Gem and mineral show brings international community to southern Arizona

Fabiano Vasconcelos came to Tucson from Brazil with a $35,000 emerald cluster and thousands of other pieces, including quartz and crystals.

Vasconcelos is taking part in a gem and mineral show that draws people from around the world and transforms Tucson for three weeks.

Vendors, importers and collectors set up shop in hotel rooms and parking lots across the city. They convert their hotel beds into displays of rare geological finds as shoppers and visitors weave in and out of rooms and walk past of rows of products that line hallways.

Larger vendors set up white tents in parking lots with countless tables displaying everything from fossils worth thousands to small rocks that cost $20. More than 40 shows comprise the event that is anchored by one main gathering that takes place this weekend.

"It's the biggest, and I think the most popular, show for minerals and fossils," said Vasconcelos, who travels to similar shows across the globe but favors the Tucson event.

Deidra Wilson, a sales woman for New Era Gems, from Grass Valley, California, said the company has been selling at the show for nearly four decades.

New Era Gems specializes in tanzanite, a blue and violet gem that is extremely rare and only is found in one mine in the world, in Tanzania. Ranging in sizes and color, the tanzanite pieces were under a glass display at the store's hotel room, surrounded by mineral specimens, crystals, carvings and precious and semi-precious stones.

"People come from all over the world to have access to beautiful rocks," Wilson said.

The event started in a garage 61 years ago as an event for local mineral, gem and fossil enthusiasts and has since grown into the world's largest show. The event at the Tucson Convention Center each February usually has one lavish and alluring attraction.

One year, it was a large, multi-million-dollar, uncut diamond that drew spectators and security galore. Other events featured the Hope Diamond and rocks collected from the surface of the moon. Last year, the Post Diamond Tiara, made of more than 1,000 diamonds in the 19th century, was on display.

This year, the mainstay will be an art deco bracelet on loan from the Smithsonian Institute. The bracelet has 626 diamonds, 73 emeralds, 48 sapphires, 20 rubies and four citrines and is embellished with figures of a hunter on horseback and another hunting a lion.

"Anyone that's interested in Earth and the evolution of man, and of Earth, itself, would just be amazed at what comes out of there," said Diane Braswell, president of the Tucson Gem and Mineral Society, which founded and organizes the event. "You don't have to be a major in geology or even Earth sciences to just love beauty."

Sandy Journey Ziemer was watching in amusement as two friends played with a handmade frame that makes special shapes out of sand. She said she regularly makes the pilgrimage from the Seattle area to Tucson to visit family and the show.

"It's just an unending variety of vendors from all over the world," she said. "It's a truly international event."