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If you’re a newcomer to the gem trade, you most likely have a number of questions about gem shows. The IGS has created a gem show FAQ based on advice from the late gem faceter Jeff Graham. Whether you’re heading to a large event like Tucson or a smaller venue, this information will come in handy.
By Jeff R. Graham 15 minutes read
Rock display - gem show FAQ

Our gem show FAQ can help you at any trade event, like the Delvers Gem Show in Downey, CA. Photo by Deidre Woollard. Licensed under CC By 2.0.

Before You Go…

pearl strandsRemember, consult the event website or contact the organizers directly for information about dates, requirements, vendor lists, and transportation/parking.

Try to figure out exactly what you want to see, especially if you’re attending the larger shows. Cut stones? Rough? Beads? Fossils? Jewelry? A bit of everything? Make a list, because you probably won’t see it all.

Some gem shows have a mix of dealers selling just about everything. Others might have a focus on particular themes. The larger shows might have many different venues, each featuring a specific type of merchandise. A little planning will help you get the most from your trip.

Remember to have fun, too, especially if you’re a first timer.

What Should I Wear?

Of course, this depends on the time of year and location of the event, but be prepared for changes in the weather, especially if the gem show has outdoor venues. For example, in late January and February, Tucson temperatures can reach 60-80° F during the day and drop to 30-40° F at night. Rain and high winds aren’t unusual during this time, either. (Desert weather can change quickly).

Tucson Gem Show - tents

You’ll see some of the largest tents in the world during the Tucson gem show. Look at the trucks under the tent frame for a idea of their scale.

Wear layers. Take warm clothes that you can easily remove to cool off if needed. Also, bring a hat, sunscreen, and sunglasses.

Don’t forget to bring a good pair of shoes. I prefer hiking boots with a good nonslip sole. You’ll probably come across a lot of things to trip over at the show, like rugs, uneven stairs, etc.

A waist or fanny pack is also a good idea. You can carry some loot as well as some small tools. (I always carry some energy bars, antacids, rubber bands, hand wipes, and extra batteries).

A water bottle you can attach to your belt is nice to have.

What Equipment Should I Bring?

You’ll need something to take notes, either a notepad and pen or your smartphone. If you’re buying rough in order to cut gemstones, you’ll definitely need this to do your homework.

If you’re mathematically challenged, you’ll need a calculator, either a pocket version or an app on your smartphone. Most dealers are honest, but people do make mistakes, so it never hurts to check the math.

If you didn’t bring a show guide with you, get one when you arrive or find one on the venue’s website. The maps, dates, and dealer locations will come in handy. Hold on to them after the show, in case you want to look up a dealer.

Here are some small, portable tools that should prove useful:

10X Loupe

A good 10X loupe is a must when buying rough at any gem show. Even if a piece of rough looks good to the naked eye, always examine it through a loupe.

I prefer to take a small, pocket-sized loupe with me. (Quite a few people I know actually wear them on strings around their necks during the show). 

Calipers

gem show FAQ - calipersA good pair of inexpensive calipers will come in handy when choosing faceting rough. You can use it to get a good idea of the rough’s size as well as the size of the finished gem you could cut. In addition, if the rough has some flaws, you can estimate the amount of loss.

Flashlight

Take a good, small flashlight with you for examining rough. I like the Maglite. Take extra batteries (or use rechargeable ones) as well as extra bulbs.

Zipper Plastic Bags

zipper baggiesI always carry a few different sizes of zipper plastic bags, preferably the kind that have white spaces you can write on. Surprisingly, many dealers don’t have anything to put rough in after you buy it. Writing what you bought, how much, and where you bought it on each bag will save you some headaches later.

Refraction Liquid

Refractol - gem show FAQIf you’re just getting into buying gem rough, carrying a jar of refraction liquid at gem shows is a good idea. Although it can be a hassle to carry (along with tweezers and paper towels for cleaning up), you can use it to help you check the rough for any fractures, inclusions, or other issues that might affect cutting. 

Always ask permission from the vendor before immersing a piece of rough and clean the stone when you finish.

Once you gain more experience, you won’t need the help of refraction liquid to check the rough.

(Editor’s note: Be aware than many commercially available refraction liquids are toxic or otherwise hazardous. Read the safety instructions for these liquids carefully — as well as airline baggage restrictions if you’re flying. You might instead consider some common household liquids as alternatives).

Scale

I like to use a portable gram scale that’s accurate to 0.1 gram (0.5 cts) and can weigh up to 100 grams at a time. That’s good enough for most rough and will at least give you an idea of the accuracy of the dealer’s scale. (Believe it or not, you’ll probably come across dealers who don’t even have scales).

