The Very Uncomfortable Thing About Crystals
I imagine this sort of conversation will be met with some strong emotions from listeners, depending how this information lands. Some might listen, some might deny, some might ignore. But, I promise you, it's all true.
We need to talk about crystals.
Crystals are beautiful, and to some people, incredibly meaningful in diverse ways and uses. The definition of a crystal in geological terms, straight from the Oxford Dictionary, is quote, "a piece of a homogeneous solid substance having a natural geometrically regular form with symmetrically arranged plane faces."
Within the context of modern occult and spiritual practices, the term "crystal" as extended to imply more than just the gemstones and included different rock an mineral types from all over the planet, so long as they are in the context of spiritual use. The term has become a blanket name for the rocks that are associated with occult practice in any way.
And so, crystals now sit on window sills, on altars, in bras and pockets, under pillows, in grid arrangements, among so many other uses, and of course, they sit in museums and collections. Some are so prized, so rare, and so beautiful they are one of a kind. In that case they're likely in Washington DC's Smithsonian institution, like the Blood Diamond.
Most people are very unaware of the process by which crystals end up in stores. In many cases, even the people who love and use these stones within their own spiritual practice, are only aware that spiritual and witchcraft or Magick shops are the most likely places to carry selections of different stones for sale, and that obviously they're mined from somewhere on earth and brought to the store. There's no question of the profitability of crystals within American culture, inside and outside the spiritual community, however, the actual journey of an individual stone itself, and the ripple effect of that journey, goes unquestioned.
Even with minimal knowledge or minimal interaction with crystals, most people are aware of the clear quartz point that we find so often in many aspects of popular spirituality. Running within the paranormal community exposes many more people to the use of crystals as well. The beliefs of some people involved in spirit communication go hand in hand with the use of stones; wearing, holding, healing, meditating with, setting out a particular way, anointing, empowering, etc. Crystals are popular, and for the past several decades, they've maintained an astounding staying power in the cultural collective of Western spiritualism.
So, why is the process of mining and supplying these highly-valued stones so mysterious to even the most informed of spiritual practitioners who've been using them for years?
The level of unawareness that pervades many modern crystal owners is in part due to the lack of transparency in the sourcing of these rare, beautiful stones. With multiple steps between mining the rock and preparing it for purchase, the ability to track a particular piece's origin is murky, and most often impossible. Bulk wholesalers are who provide much of the crystals we see in shops around the US, which is no different from any other product for sale. However, there are many suppliers and many ways in which the stock of crystals can change hands before finally being displayed on the shelf of a local business.
Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying all this to guilt-trip or shame anyone who loves and uses crystals. *I* own and use crystals. It's not the fault of the buyers or businesses who sell these stones for being unaware. I was in the dark until I did some digging, spurned on by a conversation with several friends while in Salem several years ago. We wondered about the origin of so many rare, tumbled and raw gemstones, and how often the shops in such a popular town for spiritual practice and witchcraft would have to restock their crystal selections.
Our wondering was not in vain, as it turns out, there are articles and studies done to bring to light what's really going on in what is called, the crystal industry.
What's the problem?
Don't be nervous, it's not a Mafia-level scandal or something, but it is a socioeconomic, cultural and humanitarian situation that at this point lacks abundantly in the way of immediate change, let alone universal understanding of it.
Let's go back to the early 2000's, when the term "blood diamond" entered our lexicon by way of a Hollywood movie. Not only was the Leonardo DiCaprio film of the same name a boost in understanding of the term, "blood diamond", but the national outrage it caused actually gave rise to positive changes and new laws and regulation in the diamond mining industry. It took awareness at a national, even somewhat international level, to enact changes within an industry that sits at the upper echelon of financial power in our world.
Crystals work the same way. They are mined from particular locations in the world where these veins of minerals can be found, most all of which are inherently some of the poorest nations on Earth. One particular country involved heavily in the crystal industry is Madagascar. Their red soil provides a protective layer over some of the most sought after stones: amethyst, citrine, labradorite, carnelian and tourmaline just to name a few. The miners who dig these crystals out in their raw form are not working for employers who have an OSHA level of standards for operation. They're not given health insurance or safe working conditions, and the pay is abysmally low, especially for the incredibly dangerous and labor-intensive job they're doing.
