How This Dusty Southwestern City Became the Center of the Gem World

Gem heists and black-market dinosaur eggs: Welcome to the SxSW of the mineral world.

Grace Han/Thrillist
Grace Han/Thrillist
Grace Han/Thrillist

For a big city of 550,000, Tucson, Arizona feels remarkably relaxed. Its college- and art-town bustle tapers off into a tranquil desert full of cartoonishly splaying Saguaro cacti. But once a year, that slower-paced way of life is shattered when Tucson takes its place at the joyfully chaotic center of the gem world. 

The Tucson Gem and Mineral Show is essentially the South by Southwest of the mineral world. For one weekend in February, Tucson’s population swells by 65,000 as casual crystal aficionados unknowingly rub elbows with fossil smugglers and the occasional would-be Danny Ocean on the prowl for six-figure gems. 

It’s a place where all that glitters isn’t necessarily gold, but if it’s a mineral with value, you’re likely to find it-in a display booth, a bulk bin, or a highly secured safe.Seemingly every Tucson resident has a Gem Show tale. They’ll tell you about the time they received a personal call from Christian Louboutin asking for directions to a hotel, or how they found a 1.4-carat emerald in a $20 bag of stones. An Uber driver might spin a (very unsubstantiated) yarn about the time he drove Saudi royalty to a clandestine sale at a nondescript hotel. Everybody has a story.

Since its humble beginnings in 1955 as a free exhibition at an elementary school, the Gem Show has become a cultural touchstone. Over the last 66 years, it’s moved to the Tucson Fairgrounds, then to its current home at the Tucson Convention Center. The impact on the city is huge, raking in $120 million in 2018. It brings together jewelers, gemologists, researchers, crystal enthusiasts, and even local children on field trips. For gem-industry professionals, it’s a one-stop shop that renders all other gem and mineral shows irrelevant. 

“I don’t go to other shows because I don’t need to,” says Scottsdale jeweler French Thompson, who’s been attending for 35 years. “If you have Las Vegas right next door you’re not going to go to Atlantic City just to see what’s different.” 

The 205,000 square-foot convention center serves as the sun with a galaxy of satellite shows springing up around its orbit. Outside, pop-up tents shill their wares. Meanwhile, high-roller vendors are prone to book private suites and full floors of hotels for big-dollar deals complete with armed guards, credit checks, and professional accreditations.

“When the show happens in its full sense it’s impossible to get a hotel room in Tucson those days. It really is-for lack of a better term-our Super Bowl,” says Visit Tucson senior director of operations Dan Gibson.

Photo courtesy of Visit Tucson
Photo courtesy of Visit Tucson
Photo courtesy of Visit Tucson

Tucson’s relaxed Western vibe, combined with the gem industry’s eccentric brand of glamor, creates a charged atmosphere that feels like anything could happen. The Gem Show seems to attract all levels of malfeasance and criminality, ranging from petty theft to impersonation attempts in order to get into the event’s most coveted private shows. For many veterans of the show, these pulpy stories are just business as usual. 

Theft is especially common, though according to the Tucson Police Department it’s not a significant increase in local crime-just higher-dollar thefts carried out by thieves that oftentimes don’t even know the value of what they’re stealing.

In 2006, more than $1 million in cash, personal checks, and more were stolen from a hotel when two gem show vendors were confronted by armed robbers (they were later arrested in California). In 2008, $120,000 in jewelry was stolen from a rental truck near the upscale JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort. Four years later in 2012, nearly $1 million in stones were stolen from a trailer outside a Motel 6- with the nearly 2,000 stones hidden in nondescript duffel-bags and suitcases. 

The show has also, at least once, involved dinosaur-fossil smuggling. In 2016, one such offender was sentenced to pay a $25,000 fine following a scheme to offload a 100-million-year-old psittacosaurus (also known as “parrot lizard”) fossil from Mongolia, as well as duck-billed dinosaur eggs. Prior to the fossil merchant’s arrest, attendees of the gem show had the opportunity to snag one of these coveted eggs for just $450. It was the first time Homeland Security made a fossil-related arrest at the show.

Photo courtesy of Visit Tucson
Photo courtesy of Visit Tucson
Photo courtesy of Visit Tucson

Crystals were firmly embedded in Tucson’s gem culture for decades prior to their rise in popularity among millennials and Goop loyalists. But with this rising trend, it’s become commonplace for some gem show attendees to base their purchases less on aesthetics and more on ~energy.~ 

Private jeweler Dan Moran recalls a woman coming to his booth where he was selling diamonds. To choose her perfect stone, she poured water over the diamonds, then held them in her hand one at a time to see if they “burned” her hand or were “too cold for her soul.”

“It worked out in the end, I guess,” says Moran. “She bought a one-carat diamond and paid in cash.” 

Lucky Air Plant creator and owner Marci McDonald has been an integral part of the increased popularity of crystals in Arizona. She began selling her crystal and air-plant art pieces-which she calls living gifts-in 2016, inspired by her crystal-healer aunt.

Today, she scours the gem show-even searching divey hotel rooms transformed into pop-up shops-for the perfect pieces. Those include ever-popular amethysts and citrine, trendy pink quartz, and rare stones like her black basalt and cocopyrite from Brazil. All the while, she forms connections with vendors from around the world. 

“The whole city of Tucson is a Mecca for crystals,” McDonald says. “I actually prefer going to the off-site places because I like meeting people from other cultures. We have a whole world of crystals in our backyard.”

University of Arizona Gem and Mineral Museum
University of Arizona Gem and Mineral Museum
University of Arizona Gem and Mineral Museum

Tucson’s gem obsession lasts year-round, extending far beyond the Gem Show. In fact, it predates it by generations: the surrounding mountains were home to over 100 mines where treasure seekers and prospectors in the 1800s mined for copper, gold, silver, and lead. Today, the University of Arizona operates the $13.5-million Alfie Norville Gem & Mineral Museum

The city is a dream for rockhounds looking to window shop no matter when they visit; in fact, skipping the Gem Show guarantees not only a fair hotel rate, but the laid-back experience that this welcoming city is known for. There are more than 20 rock shops to hit throughout Tucson. Here’s where to start. 

Arizona Lapidary and Gem Rough: Known as Tucson’s year round gem show, the Arizona Lapidary and Gem Rough has it all in sprawling, bright purple space, from dinosaur bone cabochons to luck-inducing jade crystals and healing, shimmering amethysts. 

Tucson Mineral and Gem World: This rustic gem and mineral shop greets its guests in true Tucson-style with a T-Rex figure outside and taxidermy animals on the inside. It houses more than 100,000 items and has been selling a variety of crystals, meteorites, minerals, and other gift items for 30 years. 

DAH Rock Shop: This top-rated rock shop right outside downtown Tucson in Catalina Hills has been a staple in the gem scene for decades. In addition to your usual gem and mineral selection, DAH Rock Shop also offers a large outdoor space that features rough-cut rocks perfect for outdoor decoration.

The Ninth House: This modern metaphysical gift shop is perfect for crystal enthusiasts and lovers of all things witchy, selling all things new age from incense to zodiac-themed gifts and palo santo.

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Jamie Killin is a Phoenix native and Arizona State graduate who specializes in lifestyle and features writing. You can usually find her at the spin studio, a concert, or trying new restaurants across the Valley. Follow her at @jamiefayekillin.


Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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