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January 29, 2001
Also today: Important business never seen by public    Bartering can get you something as dear as shrunken goat heads    Gem nuggets    For visitors: Take in Sabino Canyon and dine out at Sakura   

UA's Raman spectrometer is the last word on mineral ID


A.E. Araiza / Staff
UA assistant professor Bob Downs
uses his Raman spectrometer to study a stone mounted in a ring. The spectro-meter's effectiveness comes through its use of a laser, holographics and sensitive detectors.

By Jeannine Relly

Where do professional gem buyers go when they get stumped about a specimen's authenticity at the Tucson gem and mineral shows?

They take the specimen to the laboratory of assistant professor Bob Downs at the University of Arizona.

About two dozen gem and mineral show buyers a year schedule an appointment in his lab, Room 530 in the Gould-Simpson Building on campus. Downs usually doesn't charge for his services.

But for the high-end gem and mineral buyers, it's generally not the purity of a ruby or emerald that has them puzzled. "They're really good at sight-identifying," says Downs.

It's likely one of the 3,800 identified gems and minerals that you've never heard mentioned. Try: amblygonite or bertrandite. Even Downs, a mineralogist, is uncertain where some of the specimens may be found in the world.

"A lot of the stuff is really rare," he says.

But with the growing database of about 300 minerals, the Raman spectrometer in his lab often hits the mark.

Students direct a laser beam on a specimen of any size, and the light is scattered off the sample and sent to a detector that electronically converts the information to a computerized spectrum, which identifies the specimen.

You can take six green cut stones, and in less than a minute you can tell if they're tourmaline or emerald, says Carolyn Pommier, a graduate chemistry student who is working on a pro-ject with Downs.

But it wasn't until the last 10 years, after the invention and widespread use of the laser, holographics and sensitive detector that the Raman spectrometer has come into popular use, researchers say.

About four years ago, Downs had the Raman spectrometer built for $60,000. Since then, prices have dropped and you now can construct the same model for about two-thirds the price, he says.

The gem and mineral pros pick the Raman spectrometer to identify specimens over other technologies, says Downs, because other methods destroy the specimen's structure.

About two years ago, a collector from the gem and mineral show brought over a potential buy for validation. The so-called gold crystal from Russia carried a $1 million price tag.

Downs took X-rays of the crystal and discovered "it was a fake," he said. It was worth only about $1,000.

* Contact reporter Jeannine Relly
at 573-4213 or by e-mail at jrelly@azstarnet.com.

Important business never seen by public

By Phil Villarreal

All over town, gem shows compete against one another to catch the consumer's eye - but that's only the side the public is allowed to see.

Of the 25 shows that make up the Tucson Gem, Mineral & Fossil Showcase, 10 are off-limits to regular shoppers.

Wholesalers - dealers who buy from other dealers, then turn a profit by selling the items to the public or to other dealers - make up a significant part of Tucson's gem show experience.

They live and operate in a world foreign to regular rock collectors.

Want to step into the shoes of a dealer? Try working 12-hour days for two consecutive weeks. Try dealing with the pressure of having half a year's income depend on sales at one show.

"Our sales were down about
$1 million last year because a dealer from Taiwan didn't buy from us," said Ron Coleman, who runs a quartz mining and wholesaling business in Arkansas with his son Kevin.

"It was because of the problems the Asian economy had. Who would think that the economy in Asia can affect lives in a small town on the other side of the world?"

For the Colemans, who generate half their income from showing for two weeks at the Mineral & Fossil Co-Op at 1635 N. Oracle Road each year, a weak show pulls in about $100,000.

Ron Coleman was beaming Friday morning when he heard that a big-spending buyer from Taiwan was in town for the week.

Across the way from the Colemans, St. John's resident Frank Wilbur sells polished stones in bulk. Wilbur says he chooses to sell wholesale because the individual stones would only go for as much as 50 cents individually. Wilbur needs to sell in bulk to clear a significant profit.

In a typical day for Wilbur, he'll get up at 4 a.m., work the shop all day with no breaks for meals, then leave at 6 p.m.

"Then I'll eat a hell of a dinner," Wilbur said. "It's probably a stupid way to live, but it's all I have time for."

Wilbur couldn't rest during the show even if he wanted to. The next 14 days will bring in nearly a quarter of his total sales for the year.

That's the way things go at wholesale shows, in which dealers have no interest in setting up eye-catching displays or talking about rocks with customers.

Here's a place where the customer is not always right. In fact, he can be downright annoying.

"We don't want curiosity seekers hanging around," said Wilbur. "They ask questions when I'm trying to take care of a serious buyer."

You can't blame Wilbur for not wanting to chat with a retail customer. Wholesale negotiations can take hours to settle, according to Coleman.

"It's kind of the same as buying a car," Coleman said, adding that negotiations can last several hours, and sometimes as long as two weeks.

And then there's always the potential of what wholesalers refer to as a "feeding frenzy" - when multiple buyers converge around one item simultaneously, causing a tense scene.

Chicago investor Daniel Jones, 51, knows all about such frenzies. Said Jones, who has been coming to Tucson to buy wholesale since 1981, things aren't much easier for buyers than they are for the sellers.

Jones buys products to resell in Chicago and to build his collection.

"The Germans, in particular, are pretty aggressive," said Jones, who was browsing for petrified wood at the Co-Op Friday. "It's always first come, first served, and there's always so much to see."

The time wholesalers spend in Tucson is nearly all business, but that doesn't mean it's not fun. The gem show brings an opportunity to see old friends.

