Tips for Tucson

One of my students is headed to Tucson for the first time this winter, so she asked me for some advice. What a loaded question. Tucson (otherwise known as the annual Tucson Gem, Mineral, Bead, Jewelry, etc. Shows) is such a vast topic, it’s really hard to explain the concept to the uninitiated. Here is a feeble start if you don’t know about it at all:

Every year, beginning around the last week of January, the city of Tucson in Arizona becomes the epicenter for anything and everything that is directly or even remotely connected in some way to minerals, gemstones, jewelry, jewelry making, embellished or decorated apparel, and accessories. For about three and a half weeks, you’ll find retail and wholesale beads, cut stones, tools, supplies, materials, stone, objects, finished goods, findings, display, ephemera, vintage stock, precious and non-precious material and new, unusual, and unexpected objects of delight in the hotels, public spaces, convention center, and seemingly every vacant lot capable of hosting one of those big, white epic tents they put up for events. In short, Tucson is heaven on earth for the jewelry minded. On the downside, it can also be exhausting, expensive and confusing if you haven’t got a plan. I’ve been there for 7 years running, and consider myself pretty efficient on navigation concerning Tucson, so here are my top ten tips for going:

Need a bracelet? There are thousands of tables just like this all over the city

Need a bracelet? There are thousands of tables just like this all over the city

1. Set a strict daily budget and adhere to it. It’s easy to blow the bankroll there, because there is so much good stuff. Self control is critical — unless of course, you are on an unlimited budget, in which case, call me and I will be willing to be your companion personal shopper for a mere 2% commission. All kidding aside, I discipline myself with a cash economy when I am there. Each day, I make an ATM withdraw of my daily budget and tuck the cash in the wallet. The plastic remains in the hotel safe to avoid temptation. When the cash is gone, I am done for the day.

2. Determine need vs. want — before you leave home. Make sure you get what you need first, then spend the rest of your cash on what you want. It’s easy to get swept away by the great deals and seduction of cool stuff, however if you miss getting what you went for, you’ll hate yourself when you get home.

African Masks

I always visit the African Art Village. It’s a photographer’s dream.

3. Travel light. You will need room in your suitcase. I choose a color scheme and bring clothes I can layer, mix, and match. The temperature can fluctuate 30 degrees from morning to night, and the city is ringed with mountains — you never know what the desert will do. Comfy shoes are a must. There are stores in Tucson if you forget something.

4. Don’t forget to drink water and eat regular meals. Ditto on the desert here. Dehydration can really ruin your day. And lack of food will give you stupid-head and make you susceptible to overspending. Been there, done that.

5. Flat Rate Priority Mail. I bring one medium box for each day of my trip and two rolls of reinforced packing tape, some bubble wrap and a thick black sharpie. Don’t rely on the post office to have these things, bring them to be sure. Each evening, I put all the catalogs, cards, notes and purchases into the boxes, pad it with dirty socks in plastic bags, and take it to the all-night self-service post office. Insure it, track it, stick on the label and drop it in the bin. You sure don’t want the weight in your suitcase going home.

Ocean Jasper

I adore the mustard yellow Ocean Jasper. If you know color, you’ll realize how useful this hue is…

6. Register in advance for credentialed shows. Visit the Tucson Show Guide website to figure out what you’ll see when. If a show is Wholesale only, see if you can fill out the Buyer’s Badge credential form online.
Then you can usually jump the line at the show and hit “Will Call” to pick up your badge, saving 20-40 minutes of line waiting. But bring your wholesale credentials (and several photocopies) with you, because you’ll need them constantly in the wholesale shows as you purchase.

7. Plan your attack before you leave home. I look at the date range for my selected shows, and try to visit them in logical order. I do the most critical things first, while I am sharp, awake, and still have money. The first thing I always conquer is my student kit needs for the coming teaching season. Then, I conquer replenishing my personal stash. After that, I am open to seduction. I always carry my credentials, business cards, shopping list, notebook and pen and camera to take notes. If you have time, scout first, make notes, then go back to buy after you’ve comparison-shopped.

Bucketloads of turquoise rough from every locality. Yum.

Bucket loads of turquoise rough from every locality. Yum.

8. Try one show per promoter to get a feel for what you like. There are several promoters with several locations each. Many of the vendors set up tables in each location a promoter has, so you’ll find the same stuff at different places. That’s a time-waster if you don’t have much time to spare, so pick one location per promoter and commit. You’ll never see everything anyway, so accept it and move along.

9. Collect business cards and booth numbers if you plan on continuing to do business with a particular vendor. I usually use my cell phone camera to record info I want to get back to — I will shoot the show banner at the start of the day, then as I find stuff I am intrigued by, I shoot booth numbers/names and then the actual stuff I am interested in. That evening, while it’s fresh in my head, I look at the photos, write out some notes in the notebook and tape the business card next to the notes to refresh the old gray matter when I get home.

Aquamarine

Yes, that’s a $45K aquamarine specimen. Uncut. Just the way nature intended.

10. Have some fun. It’s so easy to get sucked into the exhausting feeding frenzy of consumption when you get to Tucson, but remember to look up and out once in a while. The city is beautiful, and if like me, you are coming from somewhere cold, gray, and dreary, it will be a delight to stand in the golden sunshine and look at the rosy sunset every evening. Especially if you are holding a cold Margarita and eating al fresca at the same time.

So, that’s it. In case you are interested, my must-hit shows are Tucson Electric Park (Kino Sports complex), The Pueblo Show, The African Art Village, The 22nd Street Show, Gem Mall, and the “Strip” along I-10. Every year, I try to add a “Wildcard” and see something I have never been to. I typically buy cutting rough, tools, things for my students, some finished goods and vintage components, particularly the old, dusty or unusual.

As for other human needs, I always try to eat at the Tucson Tamale Company, The Old Pueblo Grille and Sushi Cho. Lunch is typically a grab and go affair, so I make it a point to sit down for a meal and unwind at the end of the day with friends. Margaritas are, of course, a given.

Pssst: To those intrepid souls who really looked and are following me on Instagram, thanks! It’s super-fun playing with you.
Here is the weekly recap: Welcome. To. My. Studio. Are. You. Ready. To See. What.

PS: If this is a mystery to you, click on the photo under the photo of my book at upper right of this blog. It will get you there, lol.

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About Helen Driggs

Metalsmith, Artist, Writer, Maker of things. Former Senior Editor of Lapidary Jewelry Artist Magazine View all posts by Helen Driggs

3 responses to “Tips for Tucson

  • Mary Alexander

    Helen,
    love your videos, your books, your blog.
    I cannot figure out how to find the “secret” that you are slowly revealing. when I click on the photo at the top right of the page, I see the photo on a black background. nothing else.
    I’ve tried my usual browser, Firefox. Also IE. same results – nada.
    Can you give me a little more info on how to find your secret guidance? Thanks, Mary Alexander

    • Helen Driggs

      if you click the photo (currently an eye) it should take you to Instagram. My instagram user name is HDriggs_fabricationista in case you want to visit directly.
      Once you are there, you will be able to see my entire gallery of photos. If you “read” them from the beginning (bottom to top)you will understand the ongoing “secret” message. I plan to add to it every day…

  • tamraskriedeman

    Thanks for all the info Helen! I’m headed to Tucson for the first time year! You mention the Show website…can you reference the official Gem Show Website….when I google it…I get many! Thanks in advance!

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