How We Shop in Tucson on a Budget

How We Shop in Tucson on a Budget

2024 marks my 9th annual trip to Tucson, and there have been a lot of changes since I first started. Inventory is down, prices are up. When international sellers could no longer travel during covid, demand for rare gems changed drastically, making once easily accessible gems like indicolite tourmaline and pink spinel rare and pricey. Even grey spinel, once cheap and abundant because it was just used as practice pieces for cutters in Sri Lanka, are now sold at high prices. Unheated ruby, royal blue and neon pink sapphires are more highly prized in the engagement ring market than ever before.

Gray spinel gemstones

This, of course, begs the question of how one is to navigate this market on a small budget.

It might surprise you to know that CRD has never gone to Tucson with big money. Our monthly operating budget is fairly small and sometimes further tied down by long client payment plans that lower what we have in the kitty and simultaneously require that we have the cash for a possible refund on hand (should a client be paying off an expensive gem they have not yet inspected, for instance).

Clients generally expect to have a return period as well, which puts a Tucson buyer in a predicament. Most shows force wholesale vendors to accept returns during the show, but not after. So if we ship after the show has ended and receive a return, we need to have the refund money available, which means we cannot spend that income during the show. In the past, we had sufficient sales volume during Tucson to not worry about returns as our return rate is only about 5%. That is far below average. Still, we can end up caught in the middle when we allow returns for Tucson buys that we cannot return ourselves.

This gap between supply and demand, as well as strong online competition especially during the show dates have had the consequence that Tucson buyers increasingly rely on ‘flipping’ gems at a low markup without return, or shifting to a memo structure for larger buys where gems are borrowed first and shipped to the client for inspection. The former has the increased risk of customer dissatisfaction, the latter however depends on a very good relationship between vendor and borrower which is hard to maintain with international shipping/insurance and currency conversion risks.

Greenland rubies of different shapes
At CRD, we have avoided both flipping gems and taking out international memos by sticking to the US market for the latter and working with the vendors we have local relationships with, as well as having a regular markup with returns. As we are planning this year’s shopping season, we’d like to make some changes to our buying patterns, and for this we need your help.

1. We will focus more on targeted buying. For this we’d like to know from you what you think is missing in our shop. For example, we rarely buy alexandrite melees because good melees would be over 1K/ct and we are not sure how well received alexandrite melees is because it is hard to get a good color change in that size. We don’t buy much rhodochrosite because it has a high risk of breakage and we don’t want clients to be upset if their setter breaks a loose gem they got from us. But if clients want those options, we can carry small amounts of both and see if they sell.

2. We will focus more on buying smaller gems. For this we would like information from you regarding which gem shapes or sizes are needed. For example we can buy Russian demantoid in Tucson only. The supplier carries only rounds but in 3 colors: lighter olive, medium apple and deep emerald green. Sizes range from 1mm-2.5mm but a box of 2.5mm deep emerald green is very pricey so if someone wants to place an order for those we would need funds. But if you think that instead of carrying 1.3mm apple green I should have 1.6mm apple green I can probably do that. At the end of this blog you will find a list of what we mostly get in Tucson so you have a reference point.

Russian demantoids of different shapes and shades
3. Larger purchases (starting at $300). For requests $300 and up, we will need a fairly firm request from you with as many specifics as possible. We will also need a down payment. There are many shows in Tucson and all are large so it’s not possible for us to run around everywhere. Plus if we are dealing with a new vendor we may need to make an outright purchase that we cannot return. What we thought we would do here is instead of accepting returns from you we will accept an exchange or store credit with us. To plan for this event, you may want to make sure that you are comfortable with the expenditure you will make and not buy everything you want at once so you can exchange if needed for something else you’d also like to have.

4. Quick buys: if you are fairly sure you want us to buy something for you (i.e. a pair of 3mm round Hauyne, should those be available – these as you know are like eggs, they all look the same), then we can work an outright buy for you via text or Whatsapp with Zelle, Venmo or PayPal. We will set the gem aside with the vendor, collect payment for a lower markup and then pick up the gem once you have completed payment. For cases like these you will not have a return option unless the gem is damaged because yours truly didn’t look properly when purchasing. It’s rare but it happens and I want to make it clear that those mistakes are on me, not you. What we want to avoid is buyers' regret and getting caught in  the middle.

5. Note that payment plans will not be an option for any Tucson purchase for the abovementioned reasons. How we will work a purchase from you depends of course on what kind of expense it is, how easy it is to buy or exchange etc. With regard to ‘maybes’ – i.e. gems you are interested in but not sure about – well, we will just do our best. Small purchases we can accommodate but larger ones we cannot field in that case. Most Tucson buyers cannot do that, only large and well established businesses and they often do not make Tucson inventory available until after they return. Larger companies also never sell at a low markup. They usually have the funds to hang on to a gem and consider it an investment.

Now, here’s a list of gems I source exclusively in Tucson and/or Tucson and Vegas (1st weekend in June). A few of these are available outside of Tucson, as they can be shipped or are available in NY at higher prices, but the best choices and prices will be in Tucson:
Greenland Ruby
Russian Demantoid (mostly comes in rounds)
Sapphire Melee (any color or size under 2mm, 4x3 and 3x2mm)
Sapphire Kites, Hexagons
Smaller ruby melee (2.5mm and under)
Cobalt Spinel
A wider selection of Paraiba tourmaline, calibrated Paraiba tourmaline melees
Benitoite (Tucson, Vegas, Denver in September)
Zambian emerald melees
Vietnamese spinel