Saturday, February 07, 2009

Tucson Gem and Mineral Show

The Tucson Gem and Mineral Show is like no other. Dozens of hotels, lining interstate 10, house thousands of exhibitors. Hotel rooms are reserved a year, or years in advance, and each room is a show room by day and bedroom by night. Every courtyard and parking area is packed with exhibitors. Huge tents are erected in every open space, housing cohesive groups of exhibitors and offering security at night. One hotel show may feature mostly monumental crystal specimens, and the next hotel may house bead and pearl vendors. One floor or wing may exhibit rubies and precious sapphires in all colors of the rainbow, another wing of the hotel may feature fossils, many of which are Smithsonian quality. The cross-section of exhibitors is amazing and it's difficult to stay focused on ones priorities. The cultural diversity within the walls of the hotels is extreme; lapis from Afghanistan, opals from Australia, Mexican opals, bone carvings from Bali, wood carvings from New Guinea, emeralds from Colombia, diamonds from South Africa, rubies and sapphires from India, amber from Russia, fossilized ivory from Alaska. The list is endless and much of what I love about this show is the cross-cultural melding of it all. Turbans, dread locks, tie dye, suits, s
aris or K-Mart. All is equal in this playing field.

John and I flew into Tucson, arriving late Monday night. We are staying at the Sahara Apartments just a few blocks from down town, which is conveniently located near the convention center, and the many hotel shows that line interstate 10. The down side, or perhaps the upside, is that this is a student apartment complex for the university a few blocks away. The secure gated complex is a converted 1950's motel and each double room is equipped with two serious desks that John and I are each currently using. John is working on Geometry homework while I write this blog. I cannot say much for the comfort of our two twin beds, but having a complete kitchen came in handy last night when we arrived late, John sick, and his request was chicken noodle soup and macaroni and cheese. I found a late night market and made magic happen.

Tuesday- Opal Quest

With John under the weather, we get a slower start than usual today, but once we get going, John, with his built in G.P.S. system guides me directly to our favorite vendors. Mexican fire opals and Australian op
als are high on this years shopping list and John knows what to look for in a quality opal. I respect his opinion so when we get down to serious business, we bounce our thoughts back and forth when we examine a "lot" of stones. We examine each stone from all directions, in and out of halogen light. We often take a few stones outside into natural light, leaving a credit card and one of my high-end 18K gold opal pieces as security. We check for inclusions and discuss design possibilities. Will this stone be configured into a pendant, a ring; will a dragon guard this treasure, or will I create an elegant abstract?

This is our 4th consecutive year coming to Tucson and John and I shop methodically; We know the lay out and we know what we want to buy. Starting at the top of the hotel row, we visit and revisit our favorite vendors. For years, we have drooled over one particular opal vendor and designer, a husband and wife team spending half the year at their mine in Australia and the other half of the year doing art festivals in the Florida area. Although we have not purchased from them previously, this year we made a connection and indulged in 5 of their opals. Their assortment of opals is diverse and will make for 5 very unique pieces. I can hardly wait to photograph and create designs for these amazing stones that we purchased!

We spend the late afternoon picking through trays of Opals at our favorite Mexican Opal supplier whose mine is in Magdalena, Mexico. He has two booths, in two different hotels so John and I carefully choose an assortment from one booth, which they transport to the other booth so that we can make the best possible selection. Tomorrow, the two most prestigious Tucson shows open and his inventory will then be split three ways. We expect to make our most significant purchase here, but per carat prices have increased significantly since last year and we leave discouraged and empty-handed.

We've been on our feet all day and our stomachs are grumbling. I give John his choice of dinner venue and he chooses a past favorite, the "Clam Jumper." 4 years ago when John was 12, our hotel was just was a few blocks down from this restaurant. Back then, John spotted the inviting corner restaurant, read the sign aloud to me, suggested that we eat there and asked why it was named the Clam Jumper? I laughed and pointed out that it was not the Clam Jumper, but the Claim Jumper, a bit more appropriate in a mining desert area. This has become our inside joke and one of our favorite dinner spot after long days of shopping the Gem and Mineral show. I drive East on Broadway towards the Clam Jumper Restaurant. It's a big chain dinner house, but the food has always been surprisingly good and very reasonable compared to California prices. John and I slide into a private cushioned booth with high backed partitions and after placing our order, we pull out our sparklies from the day to admire them. We talk again about design possibilities and determine names for each stone. Each stone has personality and potential, and this dinner ritual is part of our whole experience. Back at our "dorm room," John works on geometry homework while I get organized for another day.

