The creme de la creme of Tucson has traditionally been the AGTA show. AGTA, the American Gem Traders Association, is built around purveyors of colored gemstones, although its current dealers offer much more than that. AGTA is the most difficult wholesale show for shoppers to get into--they don't want any "lookie-lous" walking around, just serious buyers. Most everyone at this show, men and women alike, are wearing some version of the black business suit. The show is held at the Tucson Convention Center and it is big in more than just size.
Excitement builds up long before the doors open for the show. When you arrive and have checked in at registration, you can walk over to windows that look down onto the convention floor below, where a grid of hundreds of sparkling display booths with brightly lit glass cases and crisp, white-skirted tables are neatly arranged across the carpeted floor. The hum of last-minute preparations is in the air, and 40 minutes before the show opens, people are beginning to quietly line up to get in.
Once you are inside, it is gem wonderland, truly a magical experience if it is your first time at a show like this. Up and down the aisles, dealers are displaying cases filled with colored gemstones--whole booths devoted to nothing but sapphires in every color of the rainbow; or rubies, emeralds, tanzanites, tourmalines, beryls--every colored gemstone you can imagine is here. What is astonishing to the first-time visitor is how many tiny stones are for sale--imagine thousands of flat, 3"-square plastic trays lined up on tables and in cases, each tray filled with hundreds of 2 and 3-point faceted stones that sparkle like glitter as you pass by. Larger stones get their own stands, and many, many of these are just astoundingly beautiful, and expensive.
Some booths are hosted by master cutters, so you can find a mix of larger gemstones in breathtakingly beautiful fancy one-of-a-kind cuts. Other booths have top-end finished jewelry for sale. Then there are the pearl-sellers. No twenty-dollar cheap strands here. I remember going up to a booth that had a tray with pearl strands in it and a sign that said, "Show Special." Show specials are items, usually just a few, that a dealer puts out at a discount just for that show, to draw buyers in. I picked up a pearl strand at AGTA and was stunned to find that the "show special" cost $5,000! Of course, what was I thinking? They were Tahitian black pearls, and quite lovely, too.
Many people think that AGTA is where you go to find that perfect $3,000 sapphire that will grace a $15,000 ring. That's true, but I've found real buys there, too. What's more, AGTA has an interesting "back room," that many people don't know about. It's actually accessible from only one corner of the convention main floor. Its main tenants are the jewelry supply companies, the purveyors of jewelry-making equipment, as well as the metals suppliers--the all-important places where you obtain your gold, silver, and platinum sheet and wire.
This back room is where the bench jewelers love to congregate and watch the newest equipment being demonstrated, or where you can see samples of the latest colors of gold. (Gold comes in different levels of purity, as well as in yellow, white, super yellow, pink, green, peach and whatever color they're coming up with this year).
The other dealers in this room are jewelry designers, who actually rent booths and show off their creations. AGTA also opened another room for jewelry designers on the upper floor, and these two rooms are the only places I know of where more unique jewelry is for sale. Otherwise, most of the fine finished jewelry sold in Tucson is of the conventional "jewelry store" type. So these rooms are really special, and it's inspiring (and daunting) to walk past these booths and see the stunning work these designers have created.
But the absolute best treasure in the back room is a little area with a jeweler's bench, camera setup, and about fifty chairs set up in rows. This is the free demonstration area, and all throughout the period of the show, the top jewelry educators in the country come here and give free demonstrations and lectures on jewelry techniques. Anyone attending the show can check the schedule and show up for whatever demonstration interests them, and believe me, it is like having thousands of dollars of workshops available for free. I have attended many lectures here and always come away with a notebook full of valuable information.
Elsewhere in meeting rooms next to the convention center, AGTA offers free seminars, mostly on the business of selling jewelry. I attended a couple last year that dealt with new trends in colored stones, which were really interesting. AGTA also offers fee-based mini-courses in stone identification, pearl grading, and related topics that members can take during the show period. There is even a yoga class every day to soothe those aching backs and feet!
Lastly, there are a variety of informational booths and displays off the lobby. It's where I signed up to join SNAG, the Society of North American Goldsmiths, which is the professional organization to which all serious metalsmiths, designers, and jewelers should belong. At other booths, you can subscribe to a variety of magazines, and learn about GIA, the Gemological Insitute of America, where you can actually get a college-level education that certifies you to analyze, work and design with, and be an expert in, gemstones. And before you leave, be sure to visit the display of that year's winners of AGTA design awards that go to the most stunning jewelry and gem cutting designs.
Yep, AGTA is quite the show. Next, some of the other, equally interesting shows in Tucson....