When the annual Gem, Mineral and Fossil show comes to town in January, the entire industry takes over the town.
“It’s big, crazy, overwhelming—all in a good way—because it’s the largest event of its kind in the world,” said to Visit Tucson Director of Communications Dan Gibson.
That crazy environment comes with some serious benefits in the form of 50,000 visitors who drop some $120 million in direct expenditures, nearly $11 million of which remains in the form of tax revenue. Last year, the show hosted 45 different exhibitions, with vendors and buyers coming from around the globe.
One of the exhibitions that’s been a part of the main tent show for nearly half of its 62 years is the American Indian Art Exposition, to be held this year, Jan. 28 through Feb. 11, at the Flamingo Inn Ballroom(1300 N. Stone Ave.).
“We’re unique in the fact that all artwork in all forms is all crafted from a Native American point of view,” said expo organizer Fred Synder.
Qualifying as an official gem show event, the festival includes Native arts, music and dance, with craftsmen and women creating, displaying and selling merchandise on a rotating basis.
“We’re among the smallest of all the shows, with just over two dozen vendor spaces, but we routinely win the ‘third most-visited show’ prize,” Synder said. “After viewing diamonds and pearls and rubies, a ton of this and two kilos of that, the items in our show stand out because they are handmade, one-of-a-kind items.
Among the tons of rocks and gems and minerals, the masses of those kinds of things, we have a unique show.”
Snyder added that Native American artists come to the big show to collect high-quality, or difficult-to-obtain semi-precious stones, gems, and beads—which they later incorporate into their own jewelry or other artwork.
“I started collecting turquoise in the 1970s and have 15,000 stones from which I can find a match for any old, missing stones from concho belts,” Snyder said. “The show has two silversmiths and a goldsmith on the property doing repair work, and although some other venues may sell Indian jewelry, I don’t think any of the other shows can offer the repair service.”
Depending on which vendors display in 2018, shoppers will find jewelry, paintings, pottery, baskets, blankets, kachinas, flutes and quillwork.
“We’ll have split-stitch and willow basket weavers from the Tohono O’odham nation, Hopi beadworkers, and a Navajo flute maker who also makes hand drums,” Snyder said. “All rich cultural resources.”
Prices are modest for smaller items, like a child’s whistle or a small dream catcher, but can range into the thousands of dollars for one-of-a-kind paintings and bronze sculptures.
“The show is more than an exhibition,” Synder said. “It’s a cultural experience involving arts and craft demonstrations, live music, social dancing and food. Artists are happy to answer questions about their respective cultures, or explain how natural materials are prepared, how an item is crafted and its cultural significance. You can watch these artists as they make things by hand: Weaving blankets, beading gourds, or working with precious metals.”
Because of the handcrafting, the finished product is not assembly-line, but a unique item with its own personality. Products are individual creations, durable and a reflection of the spirit of the artist who crafted the item. And prayers of the artists go into everything they make.
“We’re more than just selling arts and crafts, we try to show the spirit of nature via the art that passes from craftsman to customer,” Snyder said.
Admission is free, although donations intended for Native American art scholarships are invited.