A different kind of rock show

Rocks, gems, and fossils take over the VC Fairgrounds during Seaside Gems at Ventura

Show May 24 to 26

By Misty Hall
Photos courtesy VGMS

It’s 1944. The U.S. is still very much in the midst of World War II, and a group of Ventura teenagers are looking for something to do. Gas rations restrict them to pedestrian activities, so they walk to the beaches and nearby hills to look for rocks.

They find some pretty cool stuff — turns out, Ventura’s a fascinating place, geologically speaking (check out the photo of brecciated jasper). So they keep it up, growing in numbers and eventually going on field trips, after the war ends.

Thus began the Ventura Gem and Mineral Society. Eight decades after their first meeting in the rumpus room of a friend’s house, the group now has its own clubhouse, as well as monthly meetings and field trips, frequent educational events, annual shows, and members ranging in age from 4 to 90-plus.

This year, VGMS has been chosen to host the Annual Show & Convention of the American Federation of Mineralogical Societies, set for May 24 – 26 at the Ventura County Fairgrounds. If that mouthful sounds like a big deal, that’s because it is. The Ventura club was chosen from more than 600 similar nonprofits to host the show, which only comes to California once every seven years. No surprise, then, that the organizers refer to it as “The Super Bowl of gem shows.” Aside from the famous Tucson and Denver shows, it’s among the biggest gem and mineral shows west of the Mississippi.

“Both of those big commercial shows are truly huge — spread out across their respective cities in multiple hotels and venues — and pretty much overwhelming and impossible to take in all at once,” said VGMS member Jim Brace-Thompson. “Our national show (in Ventura) takes place in one convenient venue, giving you a taste of Tucson in a way that’s much more manageable and fun.”

So, what will you find at this near-largest show in the West? Dozens of vendors, over 100 museum-quality exhibits, demonstrations, renowned speakers, and plenty of chances to get hands-on. Because the VGMS takes seriously its role as a nonprofit educational group, you’ll find ample opportunities to learn, especially for kids. Seasoned rockhounds will find an awesome community of like-minded folks, but even rock novices will find row after row of pretty, shiny things to capture their attention.

Bottom line: If you’ve ever picked up a rock and thought, “Oh that’s kinda cool,” plan to be at the Seaside Gems at Ventura show on May 24 to 26. You’ll be in good company, as the show is expected to draw 3,000-plus people over the weekend.

Among the featured displays will be the California Golden Bear nugget — discovered by a young girl in Placer County in 1871 — which is normally housed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. Also on display will be samples of the California state gemstone (blue benitoite), the state rock (serpentine), and the state fossil (the saber-toothed cat). But there will also be dozens of other displays from private collections and crafters throughout California and the U.S., many of which will have entered the refereed competition for trophies offered at both the regional and national level. “And those displays will truly be of museum quality,” Brace-Thompson said.

Although he said he’d be “up to his ears” busy as one of the event organizers, Brace-Thompson said the displays are always one of his favorite parts of these shows. “They always include something you’ve never seen before. And I look forward to the lectures.”

Hands on fun at the Kids Booth.

The full lineup is still being finalized, but a few speakers have been locked in. Among the highlights: Luis de los Santos, speaking on colorful Condor Agates from Patagonia, Argentina; Maxine Dearborn, speaking about amber; Dick Weber, speaking on the DeGrussa Gold & Copper Mine of Western Australia; and Keri Dearborn, who will speak on the geology of the Channel Islands. Talks at past shows have included such topics as gemstones, dinosaurs, petrified wood, meteorites, and agates, so keep an eye on the website as May 24 rolls nearer.

Brace-Thompson and his fellow VGMS organizers put considerable effort into the Kids Booth, with a vast number of educational, hands-on activities (which are either free or “priced to match a kid’s budget”). Among them: a dino dig, a spinning wheel where every spin wins a prize, grab bags filled with rocks and fossils, and a sand-sifting activity. Free teacher resources will also be available. “Plus,” said Brace-Thompson, “as they enter the show, each child gets to pick out a free polished stone right off the bat from a treasure chest, and each child can also pick up a Scavenger Hunt card to fill in and receive yet another free prize.”

Kids and adults will enjoy other activities, like the gold panning booth from The Valley Prospectors of San Bernardino. Yes, you’ll get to take home a bit of gold — and learn a few tricks of the trade from the experts if you decide to head out to the hills yourself.

Demonstrations abound, as well. You’ll get a chance to watch lapidary artists turn rough stones into stunning pieces of art, with specialized equipment for carving, polishing, jewelry making, and even fossil cleaning.

beautiful gem trees.

Strong, indeed, is the person who can check out all of this and not want to bring home some gems and minerals of their own. To that end, you’ll find 50-plus vendors selling what the VGMS says is “All manner of rock-related materials: rough chunks and slabs of agate, jasper, marble, and onyx … gemstone rough (amethyst, opal, emerald, sapphire, ruby, tourmaline, jade) … cut, faceted, and polished gemstones ready to be mounted into jewelry settings; the lapidary tools and equipment with which to cut, carve, and polish; both common and rare mineral specimens, gemstone crystals, and meteorites for beginners through advanced collectors; fossils and petrified wood from around the world; gem-, mineral-, and fossil-related publications and fieldtrip guidebooks; beads of all sorts; stone carvings, spheres, and other sculpted works for home decor; and fine custom jewelry ready to wear.”

Precious gemstone carvings.

And as if that weren’t enough, VGMS has hourly silent auctions where you can score killer deals on really cool pieces, from local minerals to petrified wood to geodes just waiting for you to crack them open and discover what’s inside.

If you can’t make the May show but still want to learn all things geology, the Ventura Gem and Mineral Society is always looking for new members (yes, you can join even if you don’t live here). They host monthly meetings where you can come ask questions and learn from expert speakers. Pebble Pups — their kids’ group — is incredible for kids who always have pockets full of rocks.

If you decide to join, you can jump in on some amazing members-only field trips to find fossils in the Ventura foothills, agates in the Santa Monica Mountains, and to further away places, “particularly into the Mojave Desert and to the Clear Creek District in Central California, and Jade Cove up in the Big Sur region,” Brace-Thompson said. You can also get certified on their clubhouse’s lapidary machinery to cut and polish your finds. But you don’t have to join to learn. Students and educators (and anyone interested, really!) can schedule a time to come to their Ojai clubhouse museum and library. Or, you can be a guest at their regular workshop days on the third Saturday of the month.

VGMS members can take advantage of great field trips, like this one to find tourmaline.

The Seaside Gems at Ventura Show runs May 24 to 26 at the Ventura County Fairgrounds. Tickets are $8 for adults, and free for kids 13 and under with a paid adult. For more on the show, visit 2024CFMS-AFMS.com. To learn more about the VGMS or to join, see vgms.org.