Gem and Mineral Season

By Laura Latzko

This time of year, Tucson is in its gem and mineral season, when the city is abuzz with gem, fossil, bead and mineral activity.

The annual showcase caters to people of all ages and interests, with educational and retail opportunities.

Known as the world’s largest gem and mineral show, the Tucson Gem, Mineral and Fossil Showcase brings together vendors from around the world with selections of gemstones, jewelry, lapidary equipment, beads, textiles, apparel, mineral specimens and fossils.

Most of the shows fall between February 1 and February 16, in different settings—warehouses, local businesses, hotel event spaces and rooms, and large convention spaces such as the Tucson Expo Center.

Visit Tucson’s Director of Convention Services Jane Roxbury says the city has offerings throughout the year, but the winter has a wider selection.

“You can always find something in Tucson—a treasure to take home—but this is the time of the year when we shine gem-, mineral- and fossil-wise,” Roxbury says.

The show brings 65,000 visitors to Tucson and has an economic impact of $131 million, she says.

“It is a terrific experience to see the tremendous amount of growth, not only in the total number of shows but in the economic impact, the number of people coming to the shows, the increased number of vendors and the expansion of shows,” Roxbury says.

This year, the event has 50 different shows, with free shuttle service between most of them. Roxbury says because the show has become so large that it is important for attendees to have a plan in place for what shows to see, as well as where to stay and dine.

The event started on a much smaller scale in 1955, with one show, put on by the Tucson Gem and Mineral Society at the Helen Keeling Elementary School. It has grown, though, to include more vendors and spaces.

As the audience grew, the events did as well. Food trucks are found at some of them. About half of the vendors own a business or building in Tucson.   

The city also has a growing mineral district along Oracle Road. Some of this year’s shows will take place within this district. Certain shows will have more specialized products or vendors, while others have a wider variety.

The African Art Village showcases art from 125 vendors from February 1 to February 16 at 279 S. Linda Avenue. The American Indian Arts Exposition at the Quality Inn Flamingo ballroom, 1300 N. Stone Avenue, will have a rotating lineup of 40 Native American artists as well as art demos and performances. The event runs through February 16.

The shows vary in size, with some having only one vendor and others featuring hundreds of vendors.

Variety of shows

Over the years, it has become common for local shops, such as Kent’s Tools, to put on their own shows.

Its owner, Kent Solberg, has participated in shows for 25 years. For the last four years, he has hosted shows at his storefront at 2745 N. First Avenue. Before this, he took part in the Kino Gem and Mineral Show.

Although the shop is open year-round, the show runs through February 17.

“Once we moved into this permanent location, it was a no-brainer to have our show in our own building, cut down on the overhead, cut down on the staff requirements,” Solberg says.

“It is permanently set up. We don’t have to tear down, and we bring in a lot of inventory just for the show.”

In his shop, he offers a variety of equipment. Each year, he tries to add innovative products such as specialty pliers and bezel cutters.

He started the business after coming into an inventory of jewelry and lapidary equipment. Not long after, his wife Salle Hunter, a textile and watercolor artist, started in the bead and jewelry business after purchasing a storage unit with beads from the Tucson show.

“The product line was new to us, so we had to learn about the product line,” Solberg says. “We had to research it. We had to research the value of the tools and machines we got in.”

There’s a community within the gem and mineral shows. Solberg says he looks forward to seeing longtime friends and

“The vendors in particular shows tend to form a bond with each other. They are supportive, and they watch over each other,” Solberg says.

Put on by the Tucson Gem and Mineral Society at the Tucson Convention Center, 260 S. Church Avenue, the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show from February 13 to February 16 will showcase more than 160 items from mineral museums and collectors.

The items on display this year include the world’s largest gold and silver specimens, the Paloma Picasso kunzite necklace and a 30-foot aquatic dinosaur.

The event also offers lectures, a life-size video presentation of the Cave of Giants in Mexico, and junior education and mineral areas.

Collectors, ages 8 and older, can display and have their work judged as part of the show’s annual competition. There are different categories, including junior divisions for children 18 and younger.

The show is $13 for adults and free for children 14 and younger with a paying adult.

Engaging the public is important to many of the vendors, but some take it a step further. They offer educational displays for the public.

Each year, Aerolite Meteorites Inc. excites visitors about the sciences through its exhibits and displays, located inside the Showcase building at the 22nd Street Mineral, Fossil, Gem and Jewelry Showcase.

This year’s show runs through February 16 at 600 W. 22nd Street. Admission is free but parking is $5.

Out of this world

During the last 23 years, Aerolite Meteorites has taken part in hotel and convention center shows at the Tucson event. It also participates in gem and mineral shows in Denver and Edison, New Jersey.

Geoff Notkin, CEO of Aerolite Meteorites, says that through educational displays he hopes to make meteorites more meaningful for show attendees.

Notkin is a meteorite expert, an author, a photographer, an art director, a TV and film producer and the star of the TV show “Meteorite Men.”

During the gem show, he shares his knowledge with the public individually and through different educational displays and films.

“People of all ages share a wonder in these items. Why is that? Because they are from out there. They are visitors from space who land on the Earth,” Notkin says.

“It is a wondrous experience to encounter them, especially when somebody takes the time to explain to the visitor exactly why the rock they are looking at is so special, and that’s my job.”

Notkin’s love of rocks, fossils, meteorites and astronomy started as a child, when his parents took him on adventure holidays. He was especially influenced by his dad, who was an amateur astronomer.

This year, his company will offer video learning stations with educational short films on meteorite history and origins, produced by Aerolite Meteorites. Signage within the booth will also provide further information about the meteorites on display.

The booth will have a living room display with tables, chairs, bookcases and artwork to show what a meteorite display inside a home looks like and to give visitors a place to take a break.

The Tucson company partners with Colorado-based Dinosaur Brokers.

For the first time, the Science Arts and Space Institute, a nonprofit affiliated with Dinosaur Brokers and Aerolite Meteorites, will have its own educational exhibit space at the show.

Being part of the Tucson gem and mineral show has been truly life changing for Notkin.

The show encouraged him to move his company from New York to Tucson, where his international business has thrived.

“Aren’t I lucky to have been a little boy fascinated by science, growing up in rainy old England, to have found my way to Arizona to a city really welcoming me, encouraged and supported me with my work and given me the opportunity to grow my business in a field I loved as a kid?” Notkin says.

He first attended the event in the 1990s as a collector and enthusiast.

“I try to never lose sight of the fact it was my delight in the experience of attending the gem show that caused me to move here,” Notkin says.

During those early shows, he was impressed by the vendors’ hard work and dedication. Many of them incur large expenses to ship their products to Tucson.

“Recognizing in the people I see here from all over the world, the hope and the enthusiasm they have for their work, it is very uplifting,” Notkin says.

During the show, his company sells and shares information on different types of meteorites and features such as chondrules, tiny spheres within the meteorites formed during the early days of the solar system.

In recent years, the company has branched out by offering unique products such as T-shirts made with meteorite dust.

This year, Notkin will have for sale his new documentary on identifying meteorites, “The Expert Guide to Meteorite Identification in the Field and in the Laboratory,” and his latest book, “How to Find Treasure from Space: The Expert Guide to Meteorite Hunting and Identification.”   

During his time with the Tucson show, Notkin has made friends and business contacts from all over the world. He describes it as being like a “get-together of old school chums.”

He says the global community the event fosters is inspiring to him.

“You see people from different countries working next to each other, and somehow through their shared enthusiasm of natural history they overcome all boundaries, whether it’s language or cultural barriers,” Notkin says.