If you’ve ever been to a festival, a doof, a market, or an esoteric shop you would have seen your fair share of crystals. Draped around necks and wrapped in macramé or set in silver, these crystals are purported to have spiritual qualities. Holding crystals or placing them on your body is thought to promote physical, emotional or spiritual healing. Crystals are supposed to do this by positively interacting with your body’s energy field, or chakra.
It should come as little surprise to any rational thinker that, as with most pseudo-science, there is no peer-reviewed scientific backing for these sorts of bold claims. Researchers have carried out few studies due to the highly dubious nature of the field. However, one study conducted in 2001 and presented at the European Congress of Psychology in Rome concluded that the power of these minerals is ‘in the eye of the beholder.’
“We found that lots of people claimed that they could feel odd sensations while holding the crystals, such as tingling, heat and vibrations, if we’d told them in advance that this is what might happen. In other words, the effects reported were a result of the power of suggestion, not the power of the crystals.”
It’s the placebo effect – the same way that a doctor might prescribe a placebo cure to an imagined illness in order to cure the sufferer. It’s not the medicine that cures them, it’s their belief in the medicine curing them. This is how crystal dealers convince people to purchase their largely overpriced rocks. An impressionable person might approach a crystal stand, and be informed that a certain crystal or stone is what they need to align their chakras, based on their star sign or the keen eye of the dealer. People love to hear about themselves – this is why so many of us invest heavily in our horoscopes. Horoscopes are written in such a general way that anybody could apply any horoscope to some aspect of their life. Or, they might interpret a certain unrelated aspect of their current situation as aligning with what is written in the horoscope. The psychological phenomenon that makes us see faces on inanimate objects is known as pareidolia. This phenomenon causes us to lend significance and facial features to random patterns. This happens because we seek connection, and familiarity from the world around us. A similar phenomenon occurs when we read horoscopes, or hear about how a crystal might fix our every emotional and physical ailment – we seek out the connection to us, and latch onto that because it is comfortable to do so.
People believe in astrology, and by extension in the power of crystals, for the same reason that people believe in any theology or superstition. Astrology offers a plethora of things that humans in general find desirable and comforting; information and assurances about our futures, ways to be absolved of current negative situations, solutions to pending or future decisions, and a way to feel connected to the larger cosmos. Religion offers similar assurances and condolences. It’s easier to believe that god created you, loves you and thinks you’re special than it is to believe that we only exist because of a random chain of chaotic cosmic events, and that there is no creator dictating what happens on Earth. Just as it is easier to believe that the position of the moon, or the fact that Mercury is in retrograde is affecting your behaviour, rather than facing the fact that your behaviour is based on your own approaches and ways of thinking. Just as it is easier to believe that a rock pulled from the Earth will solve all of your problems, than it is to face the fact that you need to solve your problems yourself. The crystal market, and the astrology market succeed because they sell people belief in something bigger than themselves, something that connects their energy to the energy of the larger universe.
This is how religion has functioned for hundreds of years.
The manipulation of people’s insecurities and emotions is at the core of selling them a crystal. If someone believes that they need something as opposed to just wanting it, they are far more likely to pay for it. This kind of psychological trickery is standard practice in advertising and marketing. Just because these crystal dealers are coming from a place of ‘spirituality’, does not mean they aren’t trying to make money off you – they most certainly are. And an awful lot of it.
A source I spoke with on the condition of anonymity who was formerly a partner in one of Australia’s many small scale crystal dealing businesses informed me about some of the price mark ups on crystals. When she worked in the field a few years ago, she would travel to markets in Bankok, Thailand, where stones and crystals are sold. Bangkok is one of the main trading points for these items, where stones from South Africa, Tanzania, Afghanistan, Madacascar, The Congo and beyond can be bought and sold. The stones bought at these markets are usually rough, and need to be cut and polished – buying a cut and polished stone from a market is a risky exercise, as these will often be fake. The fakes produced replicate the exact chemical compounds of the stone or crystal they are mimicking, making it very hard for the naked eye to identify a fake. She explained that she could purchase 1kg of Labradorite for about $30AUD. This stone could be made into 20 necklaces, each sold at $30 a piece. That’s $570 worth of profits. If she were to buy a piece of Ethopian opal in Bangkok, that would set her back about $5 – set in a silver ring (at a cost of about $10), this could be sold for up to $120. Moldavite, a vitreous silica projectile rock formed by a meteorite impact in southern Germany (Nördlinger Ries Crater) that occurred about 15 million years ago, would cost about $10-$15 a piece. Set in jewellery, this could sell for up to $300. These steep markups could perhaps by justified by the hours put in by those selling the jewellery – particularly if they are silversmithing themselves, or doing the macramé themselves. However, many in the industry will get this done by cheap overseas workers. While there are no doubt artisans who construct each piece themselves, there are just as many who will have their items produced overseas at a low cost, to sell at a huge profit.
