The Gem Show Scene

February 2, 2016 |

African VillageWhen talking about Tucson’s annual Gem, Mineral & Fossil Showcase, people who have been around a while will tell you that it’s changed, that it’s not what it used to be and that nothing is as cool as it was in the good old days.  “For years I used to shop for people who live in town, “says Aspen Green, a long time Tucsonan; “people who did not want to be seen because they were too well known.  They’d give me a list and $1,000 and I would know exactly where to go to find just the right piece of amethyst or rug or clothing or beads.  I had passes to all the shows and I knew just where to get all the good stuff!

“But it’s changed,” she laments, “about five years ago when different shows started moving around town and the state started charging sales tax.”  Now with a full time job at UA Presents, whose busiest season conflicts with The Show, annually held the first two weeks in February, Green has neither the time nor enthusiasm to go out and enjoy the show, much less work it.

But while this may be true for Green and others who have seen more than their fair share of Street Fairs, Tucson Meet Yourself and other annual events that may have lost their one time appeal, this is a two week extravaganza that consistently demands to be seen with fresh eyes. Aside from how vast and expansive it is,  this is a time when literally hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of precious stones, crystals, minerals and metals inundate our city.  There are those in fact who will swear there is an actual shift in the vibrational space/time continuum.  But its not just rocks and such as but also clothing, jewelry, fossils, glasswork, beads and beadwork of every conceivable nature, here to be bought, sold, traded, haggled over or simply admired.  Add lots of music, parties, the marathon glassblowing competition and a cast of characters straight out of Central Casting including wholesale buyers, sellers, gemologists, jewelers, import/export people, musicians, hippies and ex-hippies now masking as straight laced business types.  It’s a wonder no one has seen fit to make an indie movie of this scene.

“What makes it special are the people who come back every year.”  So says Sirena Jan Allen who has worked a booth at the show for various out of town vendors for almost 20 years.  Initially working for a seller of Peruvian clay and hand painted beads, she loved the opportunity to meet people from all over the world.  “There is an excitement that builds,” she says that comes from being a part of so many different reunions taking place with folks who only get to see each other for these few days every year.

Actually, the Gem, Mineral & Fossil Showcase is a bit of a misnomer.  A cursory search on Google will reveal a schedule that features no fewer than 40 different shows or expos spread throughout the city ( .  Some are strictly wholesale and some require official badges. But most are open to the public, with many housed in huge tented areas or spread across hotel rooms, suites and balconies.

Some of the better known hot beds of activity include what used to be known as the Holidome on Palo Verde and Irvington; the tents set up by TEP Park on Ajo and Country Club and of course the fortnight’s grand finale in the Tucson Convention Center, a high end show according to some, where there is also an admission charge.

Congress St., just west of downtown is also an area that usually houses a huge tented area.  But it is the I-10 Frontage Road, running from Grant Rd. to just south of 22nd St., with all of its roadside motels, that provides a huge cornucopia of (for lack of a better word) stuff, for anyone interested in cruising the side of the highway on bicycle or foot with thousands of other bargain hunters, curiosity seekers and people watchers.

And speaking of the strip, at the very south end of the Frontage Road, just south of 22nd St. is the African Village.  This is one of the true gems (pun intended) of the entire show.  In what is normally a huge vacant dirt lot, this space is annually transformed into a place of drums and other instruments, masks, lanterns, necklaces, jewelry, clothing, furniture, etched glass and so much more with one vendor after the next representing a unique part of the African continent.  This is truly a land of many cultures.  For many who frequent the show, a trip to the African Village serves as an annual pilgrimage in and of itself.

And finally, at the other end of the strip by Grant Road, is the Gem and Jam Show ( What began as a single night of music at a Fourth Ave. Club, has morphed from those humble beginnings into its current incarnation as a full fledged three day Festival  complete with three day passes, hotel packages and other festival perks.

Alan, a wholesale buyer from North Carolina and one of those guys who could be from Central Casting, is a fitness buff and may spend half his time here bicycling into the Catalinas or even New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness.  But he still remembers the time when he got to see a 50 karat chrome tourmaline and an emerald green garnet worth $300,000.  “And everybody is a wheeler dealer,” he says with a wry smile. With so much to take in, what’s still not to like?

Category: Community, DOWNTOWN / UNIVERSITY / 4TH AVE, Entertainment, Events