Do I Need to Bring a Business License or Business Cards?

This depends on what type of show or venue you plan to attend. Most wholesale shows do require them. Furthermore, the cards may need to be specific to the type of trade that’s the focus of the show — gem and/or jewelry. Some shows, like that of the American Gem Trade Association (AGTA), also require business receipts that total a set minimum amount.

For the particular show that interests you, check its website for any entry requirements before making travel arrangements. Contact the organizers if you have any questions.

Can I Get a Deal on High-Quality Rough at a Gem Show?

At most gem shows, you’ll usually find that as the rough gets into the better-quality commercial grades and colors, the prices become more uniform. You won’t find many real deals for that level of rough, mainly because any quality material remains in high demand. Therefore, dealers can sell it at the going rate.

Of course, you might find a deal on high-quality material. There are a few to be had out there. Usually, however, you’ll have to pay to get the best material. If a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Keep in mind that you’re dealing mostly with people who do this for a living. No one is in business to give you a great deal. If you find material at a price far below the going rate, especially if it’s a commercially viable stone (like tourmaline, sapphire, or tanzanite), there’s almost always a problem with it. Buyer beware.

Can I Get Any Deals at a Gem Show?

Yes, you can. Generally speaking, you’ll find the real deals in lower-profile rough — stuff like feldspar, quartz in unusual colors, stones with less commercial demand — that’s still good cutting material. (This is “lower-profile,” not “lower-quality,” rough). This is why a show like Tucson is so much fun. Don’t be afraid to dig around and look for things. You can find some gem rough at prices you won’t believe.

rubellites and sugilites

Rubellites and gel sugilites, purchased at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. Photo by Jessa and Mark Anderson. Licensed under CC By 2.0.

You can also find deals by learning what gem mines are producing (or not producing). If there’s a glut of a kind of rough (perhaps there’s a new source that’s yielding a lot of material), its price might be depressed, at least temporarily. This situation may not last long. You might get some really nice material at a good price simply because it was available at the time you attended a show.

Watch out for “Gem Show Fever.” Just because something is at the show doesn’t mean it’s a good deal. Before you go, learn the going rates on the rough material you’re looking for.

If I Get Some of my Friends Together and Buy Rough in Large Quantities, Can We Get Better Prices?

Although this sounds good in theory, it tends not to work in practice.

Let’s say you and your friends get together and buy a kilo of rough so you can get a better price for buying in quantity. You’re going to get a mix of pieces in size and quality. Sorting the rough might present a problem (even assuming one of you has the skill and time to do it).

Naturally, everybody wants the best stones, and nobody will get everything they want. What do you do with the material that nobody wants because it’s too small or flawed? How will you handle who pays for it?

For various reasons, people may want different kinds of rough, like pieces with a particular shape or color tone, for example. That sounds like a good thing that will make dividing the rough easier, right? But then, what if your friends’ top choices differ a lot in weight?

How do you make everyone happy?

If you want to buy top-quality rough, or have very specific rough needs, buying in quantity with a group isn’t really the way to go.

On the other hand, buying hand-picked parcels presents a better option. Which brings us to the next question…

Should I Buy Rough in Parcels?

Generally, buying parcels is the right way to buy good rough and get a decent price. However, it still depends on what you’re trying to do.

Notice that I said a “decent price.” I didn’t say cheap. You won’t get good rough cheap. If you buy parcels, the dealer is giving you a break on the price, but you could (and probably will) get into expensive territory fast. Most dealers want to sell a decent quantity in a parcel to make it worth their while. Be prepared to spend a reasonable amount of money on parcels.

Note that a “hand-picked parcel” usually doesn’t mean hand picked by you. That’s two different things (and two different price structures). It depends on the dealer. For example, most of my rough is already hand-picked, which means it’s good rough. I sell it in parcels, but they’re parcels I’ve selected.

If you want to cherry pick from my rough (like choosing all the large rounds), that’s priced differently than a parcel I pick. I think most dealers will price this differently, too. Most dealers consider parcels a group of rough stones of mixed sizes and shapes. You can’t cherry pick from a parcel.

opal parcel

Rough opal parcel, 17.75 ctw. Photo courtesy of liveauctioneers.com and Antique Finder Services.

Is All the Rough at Gem Shows Natural?

Although most lab-created or synthetic material is cut and sold on the finished gem market, synthetic rough is appearing more frequently for sale, especially in parcels.

