By Brian Greenstone
My wife and I had always been interested in gems, minerals, and fossils, but we were never really serious collectors; we were like most people who would occasionally pick up a rock that we liked and put it on a shelf somewhere. That all changed in 2015 when we took our first pilgrimage to the Tucson Gem & Mineral show. We drove out there in our Jeep Grand Cherokee with the intent on coming back with a few good-sized "decorator" pieces for the home. We ended up coming back with enough stuff to open up a small rock shop:
We had an amazing experience, and we learned a lot really quickly. I educated myself on the show beforehand, but a lot of what I read didn't really match up to reality, so I figured I'd write up my experiences here in the hopes that it will be useful to others who are attending for the first time. Since going to the show we got so into the hobby that it became a business, and now we attend all of the major shows. We started our company Greenstone Fine Mineralia, and it has become a full-time job. This story here is mostly from a first-timer's perspective as it was when we went in 2015.
The main Tucson Gem and Mineral Show is at the very end of a month-long, citywide event. Prior to the "main show" there are satellite shows all over Tucson with something like 4400 vendors from around the world. Most of it is in clusters off Interstate 10 on the west side of town. We wanted to go to the main show, some of the wholesale shows, and some other large shows, so, we decided to arrive the Monday before the main show, and spend the whole week seeing everything. This was the perfect timing for us, especially since our interest was the mineral specimens and fossils. If you're going for wholesale gems then you'd need to go at least 2 weeks before the main show to hit those, but there are still plenty of gems to be had at all of the shows.
The day we arrived was the final day of the Westward Look Show, and you really should plan on seeing this if you can. This is the very high end stuff, and it's at the Westward Look resort on the northwest end of Tucson. This is the best of the best - museum quality stuff in every room! That same day we also hit the Pueblo show which which is one of the largest shows with a lot of everything.
The main TGMS show which starts that last Friday was actually the least interesting part of the whole week. It was mostly just a recap of the same high-end vendors that we saw at the other shows. They simply pack up their stuff when those shows end, and move it into the convention center. They do save some minerals for the main show, so you will see new stuff there, but it's mostly a recap. If you're going to skip any part of the Tucson show then the main show is what to ship. The hotel shows are really the best part of it.
In all, we spent 4 solid days from sunrise to sunset going from show to show, and that's really how long it will take you to see everything. You could probably rush it into 3 days if you skipped a lot of booths, but if you want to see everything you need to plan on spending 4 very long days there.
Every web site I read prior to our trip made it sound like parking was going to be impossible, and that we'd have to take the free shuttles to get around. Not so. We were able to easily park everywhere we went, and I'm glad because we needed access to our car. Rocks are heavy, and you don't want to be carrlying those around all day. We would make a purchase and then drop it off in the car before buying more stuff. At the Pueblo and TGMS shows we had to pay $10 for parking, but everywhere else we went it was free and generally plentiful.
On the 2nd day we started at the 22nd Street show, and somehow got a parking spot about 15 feet from the door. We got there early and were able to park for free, but discovered later that it was $3 to park there, or free to park in the lot next door. The best part is that from the 22nd Street show we could just walk under the freeway to get to the other shows across the street. So, we just left our car at the 22nd Street show most of the day. We never had any need or desire to use a shuttle.
The first thing you will notice when you arrive at the show is that mineral specimens are ridiculously expensive! The prices you see are never the prices that you pay, and the vendors all expect you to haggle with them. Generally we were able to talk the vendors down 15-50% on everything we bought. Some vendors are really easy - the Chinese are the easiest to negotiate with. The Moroccans are also extremely flexible on pricing, but they're also the pushiest, so you have to know when to say "no" to them and just walk away. Sometimes walking away gets you the best price because as you're headed out the door they'll run after you and agree to your last offer. The Europeans are more difficult to deal with, but still, you will never pay full price for anything at any of these shows. Remember to bring a wad of cash because cash is king. Some places take credit cards, but flashing paper bills always gets you the best price.
