AJ Crecelius at her shop, NW Crystals in Ballard. Steve Korn

Not long ago, the only people I knew who believed in healing crystals were art therapists and quirky lesbian aunts. In recent years, however, that has changed. Now I am surrounded by people who think that applying crystals on or about one's chakras has mystical healing properties. I'll sneeze on the bus, and some well-meaning stranger will urge me to pick up ametrine, a type of quartz that supposedly cures colds. I find this supremely aggravating. Why are so many people willing to suspend hard science and common sense for crystals?

Despite my annoyance, crystals are trending—or at least it feels that way when I scroll through Instagram. It's an endless train of people posting photos of amethyst collections and quartz tattoos. There's no hard data on the number of crystals sold annually in the United States, but one Etsy merchandiser told Refinery29 last year that crystals have been a "mounting trend" for the past decade. Today, Etsy has nearly 200,000 items marked "healing crystals" for sale, from pendants and bracelets to dream catchers promