box of Uncrustables, some chips, a couple apples and any other snacks that look good to me. Again, these days are long, hot and exhausting. To keep my energy (and social level) up I need to give my body a constant supply of calories.


In a day, I eat breakfast at the hotel & maybe grab a coffee at a fancy coffee shop on the way to my first show. Then, throughout the day I like to munch on my packed snacks & treat myself to a hotdog (it’s the iconic food at the shows down there for some reason) or other basic lunch item from one of the vendors (pretty much every show has food vendors). For dinners I just submit to spending and either order food into my hotel room or go out for dinner.


It’ll come up again, but DO NOT forget your water bottle. There are plenty of filling stations so you can avoid buying overpriced plastic bottles all day. I even like to pick up an electrolyte drink at the grocery store so I have a sugary treat half way through the day. Staying hydrated will keep your energy up through the long hot days.


In conclusion, you’re going to spend money on food & oftentimes it’ll be overpriced- however! Stopping at the grocery store when you first get there to assure that you can stash snacks with you wherever you go will help you save money and avoid hangry episodes. If you end up in a home rental or lodgings with access to a kitchen, even better!


Pooling resources


If you’re not a shy person, you might find that it’s helpful to contact your other jeweler friends and see if anyone wants to share a hotel room and/or a rental car. You could potentially upgrade to a fun Air B and B or stay at a nicer hotel. Just an idea!



Now for the fun part- attending the shows!


Where to Shop


Referencing the list of shows will reveal to you the sheer volume of shows that there are to attend. Some of them, such as the Kino show, are GINORMOUS & take most of an entire day to walk through. And then some are just big enough to fill a hotel courtyard…taking only about 30 minutes.


One common misconception is that each show is specialized in one certain category…but this is generally untrue. Yes, some shows just specialize in certain things such as beads, but for 90% of the shows, you will be consistently walking past cabochons, decorative crystals & fossils that a rock shop might sell, amethyst bathtubs and other crystal giants, rough cut for lapidary artists, gemstone beads, etc. If you’re looking for cabochons, you will be consistently walking past them, so don’t worry about that.


After you go even just one time, you will start to put together which vendors you like & which shows offer you the most of what you’re looking for. If it’s your first time going, I would stick to the larger shows since you will do doubt find plenty of what you’re looking for. Kino, JOGS, 22nd Street, JG&M and Pueblo are all great places to start. Many of these have an indoor and outdoor section…with the indoor portion being comfortably cool with blowing fans & the outdoor section being variable depending on if you’re under one of the tents or not.


Another great idea is to look at online suppliers, whether you’re already a loyal customer or just want to research sellers that you may be interested in visiting. Most gemstone dealers, no matter where in the world they live, will probably be attending the show. Take note that each show falls within its own time frame, so if there is a vendor you really need to shop with in person, you might need to plan your trip dates around the show they’re a part of.


In a nutshell, yes do research about which shows you’d like to attend, but if you don’t have any specific suppliers in mind & you just want to find cabochons/rosecuts/precious gems (or honestly any other kind of gemstone product), just go to a few of the larger shows listed above & know that you will find plenty of what you’re looking for!



How to be prepared for a day of shopping


Lots of important information here!


Before you go: call your credit or debit card company and alert them that you will be traveling. If you’ve ever faced the consequences of not doing this before travel, you know what I mean.


Make a list: so much of the fun in shopping this event is to organically see what you’re called to during your endless gemstone scanning process. However, making a detailed list of gems you’re looking for or vendors you wish to see can be very helpful. Be specific and jot down certain mines, cut shapes, sizes and characteristics you wish to bring home with you. I usually reference my list over breakfast each morning just so I can keep in mind what I’m looking for throughout the day. And then, any other surprise find is an added treat…and there will be many!


What to pack for the shows: I like to travel with a rolling carry-on bag, leaving the top 1/4th empty for anything I might buy while I’m down there. Once I get to the hotel, I take all my clothes and toiletries out and use the bag as a rolling day pack for shopping. I prefer this because then I can carry all of my personal items for the day without sacrificing anything, and I don’t have to carry it all on my back. When I leave at the end of the trip, yes, I have a super packed bag, but with a little extra care, I can pack everything home. Even if you buy thousands of cabochons like I often do & even a small souvenir or two, you would be surprised at how little space they actually take up.


So, what do I pack in my day bag while attending the shows:


-Breezy/comfortable clothes: It’s hot in the sun!

