The Tucson Gem, Mineral & Fossil Showcase is one of the largest shows of its type in the world, and easily the largest in the US. If you want rare gemstones, a person-size hunk of quartz or a bucket of loose amethyst, look no further.
The showcase is notable for its length (it stretches across more than two weeks in February) and its wide footprint, spread throughout more than 40 separate shows that take place across multiple venues such as giant conventional halls and outdoor tents, not to mention the countless makeshift showrooms set up in private hotel rooms.
Its scale was one of the reasons photographer Daniel Tepper was drawn to the massive trade show as a documentary subject. As he described it, “If it can be dug out of the ground, it’s probably for sale at the Gem Show.”
Tepper’s work has led him across the world as he’s documented subjects ranging from drone warfare in the Middle East to, most recently, vigilante groups along the US-Mexico border. What was it about a convention hall filled with stones that attracted him to the story? In a sense, it’s a highly concentrated look at the world through one of humanity’s oldest obsessions.
The 55,000 people who come to the show aren’t just any collection of people who want to gawk at precious stones. They are mine owners, savvy dealers, collectors, and even new age healers. Tepper recounted a conversation he had with an attendee who said he often traveled internationally with a small bag of diamonds. In small numbers, diamonds are virtually undetectable.
The photos from his weeks spent at the show depict a captivating nexus of art and commerce, where geology nerds and luxury shoppers mingle. The “sheer amount of money,” as Tepper describes it, and the quiet way it’s traded behind closed doors, is hard to capture. Local business groups and research firms place the amount of money spent at past years’ shows at more than $100 million.
But much of that is away from the convention floor, often being done in private shows and hotel rooms. “With a handshake deal,” Tepper says, “a $10,000 deal has just taken place.”
Take a look below for more scenes from the show and why people are enraptured by stones, in the attendees’ own words.
“I’ve dug gold for 26 years of my life. I’ve always been fascinated with a lot of different rocks and minerals, and I’ve always liked to play in the dirt.”
I originally got involved in this from my grandparents, who were artists. When I was 13 they introduced me to a woman who made jewelry, and then I knew I wanted to be a jewelry designer, so this is a way for me to get a feel for who is selling the gems. I want to know as much about the stones as possible. This is my second year [at the show]; last year I just came and browsed. This show is really exclusive. You meet really wonderful people and everybody is very friendly.
“If you look at the history of our industry, gemstones have been traded for centuries, and they are also a means of portable wealth. If you buy a Picasso for millions of dollars it’s not so easy to transport; if you buy a stock or bond, that’s not something that’s tangible. But you can easily come to this show and spend 10 million dollars and put it in your pocket and go anywhere in the world with it. And it will always hold its value.”
“I’ll take people mining up in the mountains and we like to micro-dose and weasel around and we can feel and hear the frequencies of the crystals in the earth.”