The Etsy Blog

Where Do Beads Come From? Tucson, Sweet, Tucson!

Etsy.com handmade and vintage goods

Etsian Jenni Pagano of PaganoDesignWorks recently attended the International Gem and Mineral Show in Tucson, Arizona and wrote up her experience for the Storque. Enjoy!

Every February, bazillions of mine owners, bead and pearl manufacturers, bead shop owners and jewelry designers of large and small collections converge in Tucson for the International Gem and Mineral shows. One can find fine cut gems to tumbled rocks, black diamond beads to $1 strands of pearls, antiques from around the globe and fossils from ancient history.  The scale of the operation is very hard to convey.  My 2008 show guide lists more than 40 locations around town. Most shows have more than one football-field sized tent. Each vendor has numerous tables in their space piled high with beads. Here is a photo of one tent at the Holidome show. You can’t see to the end of tent, and there are at least 4 tents here. Plus, hotel rooms turned into fully stocked jewelry stores or beads simply piled on the beds!  


This year sees a preponderance of large stone beads: more of the flat, graphic looking beads that have been popular in previous years (unfortunately, I find these so hard to work with!). I prefer large rondelles, and they are getting harder and harder to find. In gemstones, the newest shape is a puffy faceted cube, and twisted and marquise shapes seem to still be popular.

The big news is in the metals. With silver prices going up, manufacturers are turning more and more to copper. Many more vendors had copper beads in the Bali style, as well as chains with large, graphic links. Brass chain was still hard to find, which I found interesting, since many of the copper pieces are simply plated brass. Solid copper is quite expensive, but also available. I seemed to see a lot of chrysocolla and more boulder opal than ever before. The artificial fruity quartzes are disappearing, and in their place are piles of shell pearls. Huge and perfectly round, they have a nice luster and are made with ground up shells.  They seem to average around $6 a strand while freshwater pearls can be had from anywhere from $1 to hundreds of dollars per strand. (In horrible day-glo pink to absolutely gorgeous!)


[This photo shows Kalapatarubeads.com, where they were selling their Indian made silver at 59 cents a gram. Just a few years ago I was buying it at 39 cents a gram!]

If you go to the shows next year, wear comfortable shoes. You’ll want to be very sure-footed traveling through gravel parking lots, uneven tent floors and over power cords in the aisles. (Trust me on this one! Although passing out on the floor in front of a silver vendor is a good way to get a better discount.)

You can tell the newbies by their fabulous jewelry. Most designers choose not to wear their best work, since every other person is a designer looking for new ideas! Many people carry rolling suitcases or backpacks to carry their loot, as beads are heavy. A resale license and business documents are generally needed to get into the wholesale-only shows where you can get the best prices, although retail shows are available as well.  


Turquoise is especially tricky to buy, as much of what is called "turquoise" is either ground up and dyed magnesite or dyed howlite.  African turquoise isn’t turquoise at all. You really must take everything you hear with a grain of salt and make your own assessment of quality. A trustworthy dealer is invaluable! Most turquoise is sold by the gram. To get an idea of how much money is on those tables, one of the least expensive strands I bought there was $12 and a middle of the road strand was $45. You do the math!  I’m too tired and my feet hurt. 

  • ShopClementine

    ShopClementine says:

    Thank you so much for this great peek at the fabled Tuscon shows! Who knows if I'll ever get there, but I loved hearing your trend insights. I'd noticed a lot of those shell beads in electric pastels at the last show I went to (which was just one football field, not 40!). Now I want to see pix of what you got! :)

    7 years ago

  • SandySimone

    SandySimone says:

    That is SO cool that you got to go. I keep promising myself that someday I will go. Thanks for the article!

    7 years ago

  • BrokenTeepeeDesigns

    BrokenTeepeeDesigns says:

    Jenni is an excellent shopper and very knowledgable about where the great finds are. Great article full of wonderful information.

    7 years ago

  • KJEwelry

    KJEwelry says:

    I attended the Tucson shows this year - a first-timer. It was fascinating and energizing; came home with many new ideas and some wonderful stones and beads. I was most excited about the new suppliers I located. Thanks for posting the pictures and sharing your experience.