Wednesday- More Opals
Yesterday we discovered a charming Mexican breakfast cafe in the heart of downtown Tucson. We return this
morning and John, feeling better,
devours Chorizo and eggs and washes it down with a cup of coffee. I enjoy a repeat of yesterday, huevos Mexicanos and a large salad. The two most prestigious shows open this morning, the AGTA and the GTA. We arrive 30 minutes early, find a coveted parking space at the convention center and enter to pick up our badges to the show. I have pre-registered, but somehow missed the online field to add a badge for John. With paperwork in hand and Johns' business card attached, I step up to the window. The dour faced woman locates Marty Magic in her computer, scans Johns’ paperwork and card and then asks to see his picture ID. I tell her that he is just 16 and doesn't have a picture ID. She tells us that he may not enter the show. I feel my blood pressure rise, and point out that at 16 he doesn't even need a picture ID to fly. She holds her ground and I ask to speak to a supervisor. We step down to the far window and I explain my problem. She is compassionate and overrides the previous woman, confirming, "of course he doesn't have a photo I D; he is only 16 years old." Relieved and with the appropriate badges, I glide down the main escalator and enter the AGTA show. (John slides down the banister, confirming that he is indeed just 16 years old.) The security is tight and each badge has a bar code that is scanned as you enter and exit a hall.

I would estimate that 1000 booths fill the main convention hall, each professionally lit with elegant displays and enticing gemstones. An auxiliary hall houses the tools, machinery and jewelry service booths. We decide to get the less exciting stuff out of the way and start with this room, dutifully inquiring and gathering brochures about 3D computer programs and asking to see a demonstration of a photo light box set up. I need to improve my photo set up for my web shots and Art is learning a 3D cad program with which to create his own jewelry designs.

In the main exhibition hall, John leads the way, systematically guiding us up one aisle and down the next. The gemstones on display are a visual overload and part of Johns’ job is to keep us focused on our shopping list. We walk quickly past most booths, screeching to a halt whenever we see the iridescent flash of opals. There are numerous displays of opals, mostly Australian boulder opal, and we take our time at each one. Most of these jewelry booths have their opals displayed on top of their counters in black felt lined trays so that it is easy to sort through. It is not uncommon to have dozens of open trays of this material with pieces costing several thousand dollars each, but the museum pieces are under glass and we ask to examine many incredible pieces of Lightening Ridge and Black Opal costing tens of thousands of dollars each. A rainbow shimmer draws us into a booth selling ammonite jewelry and rough. Huge mineralized ammonite fossils, all colors of the rainbow, line the back of the booth, and an array of ammonite jewelry fills the front showcase. There are small inexpensive pieces already mounted with simple silver bails, but also several trays of loose unset pieces. These interest us and we learn that most cut ammonite is one sided, but the imperial ammonite is opalized/mineralized on both faces of the fossil. The colors are iridescent green, blue, red and gold and the patterns on the stones are reminiscent of dragon scales. We have them hold three of the most desirable pieces while we ponder and continue to shop but only walk a few more aisles before turning back to purchase the pieces. I envision dragons wrapping around this unusual and beautiful material.

After 4 hours shopping this show, we cross over to the GTA tent. This show requires its own registration, but with the elite AGTA badges, acquiring the added sticker is easy. After a quick bite of fair food, we enter and begin our systematic shopping. The smörgåsbord of gemstones is overwhelming and there are quite a few booths selling Mexican fire opals. We have a packet of opals on hold from yesterday but we make our most significant purchase from a new vendor. Although we didn't purchase anything at his booth last year, he remembers John and me and provides us each chairs and good lighting to make our selection. His opal mine is also in Magdalena Mexico and he has an inventory of incredible stones. We leave his booth, our budget mostly spent, but continue to look for new opal sources, stopping frequently to admire and inquire about a particular stone. Still on my list is one yawah nut Australian opal. We look at many, make notes on the back of business cards and eventually return to one booth to purchase a single stone. I will set this iridescent blue opal, one end tinged with the pink shimmer of a sunset, into an 18K gold ring. The design may be that of a dragon, or perhaps an ocean or pond motif.

