By Lesley Aine McKeown
Who hasn’t walked a beach and come back with a pocket full of shells, or schlepped a five-pound rock back from a hike just because it was cool? We’re drawn to pretty things, unusual things, things with a story. To understand the natural world and possess a piece of it is what motivates us to collect rocks, gemstones and ultimately the jewelry made with these things.
When Elizabeth I sanctioned privateers to loot Spanish ships off the English coast, it wasn’t to simply to gather loot, rather to find a single pearl called La Pelegrina, a betrothal gift to her sister Mary from Prince Phillip of Spain. On Mary’s death the pearl was returned to Spain, but Elizabeth had to have it, even at the risk of war. This desire to possess something unique, to the point of obsession, can drive any of us. It’s important to our nature, even instinctive.
As a child, I’d often go with my parents down to the limestone cliffs by the Missouri River to search for crinoids, the stem of a fossilized mammal that looked like beads, round and plainly once alive. This fascinated me, quite possibly sparking the lifelong obsession with collecting rocks and gems that I’ve been able to turn into a business.
Want to buy a gemstone? Looking for a specimen? Fascinated with fossils? Attending a gem show can be a great way to submerge yourself in gem world. We’re very lucky here in Arizona, particularly in Prescott. Each year during the first week of August, the Prescott Gem and Mineral Club hosts its Gem and Mineral Show. Begun 14 years ago, the PGM show boasts over 60 vendors selling everything from slabs, cabs and beads to finished jewelry. Tool displays, a fluorescence booth, geode cutting, face painting, gold panning, a junior rock-hound area, and many demonstrations make this a must-do for almost everyone.
If you’re really serious, taking the plunge and attending the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show can be a mind-blowing experience. This is literally the largest gem and mineral show in the world, where you can see everything from fossilized dinosaur poop (coprolite) to precious gemstones valued in the millions. Exploring the gem world is only limited by your desire and imagination.
So let’s talk about what you may see at the local gem show.
While you’ll see lots of cabochons and finished jewelry, don’t miss the dealers in specimen minerals and fossils as well. Many common minerals appear quite different in original form, providing glimpses into the amazing world we live in. You’ll also find fossilized creatures captured in limestone, frozen forever and telling stories of life on a planet much different from ours. Prehistoric trees, fallen long ago and their organic compounds replaced with minerals, reveal their forms enhanced with the glorious colors of nature.
Explore the tremendous variety of stones. You’ll see slabs of raw material like jaspers and agates, used by lapidary artists to create cabochons. Many dealers sell precut cabochons in a mind-boggling array of materials. Be sure to stop, look, and ask about the ones you don’t know.
Arizona is perhaps the best state in the U.S. to search for rare minerals and semiprecious gemstones. We’re famous for copper, and a variety of copper-containing minerals are mined as gemstones, including azurite, chrysocolla, and malachite. Other Arizona gem materials include agate, amethyst, garnet, jade, jasper, obsidian, onyx, opal, topaz, and petrified wood.
One really fascinating aspect is that someone had to mine that stone, often in an exotic place, facing difficult travel and conditions. Bumblebee Jasper, for example, comes from inside a volcanic fumarole on the island of Java in Indonesia and consists of over 47 different minerals, offering some of the most dramatic colors in the gem world.
Turquoise is probably the most common semiprecious stone we see here in the Southwest, and without a doubt the least understood. Turquoise is found all over the world, and some of the most valuable comes from here in the Southwest. Confusing information about what constitutes quality turquoise has filtered into the market and the minds of buyers, creating a quagmire of misinformation. The word “stabilization” has become synonymous with bad material, and this is simply not accurate. Most turquoise on the market has been stabilized, meaning resin is applied to allow a higher polish and increase the tenacity of the stone. Of the tons of turquoise mined, very little is what we call high-grade and stable enough to be cut and polished without treatment. A good stabilization process enables a mine owner to use turquoise with gorgeous color but chalky structure. Stabilized turquoise is viable, acceptable and important to the gemstone market.
Beyond stabilization, there’s one more turquoise material you should be aware of. Cutting turquoise produces a lot of dust. Some commercial cutters, particularly those in Asia, produce what we call “block” turquoise by adding resin to this dust. It is virtually impossible for the untrained eye to differentiate between this reconstituted turquoise and natural material, but a reputable dealer will disclose the nature of the turquoise they’re selling. If you choose jewelry featuring a beautiful piece of turquoise, you will own a what the Navajo call the stone of heaven, and that Egyptian pharaohs and Persian kings treasured above all other stones.
Whether you’re interested in buying a piece of jewelry or simply in collecting rocks, the Gem Show provides all that and more. But beware, attending can lead to symptoms that include an inability resist anything sparkly, stooped posture, owning more pieces of quartz than underwear, or finding yourself compelled to examine individual pebbles in driveway gravel. So join the club and get one of the greatest addictions in the world.
Looking for shopping advice?
If you intend to buy a stone as an investment, always have it appraised and buy from a reputable dealer. Many stones will come with certificates of authenticity, and a diamond may have a GIA number engraved on its girdle assessing its four Cs: color, cut, clarity and carat weight.
Lesley Aine Mckeown has been making jewelry for over 35 years. Admittedly obsessed with stones, she lives and works in Prescott.