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What I Learned at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show - the Ethical Edition

Sharon Zimmerman

When I made the decision 6 years ago to expand my designs to include precious gemstones and diamonds, I wanted to make a conscientious choice about my suppliers. And hoo-boy! It was a bleak landscape for those of us seeking ethically-mined and sourced gemstones. It has long been my opinion (and the opinion of others, tbh), that “conflict-free” stones come with some dubious claims. Choosing gems that meet certain criteria means that I ask some variation on the following questions when looking for stones:

  • Know where they come from - are they natural? If so, what country are they from, where they were mined or how they were gathered.

  • If lab-grown, what country grew and cut them?

  • Did the people who mined them get paid a fair price?

  • How much do you know about where they were cut?

Mine-to-Market Stones: all the cool kids are doing it!

With all of these questions in mind, for the first time ever I entered Tucson - The Granddaddy of Gem and Mineral Shows. Nothing prepares you for how massive it is. The whole city turns itself into one big emporium for gemstones, rocks, and minerals. There are the official shows, with all of the official and certified dealers coming from the US, Mexico, Brazil, India, Hong Kong, Kenya and so many others (So. Many.) Then there are all of the sideshows: hotels clear out their rooms to host crystal and geode vendors; there are shows in tents, parking lots, muddy fields, even at gas stations. There are gemstone dealers who aren’t at the shows and you have to make private appointments to see what they have. Decision fatigue is real, and you regret 100% of the gems you don’t buy. Alas, your suitcase is only so big and your budget too.

Ant-hill garnets - these were some of my favorite finds in Tucson

Ant-hill garnets - these were some of my favorite finds in Tucson

Finding the right people, those gemstone dealers who will welcome your questions is a relief. The newest term to hit the industry is mine-to-market. Think of it as farm-to-table, but for gemstones. When you’re in an industry that would love to never talk about the worst parts of your industry, it can be difficult to find the ones who will help to shed light on these dark places. Making jewelry is a joyful act, and I want the materials I work with to be joyful too. It’s the primary reason why I source stones with such strict rules in mind.

The good news is that I found gems! I know how worried you were. My favorite discoveries at this show were the Australian sapphires. They knocked me out. The colors, the sheen, the depth. Oh, and the guy I bought them from lives within 50 miles of mines that he works with. This isn’t abstract for him, he lives within this world, oversees the cutting, controls the amount of waste, and also sells them. He knows where they came from, who cut them, and how much the people mining and cutting get paid.

Australian bi-color sapphires. The colors were un-freakin-real.

Australian bi-color sapphires. The colors were un-freakin-real.

But my favorite find at this show were the Ant-Hill Garnets *record scratch*. Wait, what? Oh yeah. Garnets. Mined by ants. Yes, really. Ants dig underground to build their hills, the garnets are in their way, so they push them up to the surface, the garnets roll down the ant hills and Voila! Garnets that are eco and human friendly and such incredible colors. These in particular were found in Arizona. Designing around these is going to be delightful.

Ant-hill garnets are my new favorite gemstone.

Ant-hill garnets are my new favorite gemstone.

Going to this show gave me a lot of hope for the future of jewelry. So many more designers, producers, gemstone dealers than ever are passionate about getting behind ethical gemstones.

Have a question about ethical gems? Ask in the comments below!