Going to the Tucson Gem Show

Going to The Tucson Gem show – 2016

It has been a long time since I have written about Tucson, and again I have been asked by several people to give advice on how to approach the Tucson Gem Show. After much discussion/sharing, I thought it would be helpful to others if I would just put my thoughts in one place for everyone.

If you are considering going to the Show the first thing I want you to know is that you should go ASAP! Why? Because the show is definitely on the decline and has been for a few years now. I have been going to the Show since 2001 and though one could argue that I am not only jaded; it all feels the same because I have seen it before. So before I comment and give advice let me qualify myself.

The first time I went to the Show I went as a designer looking for cool and unusual goods that would allow me to separate myself from the rest of the 10million beaders. Additionally, I was looking for better sources to cut my material cost so that I could increase my margin. My business quickly changed from an independent jewelry to a bead store to two stores AND a distribution business; which of course changed how I was approaching the Show. By that time I was buying about 17 boxes of beads (about 500lbs) and we started vending at the Show.

Because of the sheer quantity of my buys I have had to look at a lot of goods over the years. The goal every year, to find the “cool and unusual”. (This was the only way I could separate myself from the competition.) Another personal goal was to never make a duplicate buy; not easy. With so much to purchase there would likely be duplicates. Surprisingly, I only did this a few times and it was with silver Bali beads. (I was buying hundreds of strands of silver, about 15kg!) So I was very proud of myself that this would be the worst of it.

Ok, now to the nitty gritty.

How has the show declined? There are less quality vendors returning to the show. As a buyer, I want to buy as direct as I can, which means I want to buy from the manufacturers. Not from an importer. But this is huge risk for these companies. To come to the Show from another country, ship the goods, set up shop for potentially 3 weeks, with a crew of employees would cost about $30k for a small booth (by my estimation.)

This tremendous expense has many companies cutting back on goods or not coming at all. There are other shows that are less costly and less risky (ie Hong Kong and Bangkok). For the companies who are still coming to the show, many of them are not shipping the amount of goods they used to 10 years ago. Instead, many of them are simply putting their goods into storage for the year and returning the following with a handful of new goods. (This is why there are bead auctions every year in Tucson. For the companies who don’t return and have stopped paying their storage fees, their goods go up for auction, think “Storage Wars”.)

This is much the explanation of why everything feels “the same”. That is because it is the same. Back 10 years ago, if there was a special cut bead, they would only manufacture it for about 6-8months before they move on and you would never see it again. Today, there are so few buyers that the goods sit around for years on end. The manufacturers are doing their business differently.

With less of the big guys in town, room has opened up for smaller vendors trying to make a quick buck. There are many more small vendors today than there were 10 years ago. What does this mean for buyers? It is harder to determine the best price. Who are the legit sellers? Who should you really buy from? This is part of the reason why you need more than just a few days to do the show. By going to the show for at least 7days you will be able to visit several shows, take notes and do the comparison.

Overview of the Show

The Tucson Gem Show is comprised of about 30 shows over the span of 4 weeks. Every show has its specialty. Every show has their own schedule. Some show are open to the public, some open to the public on some days while other are trade only.

What do I mean there are about 30 shows? Every venue that may be used as a “show” is rented out to a promoter who then rents out that space to vendors for the duration of “their” show. So all the large hotels will have show not only in their ballrooms, but the suites will also be converted into show space for individual vendors. Back in the day when Tucson was still growing it was not unusual to attend a show at the car wash (seriously), the Masonic Temple, or any place that someone was willing to rent out. As you drive around town you will see very large white tents (50k sqft?) Those are shows!

The Advice

To make this a little more simple for you (as I am sure you are already overwhelmed) here are a few scenarios you may use a guideline for your first Show.

Things to consider

>Make reservations early
>Rent a car (although there are shuttles they do not always run on time and to date people are still reporting 1-2 hour wait times for a shuttle. Do you want to wait that long at every show when you only have a few days?)

>Review the show guide to figure out the dates of your trip. You want to schedule you trip during the span of time where all of the shows you want to attend overlap. This way you can keep your costs down and maximize your spending dollars.

>Register for the shows before you go and print your passes.

>When you arrive at the airport pick up a show guide and look over it the first night. There may be coupons and useful information. (Another indication of the times, this show guide used to be twice as thick!)

>Take pictures of the product with the business card. Note the booth number on the card and show name. This will help you remember where you saw something, just in case you decide to go back.

>Consider in at advance the product you are looking for and your goals for the trip.

>Do not buy anything in the first hour of your show experience. You will likely regret it.

How to plan your time

It is not as bad today as it was years ago, but you want to make sure you are either at the show early before opening or well after opening. Plan on being there until the end of the day.

