Tools for Healing?
Complexities of “Buying” into Crystal Healing
"Are we better off now that we’ve become professional consumers, driving economic growth endlessly ahead of us? It depends on what is considered 'better'. . .Longer working hours, higher levels of stress, failing families, drug addiction, children at risk—these may be to some extent the pathologies of consumerism. Let loose in the world’s biggest store, people suffer from various ills: the plague of having too much, the rage and jealousy of those who cannot buy the merchandise. Nevertheless, governments of all countries continue to hold up economic growth, on which consumerism depends, as the key to their well-being."
David Suzuki, The Sacred Balance
"It's not like a blood diamond, is it?"
Have you ever been tempted to ask some version of this question visiting a crystal shop in the midst of mesmerization with specimens of labradorite, smokey or rose quartz, citrine, malachite, amethyst, and tourmaline (among many others)— or, maybe, realized that something in your thoughts was trying to, or trying not to, formulate a question about how this could possibly be a sustainable trend in consumerism?
If so, you are not alone in this suspicion. That's the
cultural reference that my mind somehow grasp onto
while I was contemplating a crystal one day,
although I hadn't yet seen the movie.
The gemstone trend has been escalating among mainstream New Age followers in recent decades. Book and gift shops that once sold jewelry and maybe a few counter displays with tumbled gemstones approximately the size of bubble gum in a gum-ball machine now contain floor to ceiling cases crystals and gemstones of various sizes, shapes, and colors: sparkle, glitter, and allure.
The answer to such questions is sometimes straightforward and easy—but sometimes more academic or speculative. Mainstream media will tell you the overall answer, which is that— as BBC's Bel Jacobs states, "Fundamentally, all mining – whether it’s for quartz, bauxite, cobalt or diamonds – is a brutal business; masses of earth hewn away for shards of minerals embedded within. Mines churn up vast swathes of land, pollute waterways with toxic chemicals, devastate wildlife. And because so much mining takes place in poorer countries, the need for the money it raises is urgent, and the battle for resources often violent."
Gemstones (applying the term to precious, semi-precious, or just fancy stones) vary in terms of being problematic. The precious stones—diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds—are known for their tendency to cause problems as "conflict minerals," meaning their mining and sales is taken over (often by guerrilla groups) in order to fund warfare. But don't assume that you are avoiding issues of conflict and environmental hazard when purchasing non-precious or semi-precious gems. Lapis lazuli has also been flagged as a conflict mineral for a number of years due to Taliban-controlled mining. Many abundant and relatively inexpensive gems, like quartz, are not likely to become conflict minerals in the way that precious stones are prone, the question of sustainability revolves around the impact of open-pit mining. Similar questions apply to many other stones and many other regions. For example, illegal mining of gemstones is currently a significant environmental and social threat in Madagascar. For those of us who are conservation-oriented, it is challenging to ignore the complications of conscious consumerism when approaching a conversation of crystal healing. The sense of enchantment that crystals and stones can evoke often obstructs our ability to see the negative repercussions of the demands that we place on ourselves and the planet through the politics and economics of mining.
But before really delving into this process, it's important to keep in mind that the extent to which sales people can be expected to know the answers to such questions depends on what sort of store you are working with. While it would be reasonable to request information about source and provenance from certain jewelers and auctioneers, sales reps working in independent stores trying to meet customer demands in order to stay afloat—even if they do their best to be selective about the products they have on their shelves—are not as able to have this sort of information at their fingertips. Often, the most effective approach to eco-consumerism is not through grilling sales people but by asking ourselves, as consumers, what we are demanding and why—and consider the repercussions of those demands.
Fundamentally, all mining – whether it’s for quartz, bauxite, cobalt or diamonds – is a brutal business; masses of earth hewn away for shards of minerals embedded within. Mines churn up vast swathes of land, pollute waterways with toxic chemicals, devastate wildlife. And because so much mining takes place in poorer countries, the need for the money it raises is urgent, and the battle for resources often violent." Bel Jacobs, BBC
For more on this perspective see "What is Gemstone Healing?" and "Buying Into Gemstones." If you don't have the time and patience for assured research but want to be sure you are purchasing eco-friendly jewelry, you should probably shop exclusively heirloom and vintage (read more in "Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Green" in Slate.
Crystal Healing or Retail Therapy?
Do crystals and gemstones contain actual healing properties or is the benefit merely retail therapy? For a starting place for this discussion see "What is Gemstone Healing?"
Suzuki (see the quote that begins this article) also references crystals directly, interpreting a growing interest in them as a “sign that our culture is starting to reconsider its drive to colonize and exploit the rest of the planet” (279). I once hoped that was the case also, but this statement is unfortunately an example of a common disconnect in a mainstream perception that working with crystals signifies elevated environmental, social, and spiritual consciousness: the reality is that only cursory research reveals detrimental political and environmental effects of gemstone mining. The most prevalent example that has made its way into the popular news channels is lapis lazuli, a stone that has prompted activists to argue in favor of some sort of classification as a ‘conflict jewel’ due to estimates that fifty percent of revenue from Afghanistan’s mining revenue funds the Taliban (Smith). In specialized publishing, articles such as Jennifer-Lynn Archuleta’s “The Color of Responsibility: Ethical Issues and Solutions in Colored Gemstones,” which appeared in Gems & Gemology shed light on the failure of the multimillion dollar colored gemstone industry to implement protections for both the environment and the mining laborers (144), though efforts toward sustainable and ethical mining cooperation is evidenced through projects such as “The Madison Dialogue,” a conversation among activists and jewelry retail and wholesalers. Consider Suzuki’s statement in another chapter (he is not directly speaking of gemstones here), “If the self is expanded to include the natural world, behavior leading to destruction of the world will be experienced as self-destruction” (263). The question of whether efforts toward protections are really doing enough remains prominent.
