So You Want to Go to a Gem Show

Insider tips to make the most of your gem show buying experience.
by : 

Candace Apple

January 1, 2016
So You Want to Go to a Gem Show

Does the sparkle of brilliant, clear Arkansas quartz in the sunshine delight you? Are you amazed when the sun hits the dull, dark colors of labradorite, revealing an array of blues, greens, golds, and, sometimes, purple? Do you love blazing heat, blinding dust, torrential downpours, sloshing mud, sunburn, and a sore back? Then it is time to get down and dirty and go to a gem and mineral show!

Now, before you run to your office, turn up the air conditioner, and look online for wholesale minerals, not all gem shows are out in the elements … but some of the best ones are.

To make the decision to attend a gem show, you have several questions to answer:

  • What are your current monthly sales of crystals?
  • Do you have a current method of buying crystals that serves your needs?
  • Is there a strong customer interest in crystals that leads you to believe a fresh infusion of new product would increase your sales?
  • What is your available cash (or room on the credit card) to spend at the show?
  • What additional expenses will be incurred attending the show?
  • Are you up for an adventure?

Realistically, if you do not have enough cash to invest in a large number of crystals all at one time, it sometimes makes more sense to locate traveling wholesale vendors that go to the shows, buy in volume, add on a percentage for their trouble, and bring the show to you. Despite the higher cost of buying from a traveling wholesale vendor, when you add transportation, lodging, and time away from the store, you may find it’s worthwhile to order in smaller batches from traveling vendors that come to you.

Checking out the retail gem shows that come to your area is another option. Some feature vendors that sell retail only, however, it is possible to make connections with wholesale vendors at retail shows.
Once you decide you just can’t resist the adventure of going to a gem show, your next question will be, “Which one?”

Gemshows galore

The most renowned gem show is in Tucson, Ariz., between January 30 and February 14. In fact, it’s not one show—it’s a collection of approximately 40 different shows. There are large shows in huge tent showrooms, hotel ballrooms, individual rooms and suites, vendor warehouses, and even corner gas stations! Some shows, known as “Jump Start Shows,” may start a few days earlier. In short, the town of Tucson becomes one big gem show in February.

The focus of each of the Tucson shows varies. Some may feature museum-quality mineral specimens, jewelry, beads, fossils, metaphysical favorites, or a variety of all the above. It can be a bit overwhelming to say the least. The most I have been able to cover within my available time and budget was 13 different shows, not counting gas-station stands.

On my first trip to Tucson, I went to the September Tucson show, a smaller, more manageable show—an approach similar to using training wheels when learning to ride a bicycle. I found it a good way to go for my initial venture to Tucson. I have heard other retailers say they plan to go to the February Tucson show just to look and get familiar with the lay of the land, although I can’t imagine following that plan. With all those spectacular crystals available, I don’t think I could restrain myself!

If you are ready to dive into the most “Wild West” of the shows, you might want to check out Quartzite, Ariz. During the first half of January before the Tucson Gem Show, many of the miners and dealers meet in one of the biggest rock-hound swap meets of the year. A miner from Brazil might trade some of his material with a miner from Madagascar to expand both their offerings for Tucson.

The Quartzite show tops the chart of hot, dusty shows. Although I have heard much discussion of the great deals you can find there, it also attracts droves of retired “snowbirds” in their RVs and is an event somewhere between a flea market and a gem show. More than once as I was waiting for checkout, holding my chosen collection of crystals valued at hundreds of dollars, a “tourist” would approach expecting grocery store etiquette. He or she would ask, “Since I only have one $12 item, may I cut in line?” Tourists don’t realize you’re there on business, not for amusement, and that the armful of rocks you’re holding is getting mighty heavy.

Because of the heavy tourist presence, don’t presume the marked prices are wholesale. Of all the shows, it behooves you most to know ahead of time the wholesale price you should expect to pay for various crystals. Quartzite is the place to go if you are looking for 200 pounds of rough rose quartz from Madagascar. However, if you’re looking for a little bit of this and a little bit of that, vendors may consider you to be in the tourist genre, and deserving of tourist pricing.