>Choose the show you want to attend. Here is a suggested list, if you are looking for beads

>3 days on the ground – Holidome and Gem Mall 1 day, GJX and Days Inn* 1 day, To Bead True Blue and JOGS 1 day.
>5 days on the ground – Holidome and Gem Mall 2 days; GJX 1day and AGTA if you can get in; Days Inn and Riverpark Inn 1 day*; To Bead True Blue (now Colours of Stone) and JOGS 1 day. If you finish early, on any day consider the Kino Gem & Mineral Show, the Best Bead Show. *There are 3 shows situated between the Days Inn and the Riverpark Inn. If you are driving, park at one end (probably the Riverpark end) and walk it.

>Look at a map and figure out where the shows are relative to where you are staying.

>Figure out where you want to have dinner relative to where you are at the end of the day. During this time the restaurants are packed! Choose wisely or make reservations early. There will surely be a wait. (You might want to consider many smaller, ethnic, local restaurants.)

>Breakfast is also a challenge at the hotels and at restaurants. (The second year, we were stuck with a 2 hour breakfast!)We usually go to the grocery store on our first day and pack our refrigerator with breakfast food we can pack.)

How to buy

>First and foremost, DON’T jack the vendor! If you play games with the vendor and see through it, they will up the price on you and/or they will refuse to sell to you. I have seen it several times, and I don’t blame them.

>If you are truly buying bulk, negotiate a HANK, not a strand. Strand buying is for retail customers. Don’t ask for hank pricing then take only one strand. ( They hate that.)

>You will not be able to buy everything at a wholesale price unless the goods apply to your business. Just because you have a vendors’ license does not entitle you to buy everything at a discount. So don’t expect it.

>Ask vendors where they are from. If they have an overseas office they are likely manufacturers. It is ok to ask if they have a factory or an office. There are many vendors who are distributors with offices in Hong Kong. (There is a difference!)

>Bring cash! There are many vendors who only take cash. I have discovered that those vendors are typically the small manufacturers. You will very quickly see that the price is very good.

>Everyone will tell you that they are selling at Hong Kong pricing. Let me just tell you I have been there, and they are not.

How to pack

>Even if you are not planning on buying much, bring a rolling bag, even for your purse. There is a lot of walking!

>Comfortable walking shoes. You will be walking on dirt and concrete.

>Baby wipes, after a few vendors you will quickly discover how dirty the goods are.

>Sharpie and ziplocs, this way you can organize your buys. Trust me, you will not remember how much it was at the end of the day.

>Wear layers. Not only is weather unpredictable during that time of year, some shows are especially warm while others are especially cold.

>Bring a water bottle and lunch. It gets expensive at the show and though there is a variety out there, there is nothing healthy to eat. Additionally, you won’t waste time waiting in line. Unless you eat before or after the crowds.

The Bottom Line

>The Tucson Gem Show is still a great place if you have not been before. I believe that if you are jeweler at any level you need to have this experience at least once in your career. If you go with a plan and little expectation, this show will yield for you.

>It will be hard to figure out the vendors and who you should buy from, but this speaks to experience. If you see something that you have never seen before you might want to go ahead and buy it, BUT not in the first hour.

>Have fun shopping and come by to see me at the To Bead True Blue Show at the Urban Beader Booth.

Back to the blog…

This is in part from 2010 with present day notes (2015). I thought it would the best way illustrate what I was saying about the ever changing Show.


Every year as Tucson approaches I hear the comment, "It must be sooo fun to go to Tucson!." The reality, Tucson is as much fun as someone could possibly have looking at beads 8 hours a day, having to decide which is the best buy, the best quality and what is enough? While working through more than 300 vendors in those 8 hours without rushing. Fun? Suuurrre. I really do enjoy the job, really, how bad could it be to have to go shopping for 10 days? But it is still work.

[2015 Tucson continues to be work for us; however, without stores to buy for, there is much less pressure on that point. One set-up day, six days of show, one day to actually enjoy the show, two days of travel. I do wish we could spend more like 2 days at the show, but I can not justify it. I am actually a little afraid for my pocket book. ]

Tucson this year was a challenge even for the someone with experience. No one was taking risks nor were they making investments. The vendor/distributors were only selling off old inventory. While new was few and far in between, old and mundane was rampant. I felt very sorry for everyone who was new to the show. Vendors were reporting all kinds of challenges. There was even a rumor that several vendors were hospitalized for heart conditions brought on by the stress of it all.
[2015 Five years later and this has only gotten worse.]

Adding to my schedule this year were 2 classes, 1 day as a vendor (helping out my husband at his show), 2 cocktail parties and 2 extra shows I usually don't attend. The 10 days went very quickly and as much as I was glad it was over, I would have felt more comfortable with another 2 days. I think I say that every year. In the end, I had to assure myself that I did my job and I got a lot of great stuff.

