Rapaport Magazine
Colored Gemstone

Gemstone Mecca

Tucson is the gathering place for colored gemstone dealers and an annual event that draws attendance from all areas of the industry.

By Sheryl Jones

Tsavorite.
Photo by Jeff Scovil for Bridges Tsavorite.
Gemstone enthusiasts made their annual pilgrimage to Tucson, Arizona, for the colored gemstone shows that ran from January 28 through February 14. Known in the industry as “Gemstone Mecca,” this event is very important to gemstone collectors and sellers to see what is new, unusual or to replenish inventory
   The event takes over Tucson, with 30 gem shows located in and around the city that are held in motels, tents and galleries to accommodate the thousands of exhibitors and buyers. The American Gem Trade Association (AGTA) gem show, held in the Tucson Convention Center, is the focus for most buyers. Douglas Hucker, chief executive officer (CEO) of AGTA, explains, “It is an exhibitor member-only driven show where people can shop the best-quality colored gemstone inventory comfortably, knowing there is a standard and strict disclosure guideline behind every stone they buy.” The other shows, such as the Gem & Jewelry Exchange (GJX) have more appeal with designers like Julie Romanenko, designer and owner of Just Jules in Scottsdale, Arizona, who says, “GJX is more inspiring for designers because there are more exhibitors who have selections of one-of-a-kind, new and uncommon stones.” However, she adds, “I go to AGTA because I have specific exhibitors to see and stones to buy.”

Traffic and Sales
   Buyer turnout for the shows this year was very good, even with the Asian economy and the U.S. stock market in flux. Hucker notes that this year AGTA saw a 12 percent increase in buyers’ attendance over 2015. But were they buying or looking? Bruce Bridges, of Scottsdale, Arizona-based Bridges Tsavorite and AGTA exhibitor, says, “The people that came were there to buy.” This may be because as Reema Keswani, founder of Golconda in New York City and a GJX show exhibitor, points out, “The budding designers may have stayed home this year, but the serious buyers with long-established businesses could not afford to miss the show,” adding that after Christmas, retailers and manufacturers need to stock up on goods for inventory.
   With so many shows going on simultaneously, the challenge for buyers is to make enough time to navigate all the shows to see what is new while also buying the gemstones needed for inventory and clients. As a result, the most seasoned buyers come prepared with a “grocery list” of gemstones they would like to purchase. Exhibitors say that bread-and-butter items were on buyers’ lists this year. Amit Birani, president of Original Gems, Inc. in New York City and AGTA exhibitor, says, “Buyers were serious this year, focusing on goods that are easy to sell and replenish, like sapphires, rubies and emeralds in the 1-carat to 3-carat range. These are more sellable than large unheated or treated sapphires, rubies and emeralds.” Hucker says the lack of sales in these categories — emeralds, rubies and unheated sapphires — was due to “price resistance to those items.” As many in the industry know, prices for unheated ruby, sapphire and emerald have been on a meteoric rise over the past couple of years, so buyers were playing it safe purchasing stones they knew they could sell easily. Keswani says, “The U.S. is a strong market for 2-carat to 5-carat sapphires but to sell a 5-carat to 7-carat stone that is $10,000 to $15,000 per carat at Tucson is tough. This event is much stronger across the commercial band generally speaking, and most buyers this year were in the mood to buy cautiously.”
   This seemed to be the case with other fine gemstones as well. Bridges says stones in the 4-carat to 6-carat range, his “bread-and-butter” sizes, did really well. He was happy with the show because he exhibited with a full production of hundreds of calibrated goods and in sizes of 8x6mm, 7x5mm and 6x4mm and those sizes yielded strong sales. Bridges went on to say buyers were not buying the big “wow” at the show. Those who were interested in larger sizes followed up after the show to close the deals. Other exhibitors echoed these observations saying that buyers were serious, but more price-focused and buying more volume, but what amounted to smaller sales.

Trends
   In 2015, Romanenko says, “Everyone was looking for morganite. This year, I didn’t see as much.” Hucker offered an explanation that the Pantone color for 2014 was radiant orchid and its popularity carried over to 2015. There was the perception that morganite was the least expensive stone closest to that hue. The 2016 Pantone colors are rose quartz and serenity. Some exhibitors have already seen an increase in demand for rose quartz and pairing those shades with the slightly darker tourmalines and rubellites as accent stones.
   While Pantone’s selection of the color of the year may increase the demand for color gemstones in that palette range, many new designers and buyers look for the unusual or odd stone. The demand for these types of stones is growing, along with an increase in prices for them. Keswani says, “In the colored stone world, the gemstone shows in Tucson are known for a great selection of all the weird oddities but nothing was cheap this year. These items were commanding serious prices and real competition among exhibitors.” Keswani sees this as going from a trend to a bifurcation in the industry. “There is a huge market developing for all the unusual things that all the designers are using, including natural and icy — opaque and gray — diamonds. “It used to be that there were one or two people at these shows servicing these niches and that is no longer true; it is not a one-off esoteric purchase. That part of the market is growing and it is no longer a single-digit market share,” notes Keswani. And this new market extends beyond the U.S. Keswani goes on to observe that her clients from Colombia and Uruguay are buying opaque and icy diamonds for markets in South America that were not traditionally known for using these diamonds. The creativity that American designers are exhibiting using nontraditional stones and metals is having a ripple effect in other markets.
   Another trend is how new young designers and buyers are finding wholesalers and manufacturers. It used to be that if an exhibitor bought a lot of show ads there was a certain level of guaranteed visibility. But the internet has leveled the playing field. Now a younger group of 20-year-old to 40-year-old buyers are looking for new vendors based on the firm’s presence on social media. Keswani said several new buyers found her through Instagram. They were familiar with her gemstones and diamonds and came ready with a list of goods they wanted to see.
   The Tucson gemstone shows continue to be important for new and established buyers. As Hucker says, “If you see it in Tucson, you have to buy it because you won’t see it again at another show.” A good buy on a layout of calibrated stones or the chance to find a unique piece can make a season for buyers, retailers and designers. Gemstone enthusiasts know the only place to find a stone with such power is in Tucson.

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - March 2016. To subscribe click here.

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