Looking for Robb Report UK? Click here to visit our UK site.

What It’s Like to Shop for Gems at One of the Jewelry World’s Biggest Events

On the scene at the world’s biggest stone and mineral emporium.

What It’s Like to Shop for Gems at the Tuscon Gem Shows Ali Galgano, Andy Lifschutz

Every year, around the end of January and the start of February, the world’s colored stone buyers and sellers converge on Tucson, Ariz., for a confluence of some 40 gem and mineral shows that take over this desert city for the better part of a month.

Attending the gathering, which dates back to the 1950s, when members of a local gem and mineral society began to stage regular meetups, is a time-honored ritual for many leading jewelry designers, but it has taken on new resonance in the age of social media.

“The Tucson gem shows are starting to become known amongst jewelry connoisseurs as the place designers go to get high-end colored stones,” says Ali Galgano, founder of Serpentine Jewels, a custom jeweler based in New York City.

“People have an image of colored stones,” she says, “where you have to go to the country of origin to get the best selection. ‘I want an emerald, I should book a ticket to Colombia.’ Or: ‘I’m going to Thailand, I should buy a gemstone there.’ That’s not really the case.”

In Tucson, “I can see a sapphire dealer I’ve worked with for years who’s based out of Bangkok or a Colombian dealer I wouldn’t even know about without the connection the gem show offers,” she adds. “It’s really cool that everyone there is bonded by their love of jewelry.”

Read on for three takes on this year’s gem extravaganza in the Sonoran Desert.

Ali Galgano, Serpentine Jewels

Ali Galgano on the Tuscon gem shows
Ali Galgano, Serpentine Jewels

For Galgano, coming to Tucson is all about buying and selling.

In addition to scoping out neon-red spinels and kite-shaped stones for custom projects already in the works, the jeweler, who recently opened a glam new townhouse in Greenwich, Conn., has found that posting videos and photos of the gem show experience to her social channels draws loads of clients her way.

“People love seeing things at their genesis,” Galgano tells Robb Report. “This year, I brought my designer along with me — she will sketch things on the spot. We were shopping for a 5- to 6-carat blue sapphire in an oval shape, slightly lighter than a Kashmir sapphire. We found it and Molly sketched up a quick idea of what it would like in a three-stone ring. Ultimately, we were able to sell it, using a sketch, a video and pictures.

“It’s kind of a new world,” she adds. “I find people over the past few years have become so much more comfortable buying things sight unseen because the technology is so much better. Because you can send a really crisp picture and video — there’s not much left to the imagination anymore.”

Galgano is hardly the only jeweler to pre-sell her pieces via Instagram, well before they’re even made, but she is among a new and growing cohort of designers doing so from the rough and tumble tents of the Tucson gem shows.

“I started to go to Tucson in 2020,” says the graduate gemologist. “I had only dealt with vendors from New York. I didn’t know gemstone dealers beyond that. The first Tucson experience I had was so enlightening because I met dealers from all over the world and was able to home in on people who had great selections and who I had the best relationships with.”

During this year’s event, Galgano made it to the biggest and most important shows on the Tucson calendar: the GemFair organized by the American Gem Trade Association (AGTA) at the Tucson Convention Center, the Gem and Jewelry Exchange (GJX) show located in a tent across the street, and the Pueblo Gem and Mineral Show, which sprawls across the nearby Ramada Inn property and surrounding parking lot.

“I had a list of clients I was shopping for,” says Galgano. “I’m really into spinel right now and I have an idea for a spinel ring that requires an electric reddish pink spinel. But it’s very hard to find that exact stone. People who carry that product aren’t plentiful.”

And yet, because this is Tucson, a gem emporium like no other, Galgano says she ultimately found the right stone. “I haven’t bought it yet because it was very expensive,” she says. “But I think I’m going to pull the trigger on it.”