An astounding fact about the people who work in these mines is that "more than 80% of crystals are mined “artisanally” – meaning by small groups and families, without regulation, who are paid rock-bottom prices." Many of the miners in these African nations happen to be children as young as 7 years old. There is just no regulation and no organization in place to control and watch the mining industry in place in these countries to be able to bring this type of work to a safe, responsible, let alone environmentally sustainable standard. And, this is the case in many areas of the world where crystals are mined, not just the African continent.
At the start of the global supply chain of crystals are the mines in impoverished countries with workers facing dangerous conditions. But the side effects of mining impact the environment as well. The differing ways to mine, (open pit, alluvial, strip mining, mountaintop removal, borehole digging, etc), cause irreversible damage to the surrounding environment, impacting a fragile ecosystem. Landslides are common within the mining areas, damaging the livable and farmable areas of local communities. Surface and groundwater contamination from seepage causes a constant requirement of water treatment for surrounding human populations, and in many cases compromised environments and destruction of resources for the wildlife.
The glaring issue seems to be not just the side effects of mining but the sheer silence and acceptance of malpractice by the various types of mines in operation. The earth doesn't separate her bounty neatly or in an organized fashion. Many times mines operating for copper or other metals end up finding veins of crystals or gemstones and consider them "byproducts". It gets murkier from there; according to Emily Atkin at The New Republic, "Publicly-traded mining companies don’t routinely disclose all of their byproducts, nor to whom they sell these byproducts. Annual reports for shareholders tend to list only the cumulative profits from byproducts. It’s therefore difficult to assess what percentage of the healing crystal market is sourced from industrial mining operations."
I don't think we need to run out and stop buying crystals altogether, because I think that's downright impossible at several decades into the popularity of healing crystals. But, I think we could all benefit from more honest conversations with each other, fellow spiritual practitioners and crystal users, and friends who enjoy them, about where the pretty rocks we're buying are coming from. The diamond industry took a hard hit and then a resounding rebound after receiving so much negative blowback and public outcry over the conditions of mining. They implemented systems to track the product from start to finish in the supply chain. That's the most vital step in tracking not just the individual product, but the human and environmental effects the process causes before it ends up on shelves in the US market.
I think the crystal industry could undergo the same necessary, responsible changes, *IF* buyers are willing to find out where the stones are coming from. It's okay to ask a shop owner where the products come from, or at least what wholesaler or dealer they're working with. If you're stonewalled, you do have the option to buy elsewhere, or, not buy them at all. I can't imagine every retailer or seller of crystals is under some conspiracy of silence to never reveal their sources. I'd even hope most are open to the conversation of responsible sourcing and understanding more about the products they're working with. Capitalism is strong in the US, though, it's our whole game. So expect stonewalling when asking where the minerals are mined, or the shop owner or employee simply not knowing. It's not necessarily their fault, nor are they the true villains.
My best suggestion for going around the crystal industry altogether (if you choose to) is somewhat of an obvious one. Dig the rocks you want yourself. A spade, a shovel, a pick, a bag. I know there are dwellers of large cities just rolling their eyes right now, and I get it. Not everyone can drive out on a country road to an easily accessible pathway or road cut and chip off the old block. If you can though, why wouldn't you? I know there's particular stones with particular meanings and apparent properties, but at the risk of punishing the earth and the people who physically extract them, maybe it wouldn't hurt to take a look at the organic materials around your own region. There may be more types of stones and minerals available to be sourced on your own that could contain just the same aspects of the brightly polished, mined and tumbled ones that you buy from a store.
Ideally, a form of government oversight (not always a phrase full of bad vibes), would be ideal to keep track of the crystals that hit our markets from mine to palm. (Palm stones. I'm punny.) I love crystals, and I don't necessarily love the government, but their regulation of diamonds has increased responsible sourcing and thus - responsible and ethical treatment of people and the environment while still providing the product people desire. This is something that when it works, it WORKS, and the industry as a whole would benefit from regulation and ethical oversight of the operations of the mining, selling, cutting, tumbling and trading of crystals.
The issue of crystals is environmentally damaging, inhumane and ethically heartbreaking. If it's uncomfortable, that's okay. I don't think that's a feeling to run from, as much as it is one to learn from, and to do better by. It's not a calling out, if anything this is a calling in to those the crystal industry targets most. The paranormal and spiritual communities. We know who we are.
Improving an incredibly impactful and profitable industry starts with the people who want and buy crystals the most, having an awareness of the issues at hand, and what a regulated and transparent supply chain means for producing the stones we love so much. Just by asking questions and speaking with people on this topic, we could trigger the first steps in creating meaningful change in the responsible and ethical sourcing of crystals.