A week ago today - no, a week ago this very minute - I was on a southbound plane headed for Tucson. Whenever we travel, I always like to look around at the people journeying with us to our destination. It’s just so interesting to see who booked the same flight and to imagine what adventures they have planned. Looking around last Sunday, Eric and I were the youngest passengers - by a lot. It was just us and the snowbirds, headed down to the desert.
This year marked our third trip to Tucson for the gem show. I get excited for the stone shopping, of course, but I also look forward to “seeing” my grandma there - in the mesquite and the saguaros and the desert wind - and getting reacquainted with my child-self, still in awe of the stark landscape. The Sonoran desert has a beauty you have to look for sometimes, but every cactus spine and every grain of sand is a masterpiece.
From the start, this trip felt different. For starters, it was cool and rainy our entire stay. I’ve never seen it rain in Tucson - not even when I was a kid. I don’t think I’ve ever really even seen it particularly overcast. But as we broke through the cloud cover on our descent, all I could see was reflected afternoon light on wet roadways and wispy fingers of cloud reaching down towards the desert below.
This is also the first time I’ve felt like I had all my ducks in a row for the gem show. Registration for wholesale shows was all in order and I’d started saving money in the fall (meaning I had a fairly large stone budget for the first time). I’d planned out which shows we’d hit and when. Business license copies were neatly organized and badges/check-in sheets were also ready to go. It felt a little…weird. But in a good way. Like we had all sorts of time to get where we wanted to go, no scrambling required.
Within 45 minutes of landing we were already stone hunting. And the madness continued for the next two days, until my eyes could hardly focus and my mind was overflowing with ideas. Apart from a quick stop to see my grandparents (who were also in Tucson, escaping a frigid Wisconsin winter) and picking a whole bag of citrus from the trees surrounding their RV site, we were shopping, grabbing a quick bite, or sound asleep. The time just flew.
Our last day, Wednesday, we were supposed to leave in the late afternoon - but we woke up to emails and alerts about terrible winter weather headed towards Colorado. So, wanting to make sure we were able to get home, we decided to switch our flight to one set to depart in only an hour and half. This was a little sad, to have to beat such a hasty retreat, as that morning had been set aside for a hike in the hills. I’d been looking forward to soaking up as much desert as we could before heading out, but that’s life I guess. Sometimes you stand among the saguaros and sometimes you say “see ya next time!” in order to get home without delay.
Back in Colorado I laid out all the stones we had chosen and was struck by one very profound realization. See, the past two years I came away with some purchases that were made out of “politeness” - and by that I mean, we’d be picking through stones and the seller would come over and start chatting. And me, being the people-pleaser I am, would compulsively need to buy something in order to not feel like a jerk. But this year - that didn’t happen once. I don’t see a single “polite” stone in the bunch. All feel genuine to who I am as a maker right now - no people pleasing necessary. That’s some serious personal growth in my opinion.
Since being back, I’ve had so many questions from other makers who want to make the trip down to Tucson someday - so I thought I’d maybe throw out a few tidbits to answer the most common ones! That being said, I’m no expert - and if there’s one thing I’m learning lately, it’s that there’s no one RIGHT way to do things. If you have a good time and feel inspired then that’s the most important thing (no matter what anyone else says!!).
If you want to go, GO! Don’t be like me and push “someday” down the road, feeling sad every year because the trip didn’t come to fruition. There’s no perfect moment to make a leap - there’s never enough money, never enough time. So sometimes there’s no other way forwards than to just go for it!
You don’t have to have a huge budget to have an amazing time! When we made the trip for the first time two years ago, I spent almost all the money I had to get there - and then used everything I had left (only a few hundred dollars) on a handful of stones. But I came away inspired - by the desert and by the idea that I had really invested in myself and my art.
Last year we built on what we’d learned our first trip. I had managed to save a little extra money and my budget grew by another couple hundred dollars. We saw so many stones and mineral specimens and jewelry pieces that no normal person would EVER be able to afford, but being surrounded by all that beauty once again left it’s mark. I came away feeling excited about my purchases but more excited about making and about being an artist.
Now this year - I made it my goal to buy most of the stones I’ll need to happily make for the next year. I started saving last summer (in a very strict and diligent manner!!) and came to Tucson with a few thousand dollars to spend. I like being able to pick stones by hand, to make sure they are durable and high quality (something I can’t do when I order online) - so being able to find so many of the stones I’ll use this year felt amazing! But it also meant that we had to shop with a PURPOSE and I feel like we spent a lot less time just walking around and feeling amazed. I will definitely be making more time for that the next time around.
So, long story short, I think what I’m trying to say is that there’s so much more to Tucson than the stones. If you keep your eyes open, there’s a wealth of inspiration that’s free for the taking (and it’s just as valuable as the gems!).
There’s an app for that. Yes, really. The Tucson Gem Show app is great - it gives you a list of all the shows happening around the city with details on when each is open, where it’s located, and whether or not it’s public or wholesale. I feel like there’s so much to see that a person couldn’t possibly make it to every show! So this helpful tool has allowed me to research and pick out which shows are Must Visits on our trips.
You can make your budget go further (aka, the deals on stones are better) by shopping at the wholesale shows. They all have slightly different requirements to attend, but you can register online beforehand by submitting a business/tax license (each individual show has a website) or by bringing copies of your license when you get to the show (though you’ll have to fill out a form and wait in line).
A few of the shows require that you show “industry affiliation.” Basically, this means you have to prove that you work in the jewelry or stone trade. When I was in California my business name didn’t hint at being a metalsmith so I ran into some trouble. But after our move, when I re-registered in Colorado, I made sure to include the word “jewelry” in my registered business name - and I was immediately accepted into all the wholesale shows I registered for this year.
Carry a couple extra copies of your business license around with you. Many vendors at the public shows will wave the tax or give you a better deal if you can prove your are a business.
Book your hotel in the fall! Though it means committing to the trip months in advance, Tucson fills up during the gem show. If you wait, you’ll have to pay crazy amounts to stay in rooms that are dirt cheap the rest of the year. Just remind yourself that all the money you save can go straight towards stones!
If possible, spend some time out in the desert. Saguaro National park is close - and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is still one of my favorite places in Tucson! There are also a ridiculous amount of beautiful trails scattered around the city. There is magic among the saguaros - I know this to be true!
And now, it’s time to begin afresh. Stones are sorted, studio is (too) clean, and on I’m perched on the brink of a new week. I think the only questions I have now is, what do I make first??