The show is closing and we are on sensory overload so we reward our hard work with another "Clam Jumper" dinner. Once again, within the privacy of our booth, we arrange our growing collection on the tabletop, discussing each treasure. I am fortunate that John shares my love of opals and enjoys the challenge of the hunt.


Our flight home isn’t until 7:30 P.M. tonight, so we still have the entire day to shop. I’ve pretty much spent my budget, but a few less exciting items remain on my shopping list, mainly, silver chains and findings. We start our day off, stopping at a different show at a nearby hotel complex. The shows focus is fossils and minerals and everything is extremely fascinating but not what we need. Each hotel room houses amazing museum quality mineral specimens and we wish we had hours to spend perusing. There are several rooms that offer small crystal specimens suitable for jewelry, and I succumb to temptation and purchase a tanzanite crystal that will be guarded by a golden dragon. There are a number of exhibitors inside a large conference hall selling dinosaur fossils, some genuine and some replicas and it’s hard to tear ourselves away from the huge lizard skeletons.

I want to revisit one opal dealer that we discovered on our first day. He had a display of Mexican Fire Opals and some unusually large matrix opal cabochons. I know that buying more will put me over my intended budget, but I want to take another look. I enter the danger zone when the young man from Magdalena Mexico, offers me a chair behind his table and hands me the black tray with the best of his large matrix eggs. I choose a half dozen and ask to take them into the sunlight where John and I cull the dozen down to three. We negotiate the price and we leave with his two best stones. These opals are addicting!

Our final stops are at three of the big tent shows out near the airport. I purchase the necessary sterling silver chains and with an hour remaining, we decide to hit one last show. We stopped by this show briefly last year, but were very hurried. We are hurried again this year, but stop dead in our tracks when we spot an exceptional Mexican Opal booth. This young man is also from Magdalena, and he has an incredible selection of stones. We leave with a delicious, 7-carat electric green opal. We’ve done our job in keeping the economy going, but it’s a good thing that our plane leaves shortly. I couldn’t afford to stay another day.

As the plane takes off, we watch the glittering lights of Tucson diminish in the distance. I close my eyes, visualizing the glitter and iridescences of the opals tucked safely in my purse, imagining the designs that I will create around these magical stones.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Sink or Swim

I wore my new Angler Fish charm on this weekends dives in Monterey.

For the last three weekends, Art, John and I have been taking a PADI scuba dive certification class from Adventure Sports in Santa Cruz. We travel to many exotic places with warm water and breathtakingly beautiful coral reefs. Last June, we snorkeled off beaches in the Komodo Islands and in Flores, Indonesia, but were not certified to scuba dive the incredible reefs. Getting certified has been on our "bucket" list.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Images of gracefully and effortlessly gliding through kelp forests and hovering above underwater reefs have been shattered. I imagined that tonight, I would be posting photos of the giant kelp, undulating and golden from the sunlight shining down from above. I expected to have photos of the tiny flounders darting along the sandy bottom and the rocky pinnacle walls, hot pink, carpeted by thousands of tiny velvety sea anemones.

We did manage to pass the class, along with Klem, a local tattoo artist, but it was extremely challenging and often times grueling. Check out his finger tattoos!

Art, Dennis (our instructor) and Klem.

For those of you who want to know more, here is the saga. The first two weekend classes were held in Adventure Sports pool and classroom. The three of us each dutifully purchased the 260 page book, required for the class. I powered through the first three chapters but then we came to the charts and the math. I don't aspire to dive to great depths and residual nitrogen is something that I have never thought to worry about; but take scuba diving and residual nitrogen becomes the enemy. One cannot have too much of it and each dive must be graphed and figured accordingly. Should you wish to take a second dive, you have to figure out how much nitrogen remains in your body to know how long and how deep subsequent dives can be. Art, John and Klem caught on immediately, but I was humbled.