Everyone is selling the same stuff all over town, and what we found is that you should never buy anything for more than you want to spend because odds are you'll find the exact same thing elsewhere for a fraction of what you saw it for earlier - I guarantee it. Just because someone is asking $1000 for something doesn't mean it's worth that. It's a matter of finding the vendor with the lowest price, and there's no rhyme or reason to the pricing of anything. In the photo above you'll see two large, purple flourite boulders. They're beautiful specimens, and I got those from a Chinese dealer for just $40 each. We saw a nearly identical yet smaller one elsewhere for $800. Shop around, and negotiate! Odds are that if you see a nice rock in a glass case it's going to cost you 4 to 10 times as much as the same rock being displayed on a simple folding table under a tent. Don't let the presentation fool you into paying too much!
The other nice thing about going to the shows in their final days is that you'll get the best deals. These vendors would rather sell at a steep discount than have to ship a heavy rock back home. You'll find that vendors will mark down their inventory 25-50% in the last few days of the shows, and even with a marked 50% discount you can still usually get them down another 20% if it's a difficult item to transport. In the far left corner of the photo above you can see a beautiful ammonite group fossil that we bought. It was the single most expensive thing that we bought at the show. It was originally priced at $1600, but the vendor marked it down to $800 on the last day. We talked him down to $671.
Some of what we bought at the show was for our home, but other things we bought were for my fiancé's business to resell. She has a Texas resale certificate which allowed her to buy from the wholesale vendors. Buying from wholesalers isn't necessarily any cheaper than buying elsewhere, but it saves you having to negotiate that first 50%. A lot of the wholesalers won't go lower than the 50% that they have marked, but many will. The main benefit to wholesale is that it allows you to buy from vendors who you couldn't buy from otherwise, but with good negoiating you'd probably get the same price from a regular vendor on the same item anyways. That being said, some of the wholesalers, especially at the Oracle show, had some really nice items and were easy to negotiate with.
NOTE: Some large fossils may be displayed on a heavy-duty stand which you may want. When you negotiate price, the stand is almost never included. If you realize you want the stand after coming to a price, don't expect the vendor to just give it to you. They'll gouge you on the price of the stand because they know they have you in a corner. So, be sure to include the stand in your negotiations from the start.
You don't have to worry much about fake mineral specimens at the show (be wary of the "grape agate" from China!), but you do have to worry about fake fossils. We got duped on our 2nd day there. We hadn't looked at many fossils at that point, so we weren't really sure what things cost. When we saw the giant spiral ammonite that you can see in the back of the photo we fell in love with it, and really wanted it for our house. I asked the rather pushy Moroccan vendor if it was real and he said "Yes!". It's not. We had doubts within an hour of buying it since $350 seemed like way too good of a deal considering we were now seeing similar ones from more reputable dealers for thousands of dollars. We couldn't inspect it until we got it home since it was crated up in the back of the Jeep, but once we opend it we could easily tell that things were not right. We got taken on that one, but it's still a great decorator item even for $350.
You'd think we would have learned our lesson after buying the fake giant ammonite, but the next day we saw a fossilized turtle head that we wanted. We were so excited about it that the fact that we paid only $27 for it didn't set off any warning bells until 30 minutes later. After that we got more saavy, and started to pay better attention. I'm 80% certain the rest of the fossils we bought were real, especially the ones we bought from reputable-looking dealers. The Co-op show on Oracle has several high-end fossil dealers who appear to be completely legit.
Many of the larger shows have temporary UPS booths setup, so you can bring your items to them and they'll ship it home for you. We didn't want to do that since it would probably cost more to ship some of this stuff then it's actually worth. That's why we decided to drive the Jeep. Luckily, I though ahead and put a shipping blanket and a bunch of small cardboard boxes in the car before we left. We used all of it! Bring as many small & medium boxes as you can because you'll need them!
The vendors will all wrap your purchases for free. Different vendors use different packing materials from cardboard and tape, to bubble wrap and newspaper. That's sufficient for solid items, but some of the more delicate mineral specimens need a little extra protection when being transported, so we put the delicate ones into the cardboard boxes. Everything arrived intact - no accidents!
So, the bottom line is that you'll need 4 days to see everything, and you should plan on coming towards the end of the shows to get the best prices. Never pay full-price for anything, look out of fake fossils, and bring a big car to pack everything into. Don't worry about parking because it's not that hard.
As a result of our Tuscon experience, my wife and I have started our own fossil & mineral company called Greenstone Fine Mineralia. Our focus is on designer specimens and displays, so we sell custom display stands and lighted display cases that we hand-make out of real glass and solid mahogany.