Wilbur said that a certain bond exists between rock sellers, and that helped form the Co-Op, a partnership between 12 wholesalers from as far away as Germany and Madagascar.

The Co-Op began five years ago as a tent show, then expanded in 1998 when Wilbur and 11 others bought property on Oracle.

"We're all friends here," Wilbur said. "You don't get 12 people together to spend a quarter-million on 28,000 square feet without getting to know each other pretty well. It's like a marriage. There's good ones and bad ones, and this one is pretty good.

"There's great camaraderie here. I don't get to see these guys most of the year. It's a great time. Rock people are unique because they're very honest and have their feet on the ground."

* Contact Phil Villarreal at 573-4130 or prv@azstarnet.com.

Bartering can get you something as dear as shrunken goat heads

Gem characters

By Hanna Miller

According to the price tags, Andy Fishback's leather saddles sell for a few hundred dollars each. But if you've got a pile of shrunken goat heads, he's willing to talk.

Fishback, a dealer at the Congress Street Expo, recently traded some of his Western goods for a plastic bag full of the Peruvian heads. "You've got thick skin, right?" Fishback asked before pulling the bag open to reveal his new hairy treasures. "This is one cool thing you can trade for."

While most gem show shoppers will stick to cash, old-fashioned bartering is alive and well among dealers. A seed-bead bracelet buys an African mask; a carved dragon is good for a crystal: the system is irresistible to rockhounds more interested in collecting specimens than money. Dealers have been known to stroll the shows carrying their most crowd-pleasing products in hopes of returning to their booths with even more merchandise.

"Me personally, I like to trade," Fishback said. "A trade is attractive to me because you've got something left after your item is gone."

Trading is more prevalent at small-time shows, where dealers and shoppers are likely to be cash-strapped. In Quartzsite, the site of mid-January gem shows that serve as a warm-up for Tucson, one dealer packs his RV with a case of red wine. Out in the desert, with nothing to do at night but build bonfires, each bottle is worth far more than its weight in stones.

The Tucson shows are downright bureaucratic in comparison, but trading hasn't been banished entirely.

"Everybody does a little bartering here and there," said Debby Rea-Taylor, a bead dealer from Atwater, Calif. "It's a nice thing."

And dealers aren't the only ones carrying rocks instead of a wallet. Shoppers will also pull gems from their pockets, like the hopeful fire agate collector at Congress Street Expo last week who tried to sell a dealer on one of his California finds.

"A person wants to trade, he'll make it known," Fishback said. "I'll always consider it."

Gem nuggets

Pastel colors are de rigueur this year on fashion runways, according to this month's issue of Colored Stone, an international gemstone trade magazine.

The fabric colors range from lush lilacs and violets to rich spring greens, periwinkle and turquoise, the magazine said.

A variety of gems, from citrine to tourmaline, will be used to accent the pastel-colored fashions.

Designers are using yellow gold with iridescent stones such as peridot, amethyst, pink quartz and citrine to blend with the metallic-cast fashions also coming out, the magazine reported.

It also said that designers would incorporate coral into jewelry designs to match the simmering red and orange fabrics gaining momentum in fashion circles.

Medieval sword replicas

The annual gem show can be a repository for products other than minerals.

Even medieval-period-sword fanatics might find something to marvel over at Silver Sword Stone's exhibit at Tucson Electric Park, 2500 E. Ajo Way.

Owner Victor Martine sells Gothic-looking reproductions of swords embellished with such things as glass inlays. The blades, he vows, are the same size, weight and metal as the original swords they are replicating. Some swords have straight blades; others are serrated. They sell for $30 and up.

A glass display case holds weaponry seen on the silver and small screens.

Jeannine Relly

Take in Sabino Canyon and dine out at Sakura

For visitors


Sabino Canyon

Gem-show fans who appreciate natural beauty shouldn't pass up a trip through Sabino Canyon. Sabino dazzles Tucsonans every day of the year, and outsiders should enjoy the canyon's sweeping mountain scenery just as much as the natives do.

Sabino offers breathtaking scenery in the lower Santa Catalina Mountains. The canyon offers rugged trails for hikers and runners and also features cliffs and water holes.

For those who prefer to take in the scenery without breaking a sweat, there's a tram that does the work for you. It costs $4 to take the tram halfway up the road and $6 for a full trip.

To get to Sabino Canyon, take Tanque Verde Road east, then turn north on Sabino Canyon Road, which leads to the recreation area. The park is always open.

For more information, call 749-8700.

Fee: There's a $5 entrance fee per carload.

Sakura Teppan Steak & Sushi

6534 E. Tanque Verde Road


Sakura provides double the fun of a normal dining experience. In addition to delicious seafood and steaks, the restaurant's cooks provide a show while they cook your meal.

Cooks light the tables on fire, twirl knives in the air and make flaming onion volcanoes to entertain diners while they wait for their food. Sakura also provides a wide sushi selection.

As photographs on the wall can attest, Sakura is a popular spot with local celebrities. During spring training, when three major league baseball teams hit the Old Pueblo to gear up for the regular season, big leaguers are known to hang out at Sakura.

To get to Sakura from Downtown, take Speedway to Wilmot Road, then go north. Wilmot turns into Tanque Verde, and Sakura is on the right side of the road just before the Kolb Road intersection.

Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-11 p.m. Friday; 5-11 p.m. Saturday; 5-10 p.m. Sunday.

Phil Villarreal


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