Putting the charts and calculations aside, there is the challenge of getting suited up. The pacific ocean is cold and Adventure Sports rents the necessary wet suits, but just choosing one that fits is overwhelming. Following this, one must get fitted with the BCD, (Buoyancy Control Device) all important if you are not born with gills. An "Octopus" (suitably named) equipped with 4 hoses, two regulators, a computer/compass to record depth, time, remaining air and to chart your route and location connects to the pressure air tank and the BCD. One must also buy fins and booties and gloves and a snorkel and mask to fit. The dreaded math comes into play again when one assembles the weight belt, all important in making the descent. How else to offset layers of fat and buoyant neoprene?

For two weekends we practiced procedures in the pool; inflating and deflating our BCD to achieve neutral buoyancy, emergency ascents, buddy breathing accents, flooded mask and snorkel procedures, rescue towing etc.

This weekend we put it all into practice taking 4 dives in the Monterey Bay, required for our certification. The weather this weekend was glorious and the two dives on Saturday went surprisingly well. John loved every minute of dive time, gliding effortlessly underwater inspecting the strange creatures encrusting the underwater pinnacles. He played gently with decorator crabs and immense sea slugs. Tiny flounders shuffled off as he swam along the sandy ocean bottom, 50 feet below the surface. John swam like a fish, just slightly embarrassed by his awkward parents. We were all delighted with the playful seal that swam circles around us, by the psychedelic purple and orange seaweeds and by camouflaged sculpin that would dart from the rock crevices. Huge white metridium anemones, some as large as 18" diameter, blossomed off rocky walls and towering columns of kelp swayed in the surge. On our drive home, we congratulated each other on successfully completing both dives.

Unfortunately, our two dives today, Sunday, were not so successful. Exhausted from yesterdays exertion and sleep deprived we arrived at the Monterey Dock at 7:45 A.M. Slipping into cold and slimy wet suits and lugging heavy air tanks and gear onto the boat was tough, but I still felt empowered and optimistic. My first dive of the day went badly. I successfully completed the required compass navigation test but I swallowed an unpleasant amount of sea water which compromised my stamina. My next test was an emergency ascent from 20 feet, but upon descent, I sank 40 feet, landed on a pinnacle and lost a fin. Disoriented, I overcompensated and added too much air to my BCD and I shot to the surface. My instructor was displeased and had me try it again. My mask flooded and I lost both fins on the second try, and my ascent was still too fast resulting in painful pressure in my ear, and probably a few too many nitrogen bubbles in my body. I called it quits and swam to the boat, exhausted and defeated. Our instructor swam away to test Art and to take him on the required dive. The crew back on the boat were very nurturing and supportive and encouraged me to try again. 20 minutes later, I took another big step off the back of the boat accompanied by a different dive instructor and completed the tests. One of my least favorite tests, counter intuitive to survival, was to remove my mask under 50 feet of water, replace it and clear it.

I surfaced triumphant to find Art a shade of green and sea sick and John approaching hypothermia. We had an hour to recoup before our second dive for the day, but the stamina of our family was at a low. After chumming the fish with the mornings breakfast burrito, Art slowly recovered, and after two hot showers, filling his wet suit with steaming hot water, John warmed up. Art and John took the second dive with Jim, the alternate dive master and I went alone with Dennis. Apprehensive, but determined, I descended with a borrowed mask that fit snugly. Accustom to my own mask that continually seeped water, thus relieving depth pressure, I was unprepared for the mask squeeze that nearly sucked my eyeballs from their sockets. I tried unsuccessfully to convey my discomfort and pain to Dennis but continued to descend, eventually managing to equalize the pressure. I hear there was a Seinfeld episode where he went diving and had this same issue. I must rent this.

After the dive, we met with Dennis and Klem, at the Whole Enchilada in Moss Landing. We filled out the days dive logs (more math) and toasted to successfully completing our PADI dive certification.

P.S. I was shocked to see the woman in the mirror this Monday morning. The blood vessels in the corners of my eyes have burst, and I have two black eyes. Art reminds me that some Goth Girls go to extreme lengths to achieve this look.