Hunting Faceting Rough in the Backwater at Tucson
by Bob Keller
Even with some years worth of material in my faceting rough box now, there is still the thrill of the hunt and the occasional kill... I just can't help myself and do my best to leave no water at Tucson unpaddled and unexplored for faceting rough. I have come to appreciate there are many more opportunities to buy natural faceting rough at the various shows than as offered by rough dealers as faceting rough per se. Part of success at acquiring interesting rough and bargains of opportunity during the Tucson Show is simply keeping an open mind regarding recognizing potential faceting rough as such when you encounter it.
My experience has been faceters who are looking for the unusual and the real gongas and bargains at Tucson may fare better looking in thumbnail boxes and flats at the ma and pa mineral dealers in the motel rooms than concentrating on plates full of faceting rough laid out by the sharks at the glitzy gem shows... Out there in the gemological backwater at Tucson it truly is the case that one man's junk can be another man's gem. For those who are able and inclined to take the time to hunt, there are rewards both quantifiable and less tangible. The backwater approach at Tucson isn't for everyone, but it can be a Mecca for the incorrigible bargain hunters and particularly those who are interested in acquiring materials that are not mainstream faceting rough. Some of the less than mainstream materials can be had in facet grade so inexpensively at Tucson you aren't going to get hurt buying some even if you can't figure out how to cut or polish it later...
Some mineral dealers could care less once they have your money if you take the rocks and pound them to powder with a rock hammer. There are also a few who get more attached and actually seem to take it personally if they learn you are looking upon one of their specimens as a cutter.
While I've wished once or twice I'd simply kept my intentions to myself, I'm convinced that proactively querying specimen dealers about potential faceting material is by and large more productive than keeping them in the dark that you're interested in cutters. A great deal of rocks change hands during Tucson without ever being brought out from beneath the beds or under the tables and put out on display for the public at large. Some of the mineral dealers have literally scores to hundreds of flats of material in their motel rooms and beneath the tables in their booths and still outside in their trucks that you have to ask about and be willing to spend some time visiting with and digging through. Everyone who makes a cursory pass in a room or booth sees what is out on top of the shelves and the beds, but a far fewer number of buyers see what is in the flats.
Sometimes what is in those flats are the "B" grade mineral specimens with dinged terminations or other damage that is inconsequential to cutters. Up top space is at a premium for the dealers, so they tend to stock that first with their better and higher margin specimens. Particularly when you are interested in a specimen that is dinged, don't be afraid to make an offer if you feel you need to do better on price to make it viable to you as rough. The hard core specimen collectors generally consider externally damaged crystals to be dust catchers. "Gemmyness" always seems to be a plus (funny how that works) but of utmost importance to the specimen collector (after knowing where the specimen is from - preferably the exact level or pocket in the hole) is the external condition of the crystal faces and termination(s) - something the cutter could care less about. Also being on matrix is a plus plus with specimen collectors and even what are known as "floaters" do not typically go for as big of bucks as the crystal on matrix specimens. A "specimen grade crystal" that is simply broken off from a cluster or matrix is an oxymoron to the "serious" specimen collectors.
What the specimen collectors are nowhere near as sensitive to as cutters are veils, cracks, bubbles, inclusions and even the complete lack of transparency - even a good schorl on matrix can fetch a real pretty penny with the specimen guys. Cutters hunting the backwater are likely to see lots and lots of tourmaline and garnet specimens - often very pricey - before finding even one that they consider as a candidate for cutting. If your time at Tucson is very limited and your main mission in attending the Show is to have opportunities to first hand inspect and score some acceptable but nearly for sure buys on mainstream faceting rough, then the shows where there are plates piled with rough offered to faceters for faceting by faceting rough dealers may be more your cup of tea and productive for you.