Another suggestion for easing in is to go to one of the regional shows sponsored by Gem & Lapidary Wholesalers, (G&LW). Their schedule can be found at www.glwshows.com. Throughout the year, G&LW sponsors a total of 18 shows from Minneapolis, Minn., to Orlando, Fla. Some of their shows are quite large, including outdoor tented areas and a large, indoor, air-conditioned tent. The jewelry and beads tend to be in the indoor portion and the larger mineral displays outside in tents. Franklin, N.C., is my major show to attend in both May and July (not the ideal pairing of shows in the same location). The Asheville show in October and January is much smaller, focused mainly on beads and jewelry, but it is handy for restocking tumbled stones and the basics from Howard Schlansker from Massachusetts. His quality, reasonably priced crystals are the bread and butter of my purchases. Enter the Earth from Asheville, N.C., features crystals from Madagascar and is another vendor worth the drive to Asheville.

Even though these are called gem shows, you might be surprised at what other gift vendors you will discover. Over the years, beads have become more and more popular at the shows. You also might find Tibetan jewelry, talismans, and statues. Numerous booths have imported clothes from India, velvet pouches, wooden boxes, butterflies, and a wide variety of gemstone jewelry.

GL&W has a new preregistration procedure I would highly recommend. One of the benefits of going to shows committed to verifying store credentials, like GL&W, is you will not run into all your customers at the show. Also, if you request the show guides ahead of time, you can become familiar with the different type of vendors at various shows.

Check the prices

Because sometimes it’s hard to distinguish if a dealer is marking their products at retail or wholesale price, I make it a habit to ask. Otherwise, it’s possible to pass up some really good deals by assuming you are looking at a wholesale price when actually it’s their suggested retail price and your cost is 50 percent off.

The most professional way to inquire is to ask if the prices are “keystone” or “net.” “Keystone” means the products are marked retail and your cost would be at 50-percent discount. “Net” means “priced as marked.” That does not mean you must set your price at double—many stores do a 2.5-3x mark up for crystals, especially if they are hand-picked, one-of-a-kind specimens.

There are several reasons to use these terms in your inquiry. For one, if you are standing next to a retail customer, it is a more discreet way to make your inquiry. Also, by using the terms of the trade, you demonstrate that you are a professional buyer.

Sadly, many retail shows feature wholesale pricing to the public. I would recommend steering clear of shows advertising, “Open to the Public. Wholesale Prices!” These are not vendors that respect their relationships with retail stores. If your customers can drive a few miles to find large amethyst cathedral geodes at wholesale prices, many will.

Travel logistics

Once you pick the show you want to attend, you need to make travel and lodging plans. In small towns featuring gem shows, such as Franklin and Tucson, hotel pricing is inflated during gem week and reservations fill early. Often, vendors make their reservations the previous year. We have discovered that if you are taking a group of buyers from your store (strong arms in abundance are helpful!), it can be more economical and comfortable to rent a cabin in the area. We have found Vacation Rental by Owner (www.vrbo.com) a helpful site for cabin rentals.

If you plan to drive, be sure to check your freight area versus the weight limit of the vehicle. Rocks are heavy—don’t load all the weight in the back. Many gem shows are in mountain areas. An overloaded vehicle on winding mountain roads is not safe. Be sure to check your tires and general car fluids before you leave. You do not want to break down with a vehicle full of rocks. Been there, done that. No fun. You might want to consider renting a cargo van for the trip, depending on the volume of rocks you plan to purchase.

For some shows, such as Tucson, you might find it more practical to fly rather than add the extra days of travel and wear and tear on your car. There are services that ship product back for you. Generally you will want to have your purchases consolidated and shipped on a pallet. UPS can be helpful with the information you need to prepare for shipment.

Buying strategy

You’ve picked your show, made lodging and transportation plans, and obtained show guides to preview. Now it’s time to plan your budget and buying strategy. I divide my budget into three categories: tumbled stones, bread-and-butter crystals, and one-of-a-kind crystal specimens. You may want to plan a crystal sale before you go to move old product and create cash for the show. Also, it’s good to alert customers to your upcoming buying trip in case they want to place special orders for crystals they would like you to find. Be sure to get the size and price range they are interested in. It’s no fun to return with a beautiful $200 aquamarine specimen and discover your customer was looking for a small $20 piece to wrap for jewelry.

Next comes the Merchandise Analysis report. Make a schedule for gem shows you plan to attend throughout the year and note how many months are between each show. Let’s say you plan to go to a January show and a July show. Make a detailed report of your last six months of crystal sales, including number sold, number on hand, price last received, and last sold. Your goal is to see which type of crystals sold through quickly. Those are your “bread and butter.” Based on your last six months’ sales, calculate your projections for the next six months before the next show. This gives you a buying focus and the necessary budget. Also, good, old-fashioned looking at your shelves and making a list of where you find the empty spots doesn’t hurt either, if that’s your style. However, sometimes you will be surprised by the information you discover from your reports. Some products sell so quickly you may have forgotten you had it! Some of your favorite crystals may not have sold through as well as you predicted.

Review your crystal inventory and show guides and then make a plan. Buyers have different philosophies about choosing the show days to attend. If you wish to have the best pick of the litter, plan for the beginning of the show. If you’re looking for bargains, you may want to be present for the end of the show. Just remember, many of these vendors just pack up and go to the next show, so they may not be inspired to reduce prices near the end. Then again, if there was bad weather and low sales, they may be needing gas money, in which case there will be deals to be made.

Some dealers, especially in outside, tented areas, allow purchases the day before the official opening of the show. My basic plan is to start with my largest vendor and get that buy completed the day before show opens. In Franklin, there are now three shows in the general area. The smaller shows generally start opening several days before the main G&LW show. Some vendors have a discreetly announced grand opening. At one vendor’s tent in Franklin, buyers will start lining up 30 minutes before the tent opens. At the ring of the bell, everyone rushes forward in a feeding frenzy. Remember, the vendor has designed this to emphasize the feeding-frenzy atmosphere. Don’t let yourself get caught up in it—it’s easy to over-purchase when you’re elbow to elbow with buyers who are frantically grabbing anything they can get their hands on.

The biggest difference between a gem show and a typical gift mart is that it is all cash and carry, and some vendors accept only cash. You’ll want to decide how much cash you wish to bring for that possibility. Some buyers use the cash-only strategy as a bargaining tool, but it’s also a way to make sure you don’t go over budget. Because I want to have records of my purchases, I usually use checks or credit cards. Some of the more remote gem show venues have terrible phone reception, though, which can make paying with a credit card a challenge. As I have gotten to know vendors over the years, some will agree to terms with postdated checks, but many vendors are travelling to shows throughout the year, so giving terms isn’t always a typical practice. Some of my bigger vendors will agree to spread the checks out over several months. Those are the vendors I want to see first and spend the majority of my bread-and-butter budget with. I always confirm the terms before I start choosing products, as vendors’ situations can change from show to show. I try also to be careful to confirm in private with the vendor if they are willing space out my checks.

Gearing up

For wholesale shows, be sure to have copies of your sales-tax license. It is required for show registration and also by many vendors individually. Plan to bring business cards, and I highly recommended bringing a sheet of address labels with your store information on them for labeling your pick bins so they are not mistaken for available crystals to buy. They also are handy to give to vendors so they have your information for invoices. Special specimens have been known to disappear out of bins, so you may even consider bringing some 8.5-by-11-inch sheets of paper printed with your store information to cover your bins. A Sharpie can be ever so useful, too. Many vendors use similar mineral flats for packing; writing the name of the vendor on each box or bag can avoid headaches when unpacking.

There is always a trade off between extra weight versus convenience. I sometimes bring extra cardboard boxes and newspaper, as not all vendors have adequate packing materials for your purchases. Mineral specimens or polished points can easily get broken if not well packed. A few boxes without sturdy tops can make efficient and safe packing of your vehicle quite difficult. A small stapler can be handy for organizing invoices. Vendors usually offer to put your invoice in your bag or box, but I find it more efficient to have all my invoices in a file, especially if I wish to reference them during the show. Don’t be surprised if you receive invoices written on paper bags, backs of business cards, or even cardboard boxes!

Other supplies I also recommend are rain gear, extra pairs of comfortable, thick-soled shoes (dainty shoes are not recommended for gravel pathways) and extra clothing. Storms are to be expected at the Franklin shows, and I have found layering to be very important in Tucson—one day may be hot and the next day cold. Also, be prepared for cooler night weather in both desert and mountain venues. Sun protection is a must. Very often, the shows are set in large fields with no shade. Bug repellent can be a useful addition. A small pocket edition of the metaphysical meanings of crystals helps if you find an unfamiliar gemstone. Most important is to carry water to stay hydrated. Some venues will have snack bars, but bring some snacks in case food is less available than you might expect. My best food find in Quartzite was a food vendor grilling Alaskan salmon, and if you go to Franklin, be sure to check out the fresh lemonade!

Buyer beware

My gem-show recommendations wouldn’t be complete without warning you of a few pitfalls. Avoid dealers offering to ply you with tequila. It can make all crystals sparkle even brighter but can wreak havoc on your budget! When asking the identity of an unfamiliar crystal, beware of the phrase, “We call it ____.” Just because they call a stone “sugilite,” does not mean it is. Unpolished slabs of many minerals will appear brighter when displayed in a tub of water. It gives you an impression of what it would look like polished, but it will not look like that dry. The same is true of stones that have been rubbed with mineral oil—the color will fade as it dries out.

Pay attention to the prices marked on crystals—you may find a collection with a $20 specimen sitting right next to a $200 piece, and the two may not look that much different. Subtle differences in crystal formations may result in greatly disparate prices for similarly sized specimens. Be sure to confirm if a dealer is pricing keystone or net. Some may utilize both methods, such as “Specimens with stickers are keystone, but if they are bagged with a price on the bag, the price is net.” Some flats of specimens are marked with the price of the flat on the side of the box. Usually that means it is sold by the flat only. Be sure to check with the dealer if you’re not sure if picking specimens out of a box is allowed.

Confirm whether the vendor is using pounds or kilograms in their pricing. $20 per pound is quite different than $20 per kilo. Be wary of dealers who do not have price labels for any of their product. If they quote you a price, write it down or be sure to see them write it on your invoice. The price can magically change from one moment to the next or from customer to customer. That is one reason I do not “dress up” for a gem show with my fancy crystal jewelry—it just encourages a dealer to quote you a higher price.

Know the price per pound you usually pay for the crystals you carry. At gem shows, dealers buy from other dealers. If one person is a miner, other general wholesalers may buy a boxed per pound collection of a mineral then sort it and reprice it per piece, taking into account the appeal of each piece rather than its per-pound cost. Always try to find the original source as well as the origin of minerals—Moroccan dealers are prone to have better prices on Moroccan fossils, and Brazilian miners better prices on Brazilian amethyst geodes.

Some buyers like to do a walk-through of a show before making purchases, which is one method to try if you have time. Remember, however, that special, one-of-a-kind specimen may be gone when you return. Most dealers will allow you to choose your pieces, leave your business card, and move on to other tents or tables while they total and pack your purchase. They also usually will agree to keep your purchase in their booth until you are ready to load up your vehicle for the day. Sometimes they will even assist in carrying your purchase to your vehicle. Be sure to leave enough time at the end of your day for pick up. Also, I highly recommend collecting business cards as you make your purchases, thus ensuring you won’t forget a vendor and leave your purchase behind.

Get thee to a gem show!

Have fun! Make good investments! Allow yourself one irrational purchase just because it is wonderful—you may be surprised how fast it sells. Oh, and be sure to have a massage appointment booked for when you return home—or maybe book a whole spa day!


Candace Apple owns Phoenix and Dragon Bookstore in Atlanta, Ga., offering books and gifts that celebrate the human spirit since 1987.