Of course, an entire industry cannot be demonised based on steep profit margins – profit is the essence of any business, and at the heart of our capitalist society. What is striking is that people working in this industry will often align themselves with an anti-capitalist philosophy of community and spirituality – all while handsomely profiting off the insecurities of others. While this is perhaps somewhat hypocritical and unethical, the grim reality that those who work in the industry, and those who consume the products must face is the sourcing of these stones.
Often, these stones are mined in countries with notoriously lax labor laws, occupational safety laws and environmental regulations. Countries like Afghanistan, Cambodia, Vietnam and The Congo. While the environmental impact of mining crystals as opposed to mining gold, copper or coal are comparatively low, as the field expands into a multi-billion dollar industry and demand increases, we are sure to see a steep reduction of these precious minerals within the earth. The irony here of course is that those who tout the benefits of crystals, and those who sell them, will often refer to the connection these items will give you to the Earth, and the importance of the link between us and nature. All the while, they are ripping the guts out of the Earth, in the same way that any major mining company (often demonised by these sorts of communities) do.
A large portion of crystal mining also happens to be tied up with industrial mining. Large scale industrial mines don’t exist to excavate crystals, usually they exist to excavate things like copper, gold or cobalt. But jewellery grade crystals are usually found when large companies excavate enormous sections of land. These crystals are considered ‘by-products’, and it is a profitable portion of the mining industry.
It is surprisingly easy with a little bit of digging to prove that a lot of crystals come from mines which have an overwhelmingly negative impact on the planet. For instance, blue chrysocolla (a ‘supportive goddess energy stone’) and pyrite stones (purported to promote ‘positive thinking’ can and have been found in the Chino Copper Mine, located in New Mexico. According to Earthworks, this mine “will generate an estimated 2 billion gallons of acid and metals contaminated seepage every year, requiring water treatment in perpetuity.” The mines have resulted in “severe surface and groundwater contamination, and the State of New Mexico and U.S. Department of Justice have filed natural resource damage claims against the company for damages to water and wildlife resources.”
Even though the mine from which it was pulled is destroying the environment around it, at least that special stone gives you ‘supportive goddess energy’, right?
Mines in U.S and other developed countries are of course subject to strict labour regulations and environmental protections. Even though many of these protections in the U.S have been rolled back by the current Trump administration, there are still strict rules governing how a mining company can build and run their mine. In less developed countries, regulations in the field are slim to none. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, children as young as seven years old reportedly work in copper and cobalt mines in the country’s Katanga region. In some cases, the age of workers has been reported as young as 4. Mines in this region are rich in minerals such as amethyst, citrine, and tourmaline – each of these stones are coveted for their healing qualities by crystal dealers.
A popular crystal buying website Minfind.com has listings of stones like malachite for ‘transformation’, cuprite for ‘vitality’, clear quartz which they call ‘the master healer’, and a malachite stone dubbed ‘one of the most important healing stones of the new millennium’. The common theme between each of these stones is that they were sourced from the Democratic Republic of Congo. There is something tragically ironic about selling stones sourced from unsafe, unregulated mines where 4 year olds are working as ‘healing’ – they’re surely not healing the children digging them up. In fact, the US Centre for Disease control reports that “chronic exposure to cobalt-containing hard metal (dust or fume) can result in a serious lung disease called hard metal lung.” Inhalation of cobalt particles can also cause respiratory sensitisation, asthma, decreased pulmonary function and shortness of breath, and in some cases death. The crystal industry is not the only industry profiting from unsafe and inhumane mining practices in places like the Congo. An Amnesty International report about human rights abuses in the cobalt trade indicates that cobalt mined by children gets used in products for prominent tech companies like Apple, Microsoft, Tesla, and Samsung. Of course, companies such as these are no stranger to taking advantage of cheaper working conditions in poorer countries to the detriment of the health of those working. It would be short sighted to look at the negative impacts of crystal mining alone without looking at the damage that mining for materials in developing countries by huge corporations does as well.
Next time you’re being talked into buying a ‘healing crystal’ take a second to think about where that mineral came from, who might have dug it up, and how much money the person selling it to you is making by playing on your insecurities. And perhaps take a moment to consider whether the ethical implications of pillaging the Earth of its natural resources for a fashion accessory really aligns with your world view.