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Eileen McClelland

Upbeat Attitude Defines 38th Annual AGTA GemFair in Tucson

Color can be a lifeline for retailers, says CEO Doug Hucker.

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DOUG HUCKER, CEO of the American Gem Trade Association, says that while attendance at the AGTA Tucson GemFair this month did not exceed last year’s totals, the difference for 2020 was that attendees immersed themselves in the show day after day, accounting for a 7 percent increase in show floor traffic in the main gem hall.

And according to vendors, at least anecdotally, those shoppers came ready to buy. Exhibitors told Hucker they had done more business in the first day or two of the show than they did all week last year, for example.

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Most exciting to Hucker and his team was the upbeat attitude.

“What really determines the success for us is the smiles on people’s faces,” Hucker says. “People are coming to the GemFair for a reason. Our crowd is people who are engaged with color stones or pearls, or who want to be. If they’re going to be involved in color they must come to Tucson, where new products and new finds are introduced.”

Nearly 8,000 buyers attended, representing about 4,800 companies. “When you consider we have 350 vendors and nearly 5,000 companies, that makes for a lot of traffic and a lot of business.”

Hucker is looking forward to increased amenities in downtown Tucson in the next two years that will enhance the show’s appeal, including the debut of the Tucson Convention Center Hotel, a 170-room DoubleTree by Hilton currently under construction adjacent to the convention center. At least another two hotel projects downtown are slated to open in early 2021, which will ease accessibility concerns. “My biggest problem before the show was trying to find hotel rooms for everyone,” says Hucker.

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Color Trends

Hucker says that although blue gemstones are always popular, the Pantone color of the year, classic blue, likely drove sales, too, of gemstones like iolites and lapis.

“One designer said `Wow, the first day a purchaser came in and bought everything I had that was blue,” Hucker relates.

There’s increasing interest, too, in affordable, marketable gemstones in a variety of shades.

Garnets and spinels, particular spinels in shades of gray, were the talk of the show, as were Montana saphires in green and blue. “For a long time spinel was like a stepchild, mostly known for making an appearance in mother’s rings, but in the last few years it has taken off.”

“Not as many people were talking about new finds, like Ethiopian sapphire; they were focused on stones people knew and had experience with.” Tourmaline, for example, proved it has staying power.

The Future of Color

Hucker says the focus in the jewelry industry on sourcing, transparency and ethics also gives color a bit of an edge in the marketplace. Colored-gemstone mining has been minimally impacted by ethical and environmental woes because the mining is almost entirely artisanal, Hucker says. “These are small mining communities around the globe that are not typically in areas of significant conflict and are not as environmentally impactful.”

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And where ethical dilemmas have confronted the color gemstone industry, such as Burmese rubies, AGTA has stepped in to help. In 2017, when U.S. sanctions against Burmese rubies were lifted, the AGTA made recommendations to government officials, both on how to make their gemstone industry more transparent and how to develop the trade.

“We spent a lot of time in the mines and a lot of time laying out a plan for the Burmese parliament to determine what kind of laws that they would enact to function in a global economy,” Hucker says. “We talked about labor laws, reclamation of the area; all of which they have been implementing to some extent.”

The AGTA has also invested considerably in the study of silicosis (an occupational Illness) in Indian cutting centers, in building homes in Sri Lanka, and in training and educating miners. “We can invest in the community where we are purchasing gemstones. We can make great strides in these communities, even though we are the AGTA, who are a group of small businesses, basically.”

AGTA also takes pains to ensure its dealers are complying with the AGTA code of ethics, that they know who their suppliers are and make sure to identify issues that are known red flags.

“When you think about the issues that exist in the mine, mining is not easy, but it is often the only source of income to supplement growing their own crops,” Hucker says. “Mining gives them an opportunity.”

On the Retail Level

Hucker expects color to continue to grow in the U.S. market as retailers wrestle with shrinking diamond margins and debate whether or not to sell laboratory-grown diamonds. “It’s so obvious over the last decade that color is where they can make their margins,” he says. In addition, color is more emotional than technical, and selling color eases threshold resistance, he believes, with its wide range of price points and ample opportunity to express the wearer’s personality.

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“The retail jewelry industry has been struggling for some time. Independent retailers are still the backbone of the industry, and they have learned that color is a lifeline for them and it’s just more fun. The things we are doing are the kinds of things that customers and employees respond to. They want to work for companies that are doing good things.”

So, as the diamond industry can say “diamonds do good,” we can say, “color makes a difference.”

The next AGTA GemFair takes place in Las Vegas at the Las Vegas Convention Center, as part of The Collective, with the Las Vegas Antique Jewelry and Watch Show. It’s scheduled June 1 – 5. Registration is now open: https://agta.org/register-for-gemfair-las-vegas/.

AGTA GemFair Tucson dates for 2021 are Feb. 2 – 7, 2021 at the Tucson Convention Center.

Eileen McClelland is the Managing Editor of INSTORE. She believes that every jewelry store has the power of cool within them.

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