A meeting of some of the world’s biggest mineral nerds was another thing this city lost last year to COVID-19. The Denver Gem & Mineral Show was set to put on its 54th-annual convention when the virus arrived. Organizers pulled out before they sunk any costs into the affair.
Then, the Denver Mart — the show’s long time venue — closed for good in February. Volunteer Gloria Staebler said many on the Greater Denver Area Gem and Mineral Council, who puts on the affair, thought the event would have to wait yet another year.
But a German gem enthusiast saved the day.
Chris Keilmann grew up around his father’s rock convention in Munich which, like the Denver Gem & Mineral Show, began as a “grassroots” convergence of mineral lovers. Together, they traveled the world meeting other like minded folks. When he was 14, Keilmann said, his dad brought him to the Greater Denver Council’s signature show. So he already knew the group when he began work to bring his own upscale event to town. When he heard the Council’s event had fallen on hard times, he offered them space in his event at the Colorado Convention Center to reunite their members.
Keilmann’s show, dubbed the Hardrock Summit, represents an industry that’s grown around hobbyist events like the one the Greater Denver Council founded 50 years ago.
“When we started in this business, minerals were really a hobby. It wasn’t until the ’90s when mineral prices really started exploding,” Brian Lees, who has been involved in the Denver Gem & Mineral Show for years, said. “They’ve entered a new genre. It’s the mineral collecting business and people are collecting them as fine art.”
Beyond new buyers who are willing to spend big bucks on rare specimens, cool rocks have found wide audiences in places like Instagram. People racked with anxiety about current events have also turned to the so-called healing power of crystals in growing numbers.
The hot market is one reason Lees invested in a defunct silver mine near Breckenridge where he now harvests rhodochrosite, Colorado’s gummy-red state mineral. Keilmann has actually reunited three of the most famous finds from Lees’ mine for his Hardrock Summit – the Alma King, Queen and Rose – to draw more eyes to the event.
The commercialization of rare gems has brought some unwelcome competition to the city. A rival event, the Denver Mineral, Fossil, Gem & Jewelry Show, is also in town this weekend. Staebler said its out-of-state founder arrived about 10 years ago and has bombarded the city with advertising for its program, which has confused longtime customers and generated some “bad blood” between the two groups.
But Lees said he’s generally happy to see competition, prices and culture grow around his industry.
“That’s a great thing, because it brings people back to the earth,” he said. “All things come from our earth, and we need to take care of it. We need to be good stewards of the earth and I think mineral collecting is engendering that sense with many new collectors.”
While there’s money to be made, much of this event is really about people with a shared passion.
Up an escalator from the Hardrock Summit’s main hall, the Denver Gem & Mineral Show has its own space that’s filled with many of the enthusiasts who have made it possible for so long. It’s not as flashy as the room downstairs, the gems are smaller and less expensive, but there’s more to it than commerce.
“One of the best things about the mineral community is the people,” Staebler said while she wandered the show’s rows before visitors arrived. “You will find an enormously diverse group of people from all different sectors of society, across the political spectrum, and there’s enormous tolerance.”
As she strode past vendors setting up their wares, it was clear many were old friends.
One was Ana De Los Santos, who’s traveled from California for years to attend the conference.
“They’re great people, great people. They put on good shows. They really care for the dealers,” she said, adding she’ll stick with this group as they continue to search for stability: “I’m gonna go with them wherever they go.”
Everyone who works for the Denver Gem & Mineral Show is a volunteer, Staebler told us, adding that its members have been through a lot together. The show coincided with the Big Thompson Flood in 2013, which decimated attendance. Twenty years ago last week, the event was beginning as two planes hit the World Trade Center in New York City, which basically canceled all programming.
“This community, we go through these things together,” she said. “In one way, it’s really hard on a show. But it binds us. We were together.”