It seems that, for as long as there have been people, they’ve been projecting their hopes and fears onto glassy, colorful stones.
In “Crystal Gazing: Its History and Practice,” from 1905, the British anthropologist Northcote W. Thomas (who was widely considered an eccentric due to his vegetarianism, rum habit, and sandal-wearing) wrote about scrying, the act of peering into a crystal orb for divination. Scrying dates back to ancient China, Egypt, Central America, and Rome. It became an unstoppable fad during the Victorian era, when several fortune-tellers made, well, a fortune by luring people into their velvet drawing rooms to sit in front of a chunk of quartz. Thomas decided to document the leading practitioners of the craft. He walked away from his reportage believing that, although some soothsayers were devious con artists, many of them were really seeing things in the mist. He called this act “constructive imagination.” In other words, the crystal ball was a writing prompt. The best scryers looked into it and came out spinning stories, making meaning where before there was none, all from a hunk of polished cave rock.
That’s the thing about crystals: they have always existed, since humans began to chip shiny spikes out of bedrock, in the nebulous plane between faith and science, between fact and fiction. They are mineral materials that have accrued geological mythology and lore. It seems that, for as long as there have been people, they’ve been projecting their hopes and fears onto glassy, colorful stones. Crystals, in all their wild forms—shards of jet-black obsidian, smooth ovals of creamy-pink rose quartz, jagged cubes of periwinkle amethyst swimming inside egg-shaped geodes like iridescent yolks—have never stopped inspiring constructive imagination. And, in the past decade, as “self-care” and “wellness” have become inescapable Goop-ian buzzwords, crystals have again surged in popularity. In an age when people with brains burned out on digital devices crave physical talismans, crystals seem to promise wisdom from the core of the earth. Also: they’re pretty.
Marisa Galvez, a professor of French and Italian at Stanford University, puts it this way, in the latest installment of our Annals of Obsession video series: “I think it’s something that people gravitate towards as something that can have special powers to them and [that they can] have a sensual, intimate experience with.” There is a tension, she says, between searching for something outside the self—something that has its own innate power or maybe even borders on the spiritual—and simply enjoying the look and feel of the crystals as objects.
Galvez says that participants in the current crystal craze are probably experiencing a placebo effect; the crystals take on certain qualities in the same way that a family heirloom or a watch from your father might accrue special significance over the years. There’s no proof that rose quartz really brings love, or that citrine generates energy, or that tourmaline can banish negativity. But that doesn’t stop people from pouring those beliefs into their rock collections.
In the video, a pregnant woman named Kate McLeod, who is planning a home birth, visits the Maha Rose Center for Healing, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where she selects a giant slab of selenium as the base for a “birth altar” that she intends to make for her son. “I basically go to whatever calls me,” she says, “and I like to think that he is guiding.”
When I was growing up in New Mexico, encountering women like McLeod was a daily part of my childhood. There may be more crystal stores per capita in Santa Fe than anywhere else on Earth. The desert, a land of stalactite caves and salt basins, is a mineral collector’s utopia. It’s where you go if you are on a pilgrimage to dig deep into your emotional quarry. For this reason, I grew up both collecting crystals (my favorite was always swirly, ice-blue celestine) and being wary of ore tourists (predominately white, upper-class urbanites) who swanned into town to scoop up handfuls of agate and azurite, looking for a cure-all.
Jaya Saxena, the author of the forthcoming essay collection “Crystal Clear,” told me that the problem with contemporary crystal worship is that so much colorful indigenous and mythological history has been “collapsed into this New Age, flat, white thing. There are a lot of spiritual practices around the world that have solidified into these stores, where you go in and they tell you to buy amethyst for balance.” The real history of crystals, Saxena told me, is a wild tangle of belief and storytelling, of long distances and oral traditions. Shiny stones may be having a new moment, but they’ve been here for millions of years, and they will outlive us all. It doesn’t matter that humans imbue them with magical powers—that’s just what humans do.
“If the millennial fascination with plants is about starting to take care of something, the obsession with crystals is the exact opposite,” Saxena said. “It’s about something that will be here long after we are gone. It’s about something alive that doesn’t need us.” The crystals are indifferent to our kind. And yet we still stare deeply into them and see exactly what we want to see.