    7 years ago

  • bijoutery

    bijoutery says:

    Great article - hope to be there next year!

    7 years ago

  • burntmeadowbeads

    burntmeadowbeads says:

    I too went to the shows and had a blast! This was my fifth year attending and as always a great time with many treasures to be found. Thanks for the great article! Isn't it good to be home ;)

    7 years ago

  • deliasdelight

    deliasdelight says:

    Thank you Jenni for your amusing article! I feel better prepared to take on this show next year! Can't wait to see what you do with all your beautiful selections!

    7 years ago

  • SteppingStones

    SteppingStones says:

    Excellent article Jenni!

    7 years ago

  • TheBrassHussy

    TheBrassHussy says:

    Great article, excellent pictures, and a funny insight to the biggest gem show on earth! Jenni did some shopping for me and I can't wait to see all my goodies when they arrive!

    7 years ago

  • Beadymonkey

    Beadymonkey says:

    I have been to the gem and mineral show 3 times now, the first time was over whelming and exciting, the second time I was just plain tired and it was too hot, and the third time I couldn't leave soon enough. It is not my thing really, However, if I could go as a leisurely shopper and not feel rushed then I might have enjoyed it more. I would just like to eat at Cafe Poca Cosa all the time!

    7 years ago

  • PaganoDesignWorks

    PaganoDesignWorks says:

    I'm lucky enough to LIVE in Tucson, so I get to take in the shows a little at a time, then go home to my own bed. The downside it being torn away from the great deals to go pick up kids somewhere!

    7 years ago

  • NOSSUBGALLERY

    NOSSUBGALLERY says:

    Bead burnout, anyone? This was my first time at the show and hopefully, not my last. Words are not enough to convey the sheer size and volume of this event.

    7 years ago

  • Kae1Crafts

    Kae1Crafts says:

    I spent a number of winters in Tucson and never went to a show - I wasn't beading then. -- OOOH the lost opportunities:( I hope to be able to return someday and actually take in the shows. -- Kae doing the eager happy dance.

    7 years ago

  • orangefishy

    orangefishy says:

    I live in Tucson and attended the Gem Show for a few hours (thankfully got inside the wholesale tents as my boss has a business license)... I really wish I had been able to go for longer, there were so many different locations! And all I bought was a few jade bracelets and some Afghani coins... There's always next year! It's crazy how busy Tucson gets during them gem show, though...

    7 years ago

  • luckycoloryellow

    luckycoloryellow says:

    Very interesting article! Who knew bead shows could be so thrilling? :)

    7 years ago

  • JunktoJewels

    JunktoJewels says:

    Fabulous pics! Thanks for sharing some of the trends. I find the big shows pretty intimidating so nice to get an arm chair view :-)

    7 years ago

  • HumanTouchDesigns

    HumanTouchDesigns says:

    Great article, Jenni! I'm even more excited about planning my trip for next year (crossing fingers!!).

    7 years ago

  • misscourageous

    misscourageous says:

    thanks Jenni for the great article, I'm definitely marking my calendar for next year!

    7 years ago

  • GibsonWireCreations

    GibsonWireCreations says:

    Great article, Jenni. Maybe next year for me!

    7 years ago

  • ccdesign

    ccdesign says:

    Jenni, Great article and thanks for sharing the wonderful pictures. I've never been to one of these shows, but hope to make it someday! I would've never imagined the amount of beautiful beads in one place.

    7 years ago

  • vickiorion

    vickiorion says:

    Wonderful article Jenni. You did a great job describing the enormity of "Tucson". I'm hoping your town is back to normal by now!

    7 years ago

  • elementsjewelry

    elementsjewelry says:

    Jenni, Can we have a sleepover at your house next year?? Thanks for the article and the pictures. sue

    7 years ago

  • PaganoDesignWorks

    PaganoDesignWorks says:

    I didn't mention in the article that I got to meet some of my Etsy friends in "real life" at the shows! It was SO cool to get to chat with Vicki of Vickorion.etsy.com and Jane of Baxtershouse.etsy.com! Such nice, funny people!

