This is a guide for all the first time-ers at Tuscon. Many people might not want to give up any of their hard earned secrets or tips which is why perhaps not many guides exist. But I know I have many friends and other people who have not yet gone who could benefit from this information. I would have appreciated anyone who could have given me advice beforehand but I sort of went at this blindly. I survived my first trip to Tucson and with two huge gem shows under my belt I can hopefully give you some tips to how to approach the shows and how to get the best deals. No one likes to be overwhelmed or anxious when doing something for the first time so hopefully I can make your first time a little easier so you can plan ahead and fully enjoy all the shows.
Timeline: At least 3-4 days, preferably a week. Any more time than that and you are likely to get burnt out and become jaded by all the crystals you see. Any less time and you will be grumpy tired and burnt out from so much walking and trying to rush yourself.
Bring: backpack, water, cash (for better deals and for buying food at actual shows), pen and paper for keeping track of how much you spent already, and have a budget in mind.
When I came to Tucson, I had already had experience at large gem shows like Quartzite so I wasn’t overwhelmed necessarily but it was a new town and a new show layout so I had to get everything planned out beforehand. First thing you want to do is find a good copy of the map and list of shows and where they are. You can find the EZ guide at any of the shows or here. Most of the shows are in hotels and tents lined up on the side of the 10 freeway. Many of them are clustered together so you can visit a few at a time. This makes for less driving around and more time to look at the actual crystals. When you are looking online it’s hard to tell which are the bigger shows, which offer what you are looking for and which ones to go to above the rest. It will be impossible to do this over the internet. You basically have to go there to feel it out.
Many of the best shows I went to were in hotel parking lots. A few hotel room shows had good deals too. The larger tent shows are more for retail purchases, jewelry, beads and trinkets. They did not have many deals in the tents which I found out after visiting a few. I would avoid those and stick to the outdoor and hotel shows. Unless you are there to buy beads, then there are beads for $1-$3 a strand in the tent shows which are good deals. I got 10 strands of gorgeous turquoise, lapis lazuli, kyanite and labradorite for $25. I would be lucky to find one strand of turquoise for $25 at a bead shop here in San Diego! The shows that are farther away are usually for last minute vendors who didn't sign up early enough or not so popular shows. This could mean two things, either there aren't many good vendors or you could find a killer deal since they might be more desperate to sell than the vendors in more central locations. One show I went to that was highly advertised in the guide was a total bust. It was like a half empty swap meet of junk rocks. So try and stick to the ones on the side of the freeway and in the downtown area.
The next most important thing is to have an idea of what the value is of the stones you are looking for. I already knew how much crystals and minerals cost since I had seen many of the vendors at Quartzite the year before. I got a huge amethyst cluster for $30 the year before so when I saw similar vendors selling much smaller sizes for $75 I knew they were way overpriced. I am new to setting stones and silver smithing even though I went to school for it because we did not set stones in metal arts. (that and I switched my major halfway through), so I only had a vague idea of what cabochons should cost. I saw a wide range in pricing from .50 cents a gram to $4 a gram for the same exact stone. Luckily I found a vendor who sold me moonstone and labradorite for .50!
Also have a budget in mind. For example I set myself a limit of $500. I only wanted to spend around $300 but if I saw something amazing I would allow myself to spend the full $500. I was able to stay in my budget even though I felt like I went a little crazy buying stuff, it didn’t end up being as much as I thought. But be careful. Bring your phone or pen and paper to write down how much you spent already, if you have a budget. It can be easy to buy several small things knowing you got a deal but at the end of the day it all adds up so be careful! Also know what you came for. Don’t get side tracked but something you might not need. I came with the intention of getting cabochons and crystals I needed to make jewelry but there were so many things I wanted but did not need aka a smokey quartz crystal ball for $80. I did allow myself to buy some random items just because they were so beautiful and affordable I knew I could make something out of them for jewelry. With that said, if you find an absolute bargain go for it. You will never find better pricing when you get home. You can always give it as a gift if you find no use for it later on.
Don’t be afraid to bargain. I am serious when I say this might be the number one thing you should remember. I hate haggling. I don’t want to lowball someone but on the other hand I also don’t want to get ripped off. If you are shy about haggling ask if they can go any lower if you don’t feel comfortable naming a price. But dealers expect this so try and get over your anxiety about this. One vendor told me to just name my price and he took $30 off the price of a huge quartz piece. If you have cash vendors will more easily give you a deal. For example I bought a nice fiery piece of Mexican opal and I had already asked the guy for a discount and he also gave me no tax but when I pulled out my wallet I only had $38 so I asked if he would take that instead of $45 and he agreed. Cash rules all. No one wants to pay the credit card fees! Also bring cash for any snacks or meals. There are some delicious food trucks in the outdoor shows and there are bars with small snack items inside some of the hotels with pools. Many if not all take cash only.
As to where you can find the best vendors, I cannot tell you that you will have to figure that out for yourself. Not because I am hiding secrets but because its hard to remember which shows offer what. They all have a little of everything. Its also hard to remember the individual names of them all!
It is easy to find deals but you have to be willing to look around before you commit to buy and sometimes come back to a vendor after you find out that he really is offering the best deal. Sometimes you have to walk away and they will lower the price. I also found that going to a larger vendor allows you more room to get bargain pricing, especially near the end of the show. Huge vendors with a surplus of merchandise will cut prices by 50%. Like Mike and Frank on American Pickers do, BUNDLE BUNDLE BUNDLE. You can get a better deal if you are buying more than one item from someone. If its 43 or 45 ask if they will lower to 40. More often than not they will say ok. Like after a long hot day at a garage sale, no one wants to put all their shit away, they just want to get rid of it. Who wants to ship tons and tons of crystals back to their home town when they could sell it to you for a slightly or steeply discounted price. Also look for smaller vendors who sell only one thing. Like if you are looking for cabochons look for smaller vendors who only sell cabochons. Don’t buy from a vendor who sells rings, cabochons, beads etc because they have less stock of each item so they must charge more for it.
If you plan on only being in Tucson for 2 days like I was, let me say that it CAN be done. You just have to power through it. We woke up each morning at 7:30 ate breakfast in the hotel then headed out. Most shows start at 10 but if you show up at 9 or 9:30 they will be set up already and are ready to sell even if hardly anyone is there. Don’t be afraid of showing up early. Eat lunch at the shows, drink plenty of water and you can do it. They do offer shuttles from show to show but that would be a complete waste of time if you are only there for a day or two. Take your car and most shows have free parking. The farthest we walked was about 5 blocks to a show so we could pay $2 instead of $5. If you are staying longer like a week or more then the shuttles might be a better option. No money for gas and someone else can drive!
Oh and one last thing. Some shows are wholesale only but might not check a resale license. Some shows offer no tax or wholesale pricing if you do have one so don’t forget to bring it. But don’t worry its more retail oriented so if you aren’t a small business and don’t have a resale license there is plenty for you to buy. However if you are looking at a huge mountain of aquamarine which they sell wholesale by the pound or kilo, but you could never possibly need a kilo of rough stones, it doesn’t hurt to ask for smaller amounts. I got a few things that were sold by the pound in strange increments like uh how much is a small handful? Most vendors were friendly and just let me buy it.
Hopefully this guide was helpful for you. I know it can be overwhelming trying to go to Tucson for the first time. You have heard and seen many great things about this show and every single one of them is true. This is the biggest and the best gem show in the world and we are lucky enough to live in the country where it takes place. And if you are lucky enough to live within driving distance like me even better! If you have any questions feel free to ask, but most importantly have fun and good luck finding some amazing gemstones!