Walking the Talk: Tucson Gem Show, 2020
I’m home again, tired but happy, after my trip to the Tucson Gem Show. It’s that good type of tired. The tired you get after working hard and giving it your best shot. My show started on a high note and stayed there the whole time. There’s still so much I’d like to do and ways I’d like to grow. But I’m happy with my progress and the place I find myself today.
I'd like to share with you what I bought and what I did this time around to make the trip a success.
Two Lists to Guide Me
I went to the show with two distinct lists. The first was a straightforward inventory of crystals that need to be restocked. I was able to find most of the things on this list, including some rare crystals that I’ve haven’t seen in years, like Dioptase and Mary Ellen Stromatolite. While restocking, I also found a few brand-new crystals that passed my initial standards for ethical sourcing. I’m looking forward to researching these new crystals over the next few months and sharing them with you.
My second list was more complicated. It was a list of stones whose sourcing I wanted to improve. I had no idea where to go or even if I could improve the sourcing, but I wanted to try. The way things currently stand, ethical sourcing is not simple or quick. It’s a long-term commitment to incremental improvement. But as one ethical mine owner reminded me, “the tortoise wins the race.”
Some of the crystals on that second list were among my bestsellers. From a financial perspective, there was no reason to change anything. I already knew where to find the stone to restock and I had already paid for professional photographs. If it’s not broke, why fix it? Because money has never made my world go around and ethical sourcing has become a passion that sparks true joy for me. Here’s a few of the crystals I'm happy to report that I've improved the sourcing for:
Auralite 23 - direct from the mine in Canada
I bonded with the mine owner and his little daughter. This is one of the few mines that actually advertises as ‘ethical’. The energy from this crystal is phenomenal and the new inventory is a higher quality and higher vibration than what I had before.
Azurite - direct from the mine in Morocco
Pure Azurite crystals - WOW! If you’ve only ever worked with Azurite mixed with other minerals, this is a real treat. The color is brilliant blue and absolutely swoon-worthy.
Copper - direct from the foundry in Michigan
The mine is closed, but there’s still plenty of Copper that can be easily gathered. Native Copper is completely natural, never melted down or reformed. It has been freed from the matrix rock, but still has tiny green Epidot crystals hidden inside the nooks and crannies.
Fire Agate - artisinally mined and hand-polished in Mexico
This is so much prettier than what I had before! I hand-picked every single piece and they flash with bright rainbow fire. I purchased them from a small family polishing business that buys directly from local artisanal miners. They were happy to tell me all about the process. No one had ever asked them before.
Jasper - direct from the mine in Australia
I didn’t need to restock, but I was keeping a lookout for future reference. I was immensely pleased to find the direct source for Mookaite Jasper, Rainforest Jasper, Citron Chrysoprase and several other Aussie stones. I couldn’t resist picking out some new “Outback Jasper” to share with you.
Lapis Lazuli - from the mine in Chile
The overwhelming majority of Lapis Lazuli is from Afghanistan. It is a conflict-gemstone and so I no longer carry it in my store. The only other source for Lapis Lazuli is a single mine in Chile. I met the CEO of an American cutting/polishing company at a recent conference for ethically sourcing fine gemstones and discovered they had access to the Chilean Lapis mine. We met up again at the Tucson Gem Show and they have agreed to polish some Lapis Lazuli for me. This is a made-to-order item, so I won’t actually see it until later this spring.
Merlinite, from the mine in New Mexico
The mining industry is often hilariously informal. This Merlinite was mined by an old-timer in New Mexico who brings a few buckets of Merlinite to the Tucson show each year to swap with other old-timers for something new and sparkly. I was fortunate enough to find one of his trading partners.
Nuummite, artisanally mined in Greenland
Oh my goodness, wait until you see the flash! Each piece was mined by hand with a hammer and chisel, and then carried back to civilization in a backpack. The miner is a grumpy hermit who only tolerates a few people. He sells the Nuummite exclusively to my new source.
Quartz from Arkansas
Third generation miners of some of the finest Clear Quartz in the world. What more do I need to say?
Seraphinite direct from the mine in Siberia, Russia
I found the mine! I found the mine! This one was a happy surprise for me. They also own the Charoite mine and the Russian Jet mine, so now I know where to go to restock in the future.
Beyond Buying and Selling
In previous years, I considered Tucson purely a buying trip. Now I realize it’s a remarkably opportunity for information gathering and networking. At least that’s true, once you’re “in the club”. Apparently, my activities over the past year have gotten some attention. Apparently, I’ve also learned the right phrases and keywords which unlock that world within the world.
The Tucson Gem Show looks like a sprawling mess. There are fifty-one distinct shows, running at different times, spread out across the city. There are so many gems and so much money being spent that it will make your head spin. But there’s only a handful of true players, it’s a small community once you’re on the inside.
I was lucky enough to spend hours at a time with miners, cutters & polishers, importers and wholesale dealers. I invited some out to dinner. Others invited me. Some of them focus on a single special mineral. Others deal with hundreds of stones. We talked shop and exchanged notes. We talked about our lives and dreams too as we toasted our successes and wished each other good fortune for the year ahead.
Most of them seem threatened, annoyed or indifferent whenever I mentioned ethics. It’s definitely a taboo topic that makes many people uncomfortable. I experimented conversationally, adjusting how I phrased my questions and comments. A few people were happily surprised by my interest and shared generously with me. For example, it's common knowledge that a canary in a coal mine will tell a miner when the air underground is bad. Likewise, a brook trout in a river will tell a miner if Mother Nature is being disturbed.
I got lots of invitations to visit people around the world. I think that might be my next step. It's one thing to talk and research a mine or a factory. It's another thing entirely to taste the air inside. We'll see what happens. I've got some offers I'll definitely be considering.
I experienced some strong contrasts at this show. One night I dined on filet mignon and cabernet sauvignon, while out with a wealthy small business wholesaler and a major corporate importer. These guys travel the world buying crystals, spending $100,000 or more at each stop, doing millions of dollar in sales every year. We spoke casually about cargo containers of crystals and teasingly showed off our scientific knowledge. We discussed profit margins, visa problems, and joked that we won’t ever retire because our work is too much fun. I can hang with them, no problem. I’m just a little shop owner, nevertheless, I fit right in.
The next morning, my breakfast date was a hungry traveling kid who needed a warm meal and the kindness of conversation. He’s traveled to all 50 states and recently lost his banjo. We talked about how much we love dogs and the thrill of the open road. I can’t fix all the world’s problems. But I can buy a bagel sandwich, coffee and a cookie for later for a hungry young man. It’s not much, but it’s everything. It’s a step in the right direction for the road that I want to travel.
When I wasn’t playing the social butterfly, I was busy writing. My book is 26 pages long so far and I’ve got a rough draft outline. The first half will be regular chapters, explaining what ethical sourcing means in the context of the gem industry and practical, detailed guidance to help people shop more wisely. The second half will be a reference guide with all the relevant information searchable by country and by stone. I’ll be including the four income levels (because first world/third world or industrial/developing doesn’t properly describe the world anymore.) I’ll be including the child mortality rate, because that single statistic takes the temperature for a nation. Think about it – a high child mortality rate means that poverty is common, access to healthcare and education is low, and war/violence/corruption is more likely. What does that have to do with crystals? If you want to source ethically, you have to know where it’s coming from and what kinds of conditions are happening in reality.
I've learned a lot on this trip, about my industry and about myself too. It's going to be a good year. Thanks for coming with me. ♥