    7 years ago

  • CorinneElaina

    CorinneElaina says:

    Jenni - That was a great article. Thank you for sharing it with the Etsy Community! The Gem & Mineral Show envelopes Tucson every year and it is thrilling to go to it, meet new people and get some amazing loot! We are so lucky to actually live in Tucson!

    7 years ago

  • SewCrewel

    SewCrewel says:

    Excellent article, very well written. Great job Jenni.

    7 years ago

  • jjboz10

    jjboz10 says:

    Great article Jenni and thanks for sharing.

    7 years ago

  • jQjewelrydesigns

    jQjewelrydesigns says:

    Good read, Jenni - I really enjoyed it! 2009 Tuscon Intl Gem Show is calling to me . . .

    7 years ago

  • cubicleboutique

    cubicleboutique says:

    I am sooooo jealous! Just look at all of the strands to run your fingers over. Great article, Jenni.

    7 years ago

  • azureislands

    azureislands says:

    Great article Jenni...maybe someday I'll get there...it must have been wonderful!!! Heather

    7 years ago

  • LostAndFoundObjects2

    LostAndFoundObjects2 says:

    wow!I'm Beadazzled!

    7 years ago

  • Mizdragonfly

    Mizdragonfly says:

    Interesting read. Your pictures are well done, puts your text in perspective. i wish i could go... i wonder how it would work flying from canada there and coming bead-a-fied at customs?! Would it still bead worth it considering plane tickets, hotels, time spent hunting for the gold? Something to think about. *dreamy eyes*

    7 years ago

  • asilomarworks

    asilomarworks says:

    What a great wrap-up, Jenni! So tempting. And wonderful photos, too.

    7 years ago

  • seajules

    seajules says:

    Thanks for your perspective. I was there as a newbie a few years ago-WOW! What fun!!

    7 years ago

  • PaganoDesignWorks

    PaganoDesignWorks says:

    Thanks to Lysastrata for reporting a bad link. To reach my favorite silver guys, go to: http://kalpatarubeads.com/ Also, the turquoise supplier shown is China Mountain Turquoise. Their website is under construction at http://chinamountainturquoise.com/ (out of New Mexico)

    7 years ago

  • elkhorn

    elkhorn says:

    That was a very informative piece. I have been to the Tucson show once and was overwhelmed, yet eager to return with a better time strategy. Interesting note you made about the use of copper instead of the more expensive metals. You are on the cutting edge. thanks for sharing. Carla

    7 years ago

  • elkhorn

    elkhorn says:

    Also, do you go to the Quartzsite shows, like Tyson Wells?

    7 years ago

  • pandoraslocker

    pandoraslocker says:

    Fun article! I enjoyed reading it :)

    7 years ago

  • restringit

    restringit says:

    Wow! I loved the article and photos. I can tell you really put a lot of time an effort into this piece. I LOVE the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show and I enjoyed reading the article. Thanks for sharing!

    6 years ago

  • cowgirlfriend

    cowgirlfriend says:

    Not sure if this is where I should put this, I am a new business owner/designer & Loved the insight on the Tucson Gem Show. I hope to make it there some day. But I have been looking everywhere for pink magnesite nuggets? Does anyone sell them or know where I could purchase them? Thank you! you could email me @ cowgirlfriend@live.com

    6 years ago

  • KathysKreation

    KathysKreation says:

    Great article, gives a personal insight to Tucson. It's a place to go with an unlimited credit card...lol

    5 years ago

  • alejandra2466

    alejandra2466 says:

    que maravilla

    5 years ago

  • Positivelystoned

    Positivelystoned says:

    oooh la la, i'm salivating! for the record: I <3 Arizona!

    5 years ago

  • Positivelystoned

    Positivelystoned says:

    oh and inexpensive chrysocolla is often passed off as turquoise. Buyer beware!

    5 years ago

  • HoveBeads

    HoveBeads says:

    Wow, hope to be there next year!

    4 years ago

  • sanchezfj

    Anthony from TulasCanineCouture says:

    Looking for high quality natural turqouise to inlay into gold belt buckles....if any material is available......please contact me. Tulascaninecouture......or tsanchezfj @aol.com studio... 913-648-4381

    2 years ago