A lot of synthetic rough is being sold as natural, mined stone. If you’re not careful, you can get burned. Synthetic amethyst, citrine, and ametrine rough are very common. I’ve also noticed that synthetic emerald, ruby, sapphire, and tanzanite rough are starting to appear more frequently.

Experienced gem cutters might be able to spot synthetic rough in a parcel or suspect something is off, but inexperienced cutters and the average consumer may find it impossible to distinguish synthetic from natural rough. Here are some tips for spotting synthetic rough.

If you’re not sure about a parcel or any piece of rough, don’t be afraid to ask. Questions are free. And don’t be afraid to walk away if something just seems off to you. Keep in mind that the dealers might have been caught themselves, buying rough sold as natural that turns out to be synthetic. They may not even know the truth themselves. 

Should I Buy a Native-Cut Stone and Use it as a Preform?

The answer is a cautious maybe.

Remember, lots of cut, lab-created gems are sold as natural, and it’s a lot harder to tell if something is synthetic once it’s cut. Therefore, buying native-cut quartz or sapphire isn’t a good idea. It’s just too easy to get taken. On the other hand, tourmalines and garnets might be possibilities. You’re unlikely to encounter any synthetic tourmalines or garnets. (However, quality garnets can be expensive). 

Unless you’re very good at judging shapes and yields, I would say proceed with caution. If you’re not careful, you’ll have yields quite a bit lower than you might expect, mainly because you’ll have to cut off a lot of the gem material to get the proper pavilion angle on a bellied cut. This can ruin your yield.

Sometimes, you’ll be better off paying more for what you want in a piece of rough instead of using a native-cut preform. The rough may seem more expensive but, when you figure out how to cut it, it’s really not.

Any Tips for Examining Gem Rough?

Before buying any gem rough, look at it under different lighting conditions. Remove it from the showcase lights (where it looks best) and look at it in normal mixed conditions. Also, check it under incandescent and fluorescent lighting, especially sapphires and spinels. Depending on the light, these materials tend to have pretty dramatic color shifts. They often look nice under certain lights but bad in others. In mixed light, the stone should look good to you, color wise. If the color is dark or ugly in mixed light, you probably don’t want the rough.

If the rough looks oiled or treated, walk away. Period. The only real reason for oiling rough is to hide flaws. Be very careful about buying rough that has flaws. Dealers might tell you it’s to help keep the dust down or some other excuse. They’re already lying to you. Do you really want to do business with them?

Look at the faceted stones dealers have in their display cases. The vast majority of dealers, both foreign and American, have cut stones for sale. It’s common practice for them to “cherry pick” their own rough and cut stones from the best material. (They may cut some themselves and send the rest to a “cutting house”). Usually, the rough they have out is what’s left over from this process. Often, a piece of rough that may look pretty good to you has a hidden problem. That’s why it’s still a piece of rough and not a cut gem in a display case, for sale for a lot more money.

You can still find some rough you want to cut. However, the odds of finding high-quality rough aren’t on your side. So, check any rough you want to buy carefully and thoroughly.

What Else Should I Watch for at Gem Shows?

If you’re a gem cutter, take the opportunity to price gems and look for trends at gem shows. Pay attention to the going prices for cut goods. This is a very good way to get a handle on prices for your cut stones. Take notes on the clarity, quality, size, and color of the cut goods at the show. You’ll get a good idea of wholesale and/or retail prices, depending on the type of show.

I do this every year. This really is the best way to find the average per-carat prices of cut gemstones.

A Gem Show Lesson

I have a student, let’s call him Frank, who recently bought some rough at a gem show. He didn’t get the “deal” he thought he was getting. He did learn a lesson, though.

Frank bought some pink tourmaline nodules, about 3 to 4 grams, at $20 per gram. Sounds good? Well, unfortunately, it turned out they all had a fairly thick green rind and some stress cracks that he didn’t realize could cause problems for cutting. By the time he cuts off all the rind, he’ll have considerably more money in the rough, probably around $40 per gram.

There’s also a distinct chance the stress crack on the rind will split the stone in half on the C-axis when he relieves the stain from the rind. If this happens, he’ll lose another half of the rough weight and size.

So, after cutting the rind, this material will actually only have about 1/2 the cutting area he thought. If it splits, he’ll be down to 1/4 of his original purchase. His $20 per gram rough will cost $40 per gram if it hangs together and $80 per gram if it splits.

What’s the lesson here?

Frank has a regular gem dealer with whom he does business. He could have bought a sure thing from him with no risk.

So, when you’re at a gem show, pay attention to what the actual rough you can really cut will cost. If it’s anywhere close to what you would pay regularly from a trusted source, don’t take the chance.