Buyer attendance was noticeably down. Not only did I catch vendors sleeping in their chairs, I almost stepped on one sleeping under the table! Yes, a full grown adult. For me this was a good thing. Less people meant less competition for beads, and less people I had to kill which equals less stress.
[2015 One vendor admitted to me that there were a few days when he only made $20. (He paid $6k for his booth, the smallest booth he could rent.) Walking through the show it felt very sad. I had never seen so few buyers. Prospects for 2016 is not looking good.]

Buyers in Tucson, much to my dismay, are considerably STOOPID! I have been to this show 7 times and it has not changed. I keep thinking that it should get better as more people join the industry but it hasn't. Here is story which will explain what I mean.

The Blue Ribbon of Stoopid, I hope you can appreciate this story. This is me ranting and yes, it is a bit harsh...

So there I was finishing up a buy from a vendor I knew when this so called "buyer" walked up. In her hand was Thai Hill Tribe flower pendant. (If you are reading this blog you know what color that is, SILVER. And you would agree that Silver goes with almost everything.) She handed the pendant to the vendor and asked, "Do you have anything that goes with this?" OMG, did I really hear her ask that? She is suppose to be a buyer, everyone who walks into this show needed a vendors license to get in. Which means you are suppose to be a designer or even a store owner. Ok, maybe you are guest of someone who has the license, don't you think you should ask them? Really!? Did she think that was a bead store?
[2015 This has not changed, in the least.]

One of the most challenging things to buy in Tucson is Silver. There a lot of vendors selling the same thing. The ones who are selling anything different are too expensive to buy for wholesale (at least my store anyway). Additionally, the question of whether or not it is really sterling silver plays at every booth. So who do you really buy from? Apparently there were so many complaints by buyers that one show promoter asked every vendor to declare the silver quality. They were all given a cute little sign that said something like, "This Vendor Sells _______ Silver". I did not even noticed these 8.5x11" signs until one of the vendors pointed it out. He told me about the show promoter and how not everyone was really selling "silver" and that now they are all legit because they had these signs. The next vendor was very proud of his sign and made sure I knew about it as soon as I was in the booth. (Funny how these two thought it was important to let me know, as I was a very long time customer. And trust me I spend an obscene about of money with them.)

I went home that night and thought about it and then there was the AHA! But wait this doesn't seem right to me. The next day I went to one of those vendors and a very frank conversation that started with, "Let me get this straight..." blah, blah, blah and ended with "Who is to prove you did not lie about the fact that it is Sterling?" To which he replied, "That is true." Are you following this? What a crock of pooo.

I was also told by the vendor who seemed very trustworthy (and remember I am a long time customer) that the reality is, there are only 3 manufacturers of silver beads in India. So basically everyone was buying from one of the 3. AND, according to the manufacturer, he was the only one asking for his beads in 92.5% while all the other vendors are buying at 80%...huh? wah? Really? "That is why everyone's prices are less than mine, " he said. Wow. I am definitely impressed.

But only for the moment. Shortly thereafter I confirmed the "story" with another party who had no vested interest. I asked this also long time vendor, who deals in stone, whom I consider a friend. He had some beads manufactured for me as a favor several years ago, lives in Jaipur and is an established international business. According to him there are quite a few manufacturers of silver beads in Jaipur and the fact is, unless you start testing this stuff, there is no way to know who is telling the truth. And the reality is these people are working on a very narrow margin; a margin that most US wholesalers will not work within.

The question remains, who do you trust? What do you look for? For the first time I made the decision that cheapest is not the best way to go. I looked for quality and if the quality was good enough I was willing to pay the higher price. Maybe by next year I will be organized enough have a silver testing kit with me to Tucson. Then I will really know. [2015 To date I have never purchased silver testing kit. I suck. The problem of silver scammers has not changed through the years. This became especially problematic when the price of silver went through the roof. Interesting that is has not changed even though the price of silver has been somewhat stable for the past couple of years. ]

Now that the buy is complete and I have processed about 80% of the silver I am absolutely sure I made the right choices. Bead Q! has some of the best silver beads I have seen to date and at the best prices. The gem show was in town this past weekend and customers have already confirmed that our silver is less, by almost 17%...I WIN! I am so happy I can not even begin to tell you. Happy day. :) CAWABUNGA!

[2015 When I returned to the Show in 2011, the same silver vendors I had purchased the great silver from were no longer carrying the same quality. I had a nice discussion with them to find out that the margin was too low and not enough people appreciated the quality. Therefor they were unable to continue with the kind of silver line. To make sales they had to lower their quality and price to meet the demand.)

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