By Cynthia Unninayar
During the month of February, the small American city of Tucson, in the state of Arizona, turns into a vast bazaar where you can find just about anything in the mineral kingdom: Two-metre high amethyst geodes, petrified wood table tops, dinosaur eggs, rock sculptures, exotic fossils and gemstones galore of every type, shape and size.
Tucson is a global destination for many of the world’s gem dealers, jewellery designers, rock-hounds and aficionados, who trek to the desert city every year to sell and to search for the unusual and the spectacular. But, there is not just one gem show – more than 45 fairs of all sizes and types are held in halls, motel rooms, tents and other areas sprawled across the city. Most are open to the public but some of the larger shows – including AGTA GemFair™ at the Tucson Convention Center, and GJX, located in an enormous temporary tent across the street – are restricted to members of the gem and jewellery trade.
Against the backdrop of 1,669 jewellery businesses that discontinued operations in the US (a 50 percent jump from 2015), it was understandable why sentiment was mixed among the exhibitors. Some reported good shows although most others said the shows were slow. While nearly everyone lamented the lower buyer attendance, the majority noted that those who came were “serious” and ready to buy, with many replacing and replenishing stock.
No major trends
There may have been fewer buyers, but there was certainly no lack of product. In terms of trends, nothing dramatically stood out this year. The big three – sapphire, ruby and emerald – were the main sellers. Blue sapphires were very popular as were rubies that are benefiting from the increased supply from Mozambique and their use in engagement rings. Burmese rubies have yet to make a large appearance in the US despite the lifting of the ban late last year.
“Emeralds have become more popular these last couple of years and one very exciting discovery is the new deposit coming from Ethiopia,” explained Philip Zahm, CEO of California-based Philip Zahm Designs. “At this point, I don’t know exactly what we can expect to see coming out of Ethiopia, but the gem I have, a 2.64-carat oval, has a fantastic colour, very bright and open, and is certified totally natural from GIA.”
Aside from the big three, a number of dealers noted strong interest in Paraiba tourmaline. “Paraiba received a lot of attention,” indicated Samuel Sulimanov, CEO of New York-based Samuel Sylvio, a Spectrum Award winner. “The demand is rising although availability is decreasing, which means prices are going up.” Another brand reporting strong interest in Paraiba was New York-based Caroline C, also a Spectrum Award winner. “The neon blue of Paraiba is enchanting to so many people, and a number of buyers are looking for larger pieces,” commented Caroline Chartouni, owner of the brand, who noted that some of her clients are using Paraiba in bridal pieces.
Numerous other stones also garnered positive interest. “We had a lot of calls for spinel this year,” explained Philip Zahm, “although production of fine spinel has really dwindled. The Mahenge material is essentially mined out and the Burmese material is very hard to come by. The most requested is fine red spinel since it looks much like fine ruby.” He went on to add that demand for tsavorite is also increasing. “At the show, we had many requests for small goods and fine single stones. Availability of beautiful 3- to 8-carat stones is a bit better right now although the prices have increased dramatically.”
Another tsavorite specialist, Arizona-based Bridges Tsavorite, also saw strong sales. “It was a very good show for tsavorite,” said Jim Walker and Bruce Bridges. “Buyers were very serious this year, and we also did well with garnet and tourmaline.” The brand was also honoured at AGTA at the Smithsonian booth, which paid a touching tribute to the late Campbell Bridges and the 50th anniversary of the company he created.
In terms of prices, nearly all dealers surveyed indicated that the very high end and the low end are doing better, with prices fairly stable and even rising on the upper end of the quality spectrum. Prices in the mid-range, however, are still undergoing a correction. Sailesh Lakhi, CEO of New York-based Sparkles and Colors, explained, “Demand for high-quality stones is up – gems above $200,000 sold well – but the middle is not doing well, that is, in the 5- to 15-carat range.” Lakhi featured an exceptional 70.08-carat unheated yellow sapphire and an unheated 18-carat Burmese blue sapphire, but also mentioned that rose cuts and moonstone saw a fairly good demand. Sudhil Jain of New York-based FEI, which sells mostly the big three, commented that quality gems in 10 carats and up were doing well, with prices stable. Below that, he also indicated that prices are in a correction.
Edward Boehm, president of Tennessee-based RareSource, explained that his booth experienced good traffic, although “buyers are cautious but serious, and mostly looking for large and unusual stones, while spinel was popular.” Among his large rare stones were a 50-carat colour-change sapphire and a 31.79-carat Padparadscha. Similar sentiments were expressed by Eddie Livi of New York-based DSL Pearl, which sells a variety of gems and pearls. “While prices are stable, people are still cautious for the time being,” he noted.
