This Christmas, a lot of people on your wish list might actually want rocks in their stockings. Crystals, to be specific.
What used to be considered alternative and/or weird has gained enough attention to become a mainstream interest. According to The Guardian, America’s demand for “…overseas crystals and gemstones has doubled over the past three years, and quartz imports have doubled since 2014.” The mall is full of crystal starter kits and Anthropologie-esque jewelry with crystals attributed with meaning “love” or “peace” or “harmony.” In Columbia alone we have over four shops that are known for selling crystals, gemstones, and other alternative items.
Being interested in alternative medicine or holistic practices is often chalked up to the Millennial and Gen Z population, but interest in alternative medicine and “New Age” beliefs has risen across the board. Pew Research Center found that in 2018, 42% of all U.S. adults believe “spiritual energy can be located in physical things.” Whether for healing, spiritual, or personal practices — crystals have become part of a billion dollar industry. And, like a lot of people, you might be interested in getting some rock candy to wear or meditate with, too.
Let’s explore what they are, why they’re so popular, and what you need to know if you’ve got the crystal bug.
What are they? Facts vs. Fiction
Crystals are “…a body that is formed by the solidification of a chemical element, a compound, or a mixture and has a regularly repeating internal arrangement of its atoms and often external plane faces.” Some crystals are pretty rocks such as quartz that we associate with having special properties, but table salt and snowflakes are also technically crystals. What we usually think of when it comes to these practices are gemstones which can be crystals, rocks, or other naturally occurring materials like coral or amber that are beautiful, rare, and durable. Most of the time people will say crystal even if they’re actually referring to a gemstone.
You’ve got a problem? There’s a crystal for that. From being broke to a broken heart, crystals have been said to have physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, and metaphysical powers. Though many claims are made about the magical properties of crystals, they are still considered a pseudoscience and to date, studies haven’t verified that they have supernatural or healing properties. In other words, as far as the majority of the scientific community is concerned, a crystal or gemstone is a rock. Maybe a really aesthetically pleasing rock, but a rock nonetheless.
Has the lack of support for the power of crystals affected their booming popularity? Not at all. Like anything intangible humans believe in, the belief in that thing is its own kind of magic. If anything, the most well-known study on this subject demonstrated that crystals and gemstones are powerful examples of the placebo effect, which is very real. Placebo isn’t about treatment, but about your belief in the treatment and that belief might not change your ailment but can absolutely change you perception of pain.
Professor Ted Kaptchuk of Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center said of the placebo effect, “People associate the ritual of taking medicine as a positive healing effect … even if they know it's not medicine, the action itself can stimulate the brain into thinking the body is being healed."
Motivations for using crystals
Crystals can be used by themselves or to complement other practices. For example, people might use crystals as elements in their tarot card spreads. Other people, like Linda Bonebrake of Karma Care, LLC, first got into crystals and gemstones as an alternative healing treatment when she broke her back several years ago and struggled with traditional treatments. She used pendulums and a Biomat, a long infrared mat which contains amethyst and is used for healing purposes.
“Life’s too short to not do something you really love,” said Bonebrake. “About two months later I was signing a lease to open a shop.”
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Bonebrake is a licensed counselor and incorporates crystal work in her counseling sessions. She carries over 50 varieties of crystal and has found that customers seek out crystals and gemstones for many different reasons.
“I have people who just collect them cause they’re pretty," Bonebrake said. "I have geologists that come in, they like them because I’ve got some that are very rare and unusual. But then I have people that use it for all kinds of spiritual practice … Native Americans, Pagans, Wiccans, even Christians.”
Bonebrake has had an increase in customers over the past few years and is even starting to sell on Amazon to meet growing demand. Beyond spiritual use or cultural meaning, crystals can be fascinating talismans in their own right.
“A lot of it has to do with color,” said Bonebrake, attributing some of the effect to color theory. “But also the feel of them, the tactile experience.” She has noticed many of her customers tend to be nurses and teachers.
Curt Hooker, a secondary education social studies major at Mizzou, became interested in crystals through a friend. He owns several crystals and appreciates their aesthetic appeal but doesn’t care whether they “work” or not.
“I’m not upset about it … now I have this cool, pretty necklace from it. No loss there,” says Hooker.
Like many practitioners, crystal use seems to be a personal experience rather than a dogmatic practice. Hooker continued to buy crystals despite the lack of results from his first.
“I would just be at a store or be like I want to spend some money and I’d look up some different crystal properties. I’d be like alright, it’s a new school year and I need a job and this one means opportunity, perfect" Hooker said. “Part of me is superstitious and where I’m like 'oh, this doesn’t do anything.' But at the same time its something nice to believe in that isn’t organized religion.”
Alyssa Booth, an early childhood education major at Mizzou, is interested in crystal practice but hasn’t bought any yet. Booth sees crystals’ power as stemming from the person who is using them and that they can be a tool for self-discovery and self-care.
“I’m open-minded and I like to learn new ways to get in tune with myself, my emotions and feelings," says Booth. “I like to experience other things people believe in, especially objects that hold power or meaning … I feel like [my generation is] definitely into the spirituality of objects.”
If, like many people, you’re interested in trying out crystals for yourself, here’s a few things to keep in mind. First and foremost, do your homework.
“It can be really overwhelming to search crystals and their properties online," says Hooker, who recommends going to buy your first gemstones in person.
Keep an eye out for deals that are genuinely too good to be true as the recent uptick in consumer interest means that a lot of synthetic crystals have been brought into the market.
“Watch for fakes. If you don’t know a lot, you’re more likely to get duped," Bonebrake says. “I also caution people to buying things online if you don't know what you're doing or if you don't know the dealer.”
Common issues for a novice can be buying the wrong size crystals because they’re unfamiliar with the sizing system or being sold the wrong gems entirely. Often only a trained eye can tell if a stone is fake or not.
“I can tell if rubies are real because when you hit it with a black light, it's going to turn a bright red. If it doesn't, it's fake. With amber, I can tell with a black light,” Bonebrake said.
The cost of the current crystal craze isn’t just what you pay out of pocket, there is a larger human and environmental cost to be considered. All mining practices have the potential to take an environmental toll and often miners are only paid a fraction of the final sale amount and may be working in inhumane conditions. Find out where your gemstones are from and if they were ethically mined. If your crystal vendor can’t tell you the history of the stones, it may be a good sign that they’re not trustworthy.