It has been at least a decade since my last visit to the Tucson gems shows, which always coincided with the closing of an Ornament issue. In the past, I concentrated on vendors who dealt with ethnographic and/or ancient jewelry or shows featuring contemporary glass ornaments and their makers. This year I was able to take time away from the Ornament office with my son Patrick Benesh-Liu and drive to Tucson where he was introduced to the largest gem and jewelry shows in the world, with a culture of their own, and very different from the contemporary craft shows with which he is much more familiar. I had been following the progress of the Pasadena Bead and Design Show and wanted to see how these singular events compared to the much larger venues in Tucson by the same promoter, Anna Johnson. When Ornament last covered it in 2011, the Pasadena show spanned four days, hosted about two hundred vendors, offered about sixty workshops, and attracted up to ten thousand attendees from the sophisticated local community and greater Los Angeles area. Johnson’s three winter Tucson shows—To Bead True Blue and The Tucson Bead Shows—occur at the Doubletree hotel and Windmill Inn. Among the forty-three other shows occurring in Tucson during January and February, her shows have a rich diversity of vendors, retail focus and more pristine environments. Over six hundred vendors represent some forty-eight countries, sell gems, carvings, contemporary glass, enameled beads to African trade beads, some ethnographic jewelry and accessories for contemporary crafters, and teach over four hundred fifty-five workshops and classes. The show durations range from three to nine days; To Bead True Blue is the longest.
Because Johnson targets her shows for designers of contemporary jewelry, rather than rock hounds, wholesale buyers or ethnographic collectors who frequent the other shows, she has promoted classes and workshops from the beginning. This allows attendees to engage their passions, learning how to use tools and materials offered by the vendors. Largely dominated by women, this is an important and significant element of craft today—those interested in a particular craft medium enter into a lifestyle through their avocations. Many women find the supportive atmosphere of workshops at shows more welcoming than academic situations and enjoy the interaction with each other and their teachers, often traveling to several shows a year to enhance their skills and socialize with friends. It is especially important for firms introducing new products that they also teach the craft/beader community how to use such new material, like WireKnitz. Manufacturers, supply firms, other vendors, and well-known craft artists and teachers have now realized that women devoted to such crafts essentially constitute a large portion of the market for tools, supplies, kits, workshops, or other learning opportunities.
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