Shaun Ajodan, president of New York-based Shaun Gems, added, “The show has been active with buyers expressing a positive outlook, but they are looking for more unusual gems, including Padparadscha sapphires.” He noted that quality stones in the 4-carat range received attention, although prices have been moving down. Kaiser Abi-Habib, president of California-based Kaiser Gems, stated that, in general, the show was slow. Among his best sellers, however, was morganite, especially larger-sized stones, although pink tourmalines were in lesser demand.
Ethical mining and social responsibility have become important elements in gemstone purchases, and one brand that has consistently promoted these values is Columbia Gem House. Company president Eric Braunwart indicated that because of its efforts in sustainability and social responsibility, the company has a large following. “More than 85 percent of buyers purchase stones from us because of the way we do business. People talk about the millennials and their values. Every new account we open these days is by someone under the age of 30.” While I was visiting the booth, a buyer from England commented that she has been coming to the show for years, doing business with Columbia Gem House because of its ethically sourced gems.
Unusual trapiche gems were on display at Kentucky-based Mayer & Watt. “They drew a lot of interest,” commented Geoffrey Watt, son of the owners. Featured were emeralds, sapphires and rubies, along with some rare tourmaline trapiches. The gem gets its name from the hexagonal structure that is reminiscent of the six-spoke Spanish wheel used to crush sugarcane.
In the opal category, Australian company, True Blue Opals, featured a remarkable assessment of museum-quality specimens, some of which “were sold to a museum,” smiled co-owner Sally Patel. Among her higher-end Lightning Ridge stones were several that sold “in the six-figure range,” she added. Patel also featured a selection of Yowah rough and polished.
As always, Tucson offered a variety of new finds and unusual gems, and a few caught my attention. One of these “new” gems was presented by Idaho-based, Parlé Gems. Company president Frank Farnsworth was delighted with the reaction to this new “Lotus Garnet.” Discovered in late 2015 in northern Tanzania, the gem is a member of three garnet families namely pyrope, spessartine and almandine. It is found in alluvial mines, usually in conjunction with rhodolite garnet and spinel.
Parlé controls the total production of this unique gem, which exhibits a colour variation in every pocket, ranging from pinkish-orange to an orangey-pink colour. Viewed best in sunlight, it also has a slight red fluorescence, which can give the appearance of colour change. Parlé sells the loose gem as well as in 14-karat gold jewellery with diamond accents. “’Lotus Garnet’ is an exceptional substitute to Padparadscha sapphire, morganite and imperial topaz,” explained Farnsworth, adding, “This has been my best Tucson ever.”
Another relatively new find was seen at Morocco-based Geostone. This unique stone, dubbed “Moroccan Amethyst,” is found in only one location in the world, in the Anti-Atlas Mountains in Morocco. Discovered by nomads in the 1980s, it reached international prominence only a few years ago, and in 2012, the Geostone Group in Casablanca obtained exclusive rights to the mine. What makes this gem so exceptional is that it is found as single crystals (not in a geode) without a matrix, singly or doubly terminated. It also contains dendritic hematite inclusions that differentiate this type from other amethysts.
Untreated and unheated, the stone is cut using customised techniques in order to bring out the red needles and colour-changing effect. Multi-award winning gem artist, Glenn Lehrer, president of California-based Glenn Lehrer Designs, works with Geostone to create spectacular facetted creations to be used in all sorts of jewellery. It should be noted that Geostone mines the gem in a socially responsible manner, and has been awarded the Prize of First Ethical and Ecological Mine in Morocco in 2016.
Tucson is fast becoming a destination for jewellery designers and artisans, who exhibited around the city in various venues. Many of the pieces fall into the realm of “traditional” jewellery while others are distinctly “non-traditional.”
Among the artist-creators was Helen Serras-Herman of Gem Art Center. A long-time exhibitor at AGTA, she displayed a variety of beautiful handcrafted creations including a rare carved astorite pendant on a necklace of astorite beads and pearls. Mined exclusively in the San Juan Mountains of south-western Colorado, astorite is a rare rock composed mainly of pink rhodonite along with various amounts of quartz, gold, silver, rhodochrosite and other minerals.
There was no shortage of colourful gemstone jewellery at the AGTA booths of New York-based Bella Campbell and Naomi Sarna, whose award-winning pieces received more than a few glances. Small artist-creators, such as David Philips, exhibiting at one of the smaller shows, enclosed unusual gems such as trapiche emeralds and meteorites with amazing wire wrapping, in his designs for Starchild Creations.
We also cannot forget the amazing gem carvers, such as Minnesota-based John Dyer and New Hampshire-based Michael Dyber who create remarkable pieces, and are a major attraction for visitors to Tucson.