Anna Merlan’s article published in Jezebel, also demonstrates an attempt to resolve these binary contrasts within the gemstone community. She scathes at “The Crystal Capitalists’...participating in some warped, consumer-focused version of hippiedom...consuming too greedily, too obliviously,” though she also acknowledges, “The Crystal People are, I think, probably well-intentioned. Some of them are surely sincere spiritual seekers, looking for a different, less harried lifestyle, one that’s closer to the land, kinder to one’s own body and mind.”
So Why Even Look to Crystals for Healing?
Resentful backlash toward the blindspots of “woo-woo” New Age philosophies (including “the Crystal People”), which tend to appropriate cross-culturally, from those who represent a postcolonial perspective is not uncommon, especially in academic atmospheres. Also common is hostility from those who are often more scientifically and evidence-based minded. Carl Sagan’s quote from The Demon-Haunted World has been adapted on social media by the March for Science in recent months:
But is it critical thinking or appreciative inquiry that is most helpful to this conversation? What about the benefits crystal therapy can offer as alternatives to antidepressants or drug and alcohol? Setting aside the question of an intrinsic healing ability of crystals, we still need to somehow break the mesmeric trance of their qualities long enough to trace our tools/amulets/talismans/possessions back to their origins and assess whether our demands for them are causing more good than harm. If crystals are instruments of healing, there is all the more reason to think locally and globally when considering the provenance of the objects that we, as consumers, buy into.
How to Approach Such a Controversial Topic?
Given the complexities of this topic and the global complications that would need to be addressed to resolve the problems from a particular angle, I believe that Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is an appropriate approach to begin a discussion of what methods could best be implemented toward improved security within gemstone retail and wholesale culture. Rather than beginning with critical analysis — identifying problems and assigning blame, AI looks for the best of what is and then considers what adaptations could be made toward even better methods. Integral to AI is the 4D Cycle, which is ordered from inquiry to results. The cyclical pattern assists to avoid hierarchical thinking. There’s no particular hierarchy, excepting the focusing topic — “Discovery: mobilize the system of inquiry for positive change (Appreciating). Dream: results-oriented vision in relation to discovered potential and in relation to questions of higher purpose — ‘What is called for?’ (Envisioning Results). Destiny: empowerment, learn, adjust, improvise (Sustaining). Design: what is the ideal? (Co-constructing). Core: affirmative topic choice” (Cooperrider 6-7).
The 4-D Cycle Applied to Gemstone Sales in the U.S.
People are not going to just stop buying jewelry, and stores are not just going to stop selling jewelry. The 4D cycle can assist us to visualize a strategy that highlights the best of gem consumerism and how we could work to improve it. The 4D cycle begins with an affirmative topic choice. In the case, helping consumers make sustainable gemstone purchases. From there, we turn to the categories described above (see also Appendix II):
Discovery: Think holistically about how the spiritual and health conscious aspect of gemstones can be extended to their sourcing.
Dream: Sustainable and socially responsible attainment of gems without damaging retail economy (especially many independently-owned businesses).
Destiny: Consumer knowledge about these issues should be readily available through retailers as well as independent channels.
Design: Promoting and specializing vintage/recycled/reused/rehomed gems through bookstores, thrift stores, and online sellers.
Many people buying gemstones are seeking them for their use in alternative medical healing. Why not let this concept of healing guide their purchases also? Whether gemstones contain intrinsic spiritual healing properties or not (many people believe they do), gemstones at least evoke a sense of enchantment that propels our desires to adorn ourselves with them; however, this same sense of enchantment often obstructs our ability to see the negative repercussions of the demands that we place on ourselves and the planet through the politics and economics of mining.
Archuleta, Jennifer-Lynn. “The Color of Responsibility: Ethical Issues and Solutions in
Colored Gemstones.” Gems & Gemology, 52:2, pp.144-60.
Cooperrider, David. Appreciative Inquiry. Stripes Publishing, 2000.
The Madison Dialogue. https://fairjewelry.org/the-madison-dialogue-a-cross-sector-initiative/
Merlan, Anna. “Manifest-Destiny—Lite with Souvenirs: Why Assholes in Turquoise are Flooding the Southwest.” Jezebel, 5 April, 2018. https://jezebel.com/manifest-destiny-lite-with-souvenirs-why-assholes-in-t-1824313729
McClean, Stuart. “The Role of Performance in Enhancing the Effectiveness of Crystal
and Spiritual Healing.” Medical Anthropology, 32:61-74, 2013.
Smith, Josh and Harooni, Mirwais. “Money From Afghanistan’s ‘Conflict Jewels’ Fuels
Wars: Activists.” Reuters. June 5, 2016.
Suzuki, David. The Sacred Balance. Greystone Books, 2007.
Points of Healing, Points of Mine is a series of articles discussing the interweavings of conversations of crystal therapy, ethical gemstone jewelry, alternative healing, science & conservation, and eco-consumerism. Initially published as its own site in 2018 as the final project of ENGL 513, Science, Environmental, and Medical Writing at the University of New Mexico, it has now been integrated into a section of Re-Sourced (https://www.projectresourced.org/).