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.