Travel

How This Dusty Southwestern City Became the Center of the Gem World

Gem heists and black-market dinosaur eggs: Welcome to the SxSW of the mineral world.

If it glitters, you'll find it in Tucson. | Grace Han/Thrillist
If it glitters, you'll find it in Tucson. | Grace Han/Thrillist

For a big city of 550,000, Tucson, Arizona feels remarkably relaxed. Its college- and art-town bustle tapers off into a tranquil desert full of cartoonishly splaying Saguaro cacti. But once a year, that slower-paced way of life is shattered when Tucson takes its place at the joyfully chaotic center of the gem world. 

The Tucson Gem and Mineral Show is essentially the South by Southwest of the mineral world. For one weekend in February, Tucson’s population swells by 65,000 as casual crystal aficionados unknowingly rub elbows with fossil smugglers and the occasional would-be Danny Ocean on the prowl for six-figure gems. 

It’s a place where all that glitters isn’t necessarily gold, but if it’s a mineral with value, you’re likely to find it—in a display booth, a bulk bin, or a highly secured safe.

“It really is—for lack of a better term—our Super Bowl.”

Seemingly every Tucson resident has a Gem Show tale. They’ll tell you about the time they received a personal call from Christian Louboutin asking for directions to a hotel, or how they found a 1.4-carat emerald in a $20 bag of stones. An Uber driver might spin a (very unsubstantiated) yarn about the time he drove Saudi royalty to a clandestine sale at a nondescript hotel. Everybody has a story.

Since its humble beginnings in 1955 as a free exhibition at an elementary school, the Gem Show has become a cultural touchstone. Over the last 66 years, it’s moved to the Tucson Fairgrounds, then to its current home at the Tucson Convention Center. The impact on the city is huge, raking in $120 million in 2018. It brings together jewelers, gemologists, researchers, crystal enthusiasts, and even local children on field trips. For gem-industry professionals, it’s a one-stop shop that renders all other gem and mineral shows irrelevant. 

“I don’t go to other shows because I don’t need to,” says Scottsdale jeweler French Thompson, who’s been attending for 35 years. “If you have Las Vegas right next door you’re not going to go to Atlantic City just to see what’s different.” 

The 205,000 square-foot convention center serves as the sun with a galaxy of satellite shows springing up around its orbit. Outside, pop-up tents shill their wares. Meanwhile, high-roller vendors are prone to book private suites and full floors of hotels for big-dollar deals complete with armed guards, credit checks, and professional accreditations.

“When the show happens in its full sense it’s impossible to get a hotel room in Tucson those days. It really is—for lack of a better term—our Super Bowl,” says Visit Tucson senior director of operations Dan Gibson.

The Convention Center hosts the main show, with dozens of satellites and pop-ups operating citywide. | Photo courtesy of Visit Tucson

Tucson’s relaxed Western vibe, combined with the gem industry’s eccentric brand of glamor, creates a charged atmosphere that feels like anything could happen. The Gem Show seems to attract all levels of malfeasance and criminality, ranging from petty theft to impersonation attempts in order to get into the event’s most coveted private shows. For many veterans of the show, these pulpy stories are just business as usual. 

Theft is especially common, though according to the Tucson Police Department it’s not a significant increase in local crime—just higher-dollar thefts carried out by thieves that oftentimes don’t even know the value of what they’re stealing.

In 2006, more than $1 million in cash, personal checks, and more were stolen from a hotel when two gem show vendors were confronted by armed robbers (they were later arrested in California). In 2008, $120,000 in jewelry was stolen from a rental truck near the upscale JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort. Four years later in 2012, nearly $1 million in stones were stolen from a trailer outside a Motel 6— with the nearly 2,000 stones hidden in nondescript duffel-bags and suitcases. 

The show has also, at least once, involved dinosaur-fossil smuggling. In 2016, one such offender was sentenced to pay a $25,000 fine following a scheme to offload a 100-million-year-old psittacosaurus (also known as “parrot lizard”) fossil from Mongolia, as well as duck-billed dinosaur eggs. Prior to the fossil merchant’s arrest, attendees of the gem show had the opportunity to snag one of these coveted eggs for just $450. It was the first time Homeland Security made a fossil-related arrest at the show.

The Gem Show draws more than 65,000 collectors both casual and high-dollar. | Photo courtesy of Visit Tucson

Crystals were firmly embedded in Tucson’s gem culture for decades prior to their rise in popularity among millennials and Goop loyalists. But with this rising trend, it’s become commonplace for some gem show attendees to base their purchases less on aesthetics and more on ~energy.~ 

Private jeweler Dan Moran recalls a woman coming to his booth where he was selling diamonds. To choose her perfect stone, she poured water over the diamonds, then held them in her hand one at a time to see if they “burned” her hand or were “too cold for her soul.”

“It worked out in the end, I guess," says Moran. "She bought a one-carat diamond and paid in cash." 

Lucky Air Plant creator and owner Marci McDonald has been an integral part of the increased popularity of crystals in Arizona. She began selling her crystal and air-plant art pieces—which she calls living gifts—in 2016, inspired by her crystal-healer aunt.

Today, she scours the gem show—even searching divey hotel rooms transformed into pop-up shops—for the perfect pieces. Those include ever-popular amethysts and citrine, trendy pink quartz, and rare stones like her black basalt and cocopyrite from Brazil. All the while, she forms connections with vendors from around the world. 

“The whole city of Tucson is a Mecca for crystals,” McDonald says. “I actually prefer going to the off-site places because I like meeting people from other cultures. We have a whole world of crystals in our backyard.”

The Alfie Norville Gem & Mineral Museum is a year-round testament to Tucson’s gem obsession. | University of Arizona Gem and Mineral Museum

Tucson’s gem obsession lasts year-round, extending far beyond the Gem Show. In fact, it predates it by generations: the surrounding mountains were home to over 100 mines where treasure seekers and prospectors in the 1800s mined for copper, gold, silver, and lead. Today, the University of Arizona operates the $13.5-million Alfie Norville Gem & Mineral Museum.

The city is a dream for rockhounds looking to window shop no matter when they visit; in fact, skipping the Gem Show guarantees not only a fair hotel rate, but the laid-back experience that this welcoming city is known for. There are more than 20 rock shops to hit throughout Tucson. Here’s where to start.

Arizona Lapidary and Gem Rough: Known as Tucson’s year round gem show, the Arizona Lapidary and Gem Rough has it all in sprawling, bright purple space, from dinosaur bone cabochons to luck-inducing jade crystals and healing, shimmering amethysts.

Tucson Mineral and Gem World: This rustic gem and mineral shop greets its guests in true Tucson-style with a T-Rex figure outside and taxidermy animals on the inside. It houses more than 100,000 items and has been selling a variety of crystals, meteorites, minerals, and other gift items for 30 years.

DAH Rock Shop: This top-rated rock shop right outside downtown Tucson in Catalina Hills has been a staple in the gem scene for decades. In addition to your usual gem and mineral selection, DAH Rock Shop also offers a large outdoor space that features rough-cut rocks perfect for outdoor decoration.

The Ninth House: This modern metaphysical gift shop is perfect for crystal enthusiasts and lovers of all things witchy, selling all things new age from incense to zodiac-themed gifts and palo santo.

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Jamie Killin is a Phoenix native and Arizona State graduate who specializes in lifestyle and features writing. You can usually find her at the spin studio, a concert, or trying new restaurants across the Valley. Follow her at @jamiefayekillin.
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