Takeaways from a Trio of Well-Attended Seminars at AGTA GemFair Tucson

By Jennifer Heebner, Editor in Chief

From CAD-CAM innovations to pioneers in the American faceting movement, speakers who took part in the ELEVATED series at the 2024 AGTA GemFair Tucson were as diverse and well informed as their seminars were well attended. AGTA has culled top insights from three of the presentations. Read on to learn more, or watch the seminars yourself on YouTube by clicking here.

Takeaways from a Trio of Well-Attended Seminars at AGTA GemFair Tucson
AGTA CEO John W. Ford Sr.
A Conversation on the State of the Gemstone Industry and the Challenges Facing the Industry
Martin Rapaport, Chairman, Rapaport Group, and John W. Ford Sr., CEO, AGTA

Ford and Rapaport addressed salient points about living in a changing world. Among the themes: new generations of consumers have values and want to know what efforts their money is funding.

“We’re socially conscious at a level that’s never happened in history,” said Rapaport.

From an ethical standpoint, customers want to know where their gems originate and how they reached store cases. This is why it’s critical to not make false representations about where gems come from, and why dealers must know the people in their supply chain. “Ethics isn’t about the product, it’s about the people,” continued Rapaport.

Not surprisingly, Ford agreed. “We are in the happy business,” he explained. “So, you don’t want to give a gift associated with false representation.”

Fees paid for export in origin countries, provided they are handled properly by local governments, help fund care of miners and their communities. “When we do things the right way, that benefits the whole industry,” he added.

Adding value to gemstones, such as through cutting and marketing, ensures businesses can operate, and AGTA members must adhere to a strict Code of Ethics in order to remain members.

The colored gemstone market is challenging and complicated, according to Rapaport, but there are endless ways that clients can highlight their individuality through color.

“Color is emotional, personal, and powerful,” he said. “But the new generation of consumers want what’s new, different, and unique.”

Stuart Robertson, President, Gemworld International, Inc.
Stuart Robertson, President, Gemworld International, Inc.
Current Trends and the Near-Term Outlook for the Gemstone Market
Stuart Robertson, President, Gemworld International, Inc., and Brecken Branstrator, Editor in Chief, GemGuide
Robertson touched on the economy and market drivers, while Branstrator talked about gemstone trends. Recent Mastercard SpendingPulse data revealed that while jewelry spending dropped 2% during the holiday season, that news isn’t as negative as it might seem.

“We’re coming off of years of gains,” said Robertson. “We had strong years during the pandemic, so this return to normal is to be expected.”

Plus, Conference Board data suggests that consumers are cautiously optimistic about the economy’s improving financial health. And while anecdotal evidence indicates shopper concern going into this election year, Robertson maintained that there was “no data to support” those fears.

In terms of gemstone sales, the top end of the market is still struggling to source goods and then to pay for them. “There’s just not enough material in finer qualities, so prices are holding,” he continued. “The reality of the market is that if you see fine-quality gems, this is the time to buy them, and Tucson is the place to do so because of the sheer volume of competition.”

Fortunately for dealers, the consumer appetite for unusual material is voracious, meaning that merchants can be “more adventurous” with their selections, he noted. More words of advice: don’t get hung up on the Pantone Color of the Year—“I don’t find it very useful in predicting what will be popular,” he said—and stores should remember that they are the brand, not the wares within shops.

Meanwhile, Branstrator offered five insights into the coming year. Top among them was the color green, from Emerald to tsavorite and demantoid Garnet. “At the Spectrum Awards last fall, gems skewed heavily in the greens and blue-greens,” she explained. Second, pricing is firm for many varieties, giving way to the rise of some unexpected goods like untreated Zoisite and bicolored stones with “interesting clarity characteristics,” she noted. Third, unique cuts like hexagons, portraits, and kites are still popular, as is the demand to know that gems were responsibly sourced—her fourth point. Finally, a heightened interest in sustainability and related terms (think recycled) remain top of mind for many.

A less talked-about subject that’s impacting consumer knowledge is influencers who speak in authoritative tones but have “zero knowledge on the subject about which they’re discussing,” observed Robertson. These voices, often found in the consumer media, are problematic for the misinformation they spread, such as advising shoppers not to buy natural gemstones because they fund child labor or civil war. These irresponsible practices, he explained, “could wipe out the livelihoods of a large part of the world as we know it.”

“Social media has made everybody an expert,” he quipped.

Bruce Bridges, President, Bridges Tsavorite, Dr. Nicole Smith, Assistant Professor of Mining Engineering, Colorado School of Mines
Bruce Bridges, President, Bridges Tsavorite, Dr. Nicole Smith, Assistant Professor of Mining Engineering, Colorado School of Mines
Challenges and Opportunities in Responsible Gemstone Supply Chains
Bruce Bridges, President, Bridges Tsavorite, and John Ferry, Owner, Prosperity Earth, with moderator Dr. Nicole Smith, Assistant Professor of Mining Engineering, Colorado School of Mines

Smith focused their conversation on vertically integrated mining outfits, given that Bridges and Ferry both operate them in East Africa. Bridges’ mine is in Kenya and Ferry’s is in Madagascar.

Vertically integrated miners dig, sort, cut, and grade gems to keep the bulk of the value in the source country, providing clear mine-to-market operations. For Bridges, maintaining his father’s legacy means keeping the same practices (pricy tunnel mining over open pit) he implemented at the business’s founding. His father, Campbell Bridges, who famously discovered tsavorite Garnet in Tanzania and later followed the vein to southern Kenya, instituted good mining practices for the benefit of the area before he was murdered in 2009.

Ferry’s efforts aim to achieve a maximum efficiency that benefits the community and his mining family on the ground, thus the word Prosperity in the company name.

Both men have long dealt with issues that plague developing nations. For example, while laws are in place to regulate mining, enforcement can be lax, and corruption is abundant. “Being a gem dealer is a lot easier,” said Bridges. Miners are oftentimes dealing with entities that are far more powerful than themselves, and ones that even governments fear. “If government is scared, what do you think can happen to a miner?” he asked.

Plus, there’s the hard task of finding enriched veins in the ground, a fact that many fail to realize in the pursuit of gems.

“For every success story, there are a thousand stories of unsuccessful miners,” said Bridges. “But it’s the human condition to chase the pot of gold. I’m hesitant to advise anyone to get into mining.”

Ferry lamented the issue of smuggling goods out of the country in the face of export bans, and the lack of concern for these matters in the government.

“If you’re looking to get rich, it’s easier to make money on Wall Street,” he joked. [Ferry is a former financier.] “Ninety-five percent of artisanal miners won’t make money.”

At mine locations, longtime workers are like family, the pair insisted, with some working for Bridges “longer than he’d been alive.” “Multiple employees have been with us for 30 years,” he explained.

Less fortunate scenarios involve miners working for food with sporadic pay, a method akin to indentured servitude. But for the love of the gems and the communities in which they originate, responsible mining outfits create livelihoods for thousands throughout the supply chain, and transparent practices help source communities to thrive.

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