There are of course mineral specimen collectors with less refined or educated tastes (and just plain thinner billfolds and purses), so just as with faceting rough there is some market for almost anything. But unless a famous locality or other extenuating considerations are involved, there is generally nowhere near the market and profit potential for mineral dealers in less than primo condition specimens. Another unfortunate fact of life is that some mineral specimens inevitably get broken and dinged moving them around and in spite of their best efforts, many specimen dealers unfortunately suffer some losses just getting their stuff to the Tucson Show and unpacked. A lot of the rocks at Tucson were literally shipped here from the other side of the planet. Another way to work the specimen dealers for rough is simply inquire if they might have any damaged specimens or pieces thereof that would be suitable. A few times I have walked away from a motel room grinning from ear to ear with a new cutter that was literally given away, as the mineral dealer was pleased just to find someone who could salvage anything from their misfortune.
The really, really good stuff often does not get put out on open display as well, as the dealers are justifiably concerned about their creme de la creme being damaged by some thoughtless and touchy looker, or possibly even stolen when they have their backs turned helping someone else. Unfortunately this goes on at Tucson and the dealers who do not have a lot of glass to put between their material and the public at large tend to keep the very special and valuable pieces out of sight except to special customers. At times you will see motel rooms closed during business hours with a "Be Back Soon" sign on the door and what is sometimes going on then is a special showing for special customers. What can make you special sometimes is simply expressing an interest by way of inquiring about special pieces.
I usually fair well at Tucson finding backwater cutter bargains on materials like smoky quartz, rose quartz, rutilated quartz and clear quartz too of course, on feldspar group materials like orthoclase and oligoclase (sunstone), danburite, topaz, an occasional aquamarine crystal and of course all kinds of facet grade in the less mainstream and more "challenging" materials like fluorite, apophyllite, zincite... I once scored some big chunks of really beautiful rutilated quartz just right for faceting or cabbing for cheap cheap cheap from a metaphysical dealer who had the misfortune of dropping a box of lapidaried dust collectors and dinging up several of them pretty badly - I just happened to be standing there at his booth when it happened and made him an opportune offer.
One Show I acquired a lifetime supply of some of Mount Ida's finest facet grade from an Arkansas rock crystal miner in return for thirty minutes or so time digging through and cherry picking internally flawless cutters from bins on his $5.00 per pound table. Another Show I scored several rather nice prismatic yellow apatite crystals for about $6.00 each from a collection that was being liquidated by a mineral dealer. The terminations on them were nothing to write home about, but they were big and clean and put a smile on my face as faceting rough. Then there were those pink danburite crystals circulating around some of the Mexican mineral dealers a few years back that I'm still kicking myself in the butt over not stocking up on when they were around... Unfortunately they didn't grab me because I didn't make the connection with them as faceting rough at the time.
Of course it's all quite interesting to look through, particularly so if you also just happen to be an incorrigible mineral specimen collector. I'm afraid I just can't help myself when it comes to cool rocks in general and have even been known to silverpick a few fossils and slabs of cabbing rough here and there while making my rounds through the "backwater" during Tucson. I'm not so sure whether it is ultimately more economic to hunt the backwater or patronize faceting rough dealers is even the primary consideration. I've come to appreciate this faceting rough hunting and collecting thing also works something like my shell collection that I assembled during years of diving in the Sea of Cortez. Every shell in my collection was personally picked up off the bottom of the ocean by me, and I can still vividly recall the particular dive and finding them when I look at many of them.
By the time I factor in the cost of ongoing diving instruction and certification through rescue diver, all my equipment, plane tickets, motels, live aboard diving trips, and finally partners on my own twin-engined cabin cruiser and a slip at the marina at San Carlos, navigational charts, fuel, tools, repairs, rebuilding, countless tanks full of air and Corona beers, the ice, et al - I figure each one of those shells probably cost me somewhere in the neighborhood of $250-$500 on the average... and I doubt there are very few in the lot that I could have not have just walked in and purchased from a Mexican curio shop or shell dealer for $10 US. Did I cheat myself collecting my shells "the hard way"? Hell no!
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