-Good walking shoes: Seriously, prioritize comfort over fashion here.

-Jacket/extra layer: in case you get chilly inside or need coverage outside.

-Brimmed hat: The sun will beat you down.

-Sunglasses: Let’s avoid sore eyes and extra wrinkles!

-Sunscreen: You may want to re-up if you find you’re getting burnt.

-Chapstick: Always an essential for me.

-Snacks

-Water bottle

-Small jeweler’s scale: when buying gemstones they are most often sold by weight & the vendors will have scales for you. However, sometimes they are helping others and it’s just easier to get going with your shopping using your own scale. This also makes it easy to grab a few stones and calculate the prices before even having to speak with anyone. If they are out of your price range, you can move on.

-Sharpie + small paper bags: I like to bring these because once a purchase is complete, it’s really easy to just throw the bag of gems into your pack and roll away, which can lead to confusion later if you like to keep track of what you've bought, for how much & from whom. Some vendors don’t include their business cards with their packaging, and some company names will show up on your credit card statement as a different name than what is on their business card. Basically, if you want to keep track of every detail of every purchase, a sharpie and small paper bags can be helpful so you can add any information about your purchases right then and there before you forget it. Vendor name, gem type, show, price per carat/stone, and total amount spent are all details I like to know later on.

-Multiple Payment Options: Besides credit cards, sometimes vendors prefer to be paid via Venmo, in cash or with PayPal. Packing a little cash and making sure your other accounts are in order is a smart move. A quick tip: Oftentimes vendors will give you a cash discount because then they can avoid a credit card processing fee, but if you know your credit card’s cash back incentives are superior, you should still use your credit card. For example, if you are buying $300 worth of turquoise from a vendor and they say that they will give you $5 off if you pay cash (so they can avoid paying the processing fee), but you know that at 3% cashback with your credit card you will be saving $9…it only makes sense to use your credit card.

Journal+ Pens: These items I usually just use in the hotel room at the end of the day, but you may find it useful to bring to the shows as well. A journal is nice because you can jot down your experience or memorable interactions/characteristics of vendors (to build lasting rapport), track how much you spent, where a vendor was located within the show, what you bought and for how much, etc. Basically, I think it’s really important to keep a detailed account of your experiences and purchases. You’ll thank yourself when you need to shop for more online later on in the year or when you’re pricing your work and need to know what you spent.

-Copy of your state sales tax ID: Most shows are free and open to the public and for your first visit, you should find plenty of what you need at these public shows. However, you may want to visit one of the wholesale shows & you’ll need to register to do that. If you want to go this route I would suggest looking into those shows beforehand and per-registering. Sometimes though, even at the public shows, you can get a wholesale discount if you can provide your sales tax ID number…so it doesn’t hurt to have it on hand.


Being Social


One of the joys in attending this show is meeting other like minded artists in our field. It can be an isolating job to be a jeweler, so don’t be shy when you head to Tucson! Message other jewelers about meeting up for dinners or to peruse the shows together! We’ve all come from far and wide & would no doubt love to have some company while we’re there.



Exploring Tucson

Tucson is a really fun place & I would make sure to get out and see what else it has to offer besides the gem shows. There are a bunch of outdoor restaurants, a comedy club & lots of great hikes near by. Spend a bit of time researching other fun activities to do in the mornings or evenings between the shows! Bonus- the hiking options are all perfect for a mini photo shoot!


In conclusion


There are a million ways to tackle the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show & the method that I’ve laid out is just one of many. Various factors could be different for you, but my intention here is to give the frugal & apprehensive first timer a bit of a guideline in attending this show. I want you to have confidence and know that you can do this in a way that makes sense for you.


Make a budget for yourself, first starting by doing research on what the basics will cost you: flights, hotel, rental car, food. Then decide how much you can spend on gems. Reach out to your contemporaries and see what their trip plans look like…hopefully leading to some social plans to help break up the trip. Make a list of what specific gems you are looking for while you’re there. And finally: just go! Get down there, dip your feet in & learn the ropes. It’s not that hard & before you know it you’ll be an old pro who knows their way around & makes the Tucson Gem Show a highlight of their year.



Please feel free to reach out to me if you have any further questions!


If you’d like to see what I have created with all of my gem show finds, be sure to check out the shop section of my website here!



Thanks for reading & have a blast at the show!

Ash

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