The Very Uncomfortable Thing About Crystals
I imagine this sort of conversation will be met with denial, a quick brush off, rolled eyes or just plain old hate. I have to shrug my shoulders and take whatever comes, because this conversation is uncomfortable.
We need to talk about crystals.
Crystals are beautiful, and to some people, incredibly meaningful in diverse ways and uses. They sit in window sills, on altars, in bras and pockets, and in museums. I mean, they're rocks. Very pretty rocks, some even become elevated to gemstone status when polished. Some are so desirable they're worth thousands, millions even - when they're massive chunks. But they're rocks. Earth's hardest bits. Undoubtedly you're aware that rocks come from within the planet, and thus they're all mined out of it, cut and tumbled (or left raw), and then distributed and sold throughout the world. It's the process of going from mine to store, and ultimately into consumers hands that contains several glaring problems, with several interconnected consequences.
Most people are very unaware of how crystals end up in stores, they're just aware that New Age or Magick shops are the most likely places to have selections of different stones. Even with minimal knowledge of how people tend to use these crystals, most are aware of the clear quartz point that we find so often in many aspects of popular culture. Running within the paranormal community exposes many 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 collective of Western culture.
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 producing it for purchase, the ability to track a particular piece's origin is murky, and sometimes impossible. Bulk wholesalers provide much of the crystals we see in shops around the US, which is no different from any other item 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. It's also 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 this past week. We wondered about the origin of so many rare, tumbled stones, and how often the shops in such a popular town 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 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's go back to the early 2000's, when the term "blood diamond" became popular. Not only was the Leonardo DiCaprio movie of the same name a boost in understanding of the term, but the national outrage it caused actually gave rise to positive changes in the diamond industry. Crystals work the same way. They are mined from particular locations in the world, most all of which are inherently some of the poorest places 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 dangerous 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 the African nations happen to be children as young as 7 years old. There is just no regulation in place in these countries to be able to bring this type of work to a healthy, responsible standard. It doesn't exist. This is the case in many areas of the world where crystals are mined, not just within 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 earth and the livable and farmable area of local communities. Surface and groundwater contamination from seepage causes a constant requirement of water treatment for surrounding populations of people, 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, but I think we could all benefit from more honest conversations 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 product, but the human and environmental effects it causes before it ends up on shelves in the US market. I think the crystal industry could undergo the same necessary, responsible changes, so long as 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. 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.
My best suggestion for going around the crystal industry altogether (if you'd like) 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, (tongue in cheek). 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 supply stones, 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 rock 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, cutting, tumbling and trading of crystals.
This issue of crystals is somewhat unnerving 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. Improving a booming and incredibly impactful industry starts with awareness of the issues at hand, and what a supply chain means for producing the shiny stones we love so much. Just by asking questions and speaking with people on this topic triggers the first steps in creating meaningful change in the responsible sourcing of crystals.