Jade Ruzzo

Jade Ruzzo on the Tuscon gem shows
Jade Ruzzo

A Tucson first-timer, Jade Ruzzo came to the shows prepared. “I was worried it would be extremely overwhelming, but I was pleasantly surprised,” says the designer. “I found it fairly easy to stay focused. I came with a list of the sizes and colors of stones that fit into my new collection, and was also looking to build relationships with vendors of stones that I am drawn to, like moonstone and pearl.”

From her home base in New York’s Hudson Valley, the designer, a former personal stylist who segued over the past couple years into making custom jewelry, is currently at work on a collection inspired by the world of percussion (think: wind chime earrings) in honor of her late father, Vic, a drummer.

“He was an ’80s hair band rock-n-roll guy,” Ruzzo tells Robb Report. “He was an in-studio session drummer. He had a drum shop in our house. Before I was born, he played a lot with Alice Cooper.”

After her dad passed away six years ago, Ruzzo put together “a small smattering of pieces” patterned after a piece of jewelry he’d given her and introduced it last May. “One of his friends had made me a handmade turquoise ring and I used that as a reference,” she says. “That was my foray into jewelry. From there, I learned so much. I’m having fun playing with different stone types and 18 karat gold. I’m really into weighty pieces. I like the heft and feeling of an heirloom piece.”

At first glance, Ruzzo’s style, which leans minimalist, might not seem compatible with heaps of color, but she is learning to work with hues that complement her aesthetic.


“My first mini capsule collection was green-heavy — I love tourmaline,” Ruzzo says. “Since then, I’ve started feeling my way through color that can act as a neutral.

In Tucson, Ruzzo was enamored with colored stones in cabochon cuts. “What I love is something that can be worn during the day casually but can be elevated at night,” she says. “It’s that juicy, candy, gemmy vibe that I’m drawn to.”

She was also captivated by pearls. “I found some incredible dusty lilac mauve-pink pearl strands and walked away with a lot more pearls than I anticipated,” Ruzzo says. “I fell in love.”

Andy Lifschutz, Andy Lif Jewelry

Andy Lifschutz on the Tuscon gem shows
Andy Lifschutz, Andy Lif Jewelry

In the months leading up to Tucson, Andy Lifschutz, the founder of Los Angeles-based Andy Lif Jewelry, starts reaching out to his best clients and planting seeds for Tucson.

“If someone is looking for a gemstone and they desire to create a custom piece and have the most options available for price, size and color, it is such an incredible opportunity to have someone who can go to look at all these different pieces of earth, all these different localities,” Lifschutz tells Robb Report.

“You can compare stones from Brazil, Afghanistan, Maine and they’re all tourmaline and they all have nuance to them,” he says. “In my studio, I can’t offer that selection. But in Tucson, I can offer all these options and there’s a strong likelihood of having that aha moment of finding a stone that connects to you.”

This year, Lifschutz had plenty of those moments for himself. “Across the board, I leaned brighter this year, whether for the line or private clients,” he says. “Bright can be a pastel shade of sapphire as well as a bright pink spinel — both things I bought.

“I did not buy any gray spinels, or darker blues,” he adds. “I’m leaning into the brights. Why? That’s what’s coming out of the ground right now. There’s some really exciting material coming out of East Africa.”

After nearly a week of walking the shows, the designer was also struck by the progress he noted among gem dealers who are committed to acquiring their gems responsibly.

“The traceability and ethical sourcing is really a big takeaway,” Lifschutz says. “More than any year I’ve been to Tucson, it’s a priority and it’s a passion for gem dealers, collectors and the end consumer. Giving back is starting to bear fruit; all the schools that have been built, and wells that have been dug — the circle has been connected.”

For Lifschutz, who’s been attending the gem shows since 2017, the most important aspect of Tucson is how it unites the entire gem and jewelry ecosystem. “The events around the shows are just as essential as the shows themselves,” he says. “All the gemological talks, cutting demonstrations and just talking at events with gemologists, geologists, paleontologists.”

“For those of us who love geeking out on what these minerals are comprised of before they become a jewel, Tucson is like Disneyland,” Lifschutz concludes. “It’s not possible to have a boring conversation here.”

More Jewelry