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Scouting for Sparkles: How I Buy Gems for My Jewelry Designs

Karin Jacobson design process gem buying

Sometimes I’m surprised that the more technical aspects of my design process are interesting to … well, anyone! But I really shouldn’t be; I absolutely adore peeking behind the curtain at the creative practices of other designers and artisans. Learning about their techniques feels intimate and compelling, and makes their finished products feel even more meaningful.

So with that in mind, I’m launching a blog series on my OWN processes! We’ll kick things off with something super important to me as a designer who uses fair trade materials: Gem buying.

Gems in Vegas

Buying gems at AGTA in Las Vegas
Hello, Las Vegas!

I recently went to Las Vegas to visit a couple of jewelry trade shows - these were open just to jewelry industry people and showcased finished jewelry, raw materials (such as diamonds and colored gems), and other tools and supplies.

I started at JCK (Jeweler’s Circular Keystone), a mind-bogglingly massive show with nearly 2,500 exhibitors that sucked up 2.1 million square feet of the Mandalay Bay resort. (Think miniature city populated by pro jewelers.) There were sections for people selling finished pieces, gems, tools, supplies, and a variety of other jewelry-related services. Although I was on the lookout for gems and vendors, I also spent some time scoping out the suppliers section and ogling the new cutting-edge tools. I am now totally obsessed with adding a micro tig welder to my workshop! Friends, I am in love with this tool and am already mentally planning the designs I’ll craft once I get my hot little hands on one…

 Searching for tools at JCK Las Vegas
A demo of my dream micro tig welder.

Then I scooted over to AGTA (American Gem Trade Association), which is all gems, all the time. Most of the diamonds were back at JCK, so this section focused on colored gems and pearls. I found some great stones and great business connections while I roamed the booths.

Missions: Accomplished

At AGTA, I was keen to connect with Columbia Gem House (CGH), a company that specializes in fair trade gemstones. And this is the part where I mention that finding credible, ethical, transparent suppliers for fair trade stones is a bear. It’s important to remember that there are people on both ends of any transaction—in this case miners and cutters—whose jobs are difficult and dangerous if safety isn’t made a priority. I want to make sure that the companies I buy from are working with mines and cutting houses that are clean, safe, and pay their workers a fair wage.

Which is why I came to Las Vegas to meet with the folks at  CGH in person. I’d worked with them before, but only to purchase sapphires, a well-known specialty of theirs. (Side note: the sapphire in my engagement ring is from a fair-trade mine in Malawi, via CGH!) Now that I know more about the depth and breadth of their offerings, I plan to make them my primary source for  ethically sourced stones.

 Searching for ethically sourced gems at AGTA Las Vegas
Fair trade rubies & Montana sapphires at CGH.

I also met John Dyer, a wildly talented gem cutter who is originally from my home state of Minnesota, but now lives most of the year in Brazil. He’s won loads of awards for his unique and fancy cuts, and I saw several stones that set my heart a-fluttering, including a spectacular pink tourmaline (sourced in California!)  that I simply HAD to take home with me. I feel good buying from him since he does the cutting himself in a safe working environment and obviously pays himself a fair wage. He’s also got direct relationships with some key suppliers and miners, so bonus points for transparency there!

I packed in a lot, which made for a fun and exhausting couple of days, but I ticked SO many things off my list. New gems, new vendors, new tools, loads of inspiration...

… and a side-order of vacation

Since I had a free companion ticket (woohoo!), I brought my husband, Adam. I’m not really a “Vegas person,” and have only visited for work stuff in the past, but having Adam along made the whole experience exponentially more fun. Seriously, you guys, we had an absolute blast! Neither of us are big-time gamblers so I have no stats to report from the blackjack tables, but we tackled just about everything else. We ate some truly stellar food, including a memorable Mediterranean meal at Cleo. We saw Cirque du Soleil’s “KA,” which was *a-mazing*! (If you have the chance to see it, DO.) We both love the heat so we enjoyed a relaxing poolside afternoon with gin & tonics, and totally lucked out with a super-cute, less casino-y, more resort-y hotel that featured two luxe pools and excellent eateries.

 Searching for gemstones at JCK Las Vegas
Here we are in front of the ultimate robotic
wine vault at Mandalay Bay. #winegoals
 Shopping for gemstones at AGTA Las Vegas
Gin & tonics by the pool at our hotel.

It was also surprisingly fun to bring Adam along to visit vendors and try out tools. (I swear, he wants that micro tig welder as much as I do. I’m sure when I get it, he’ll find all kinds of things he NEEDS to weld.) We love to discuss just about everything related to my business, but this was like a full-on backstage pass into the jewelry world. And since I wanted to wow him, I made sure to trot us past some gobstopper-sized diamonds, gargantuan pearls, sapphires, rubies, emeralds, opals, and other big, juicy gems. And, of course, we hit up the finished jewelry section to ogle a few jaw-dropping works of wearable art.

I hope this little recap of my gem-buying trip was entertaining and interesting! If there are any other aspects of my design process that intrigue you as a reader, please don’t hesitate to let me know. I’d love to make this series as engaging as it can possibly be, and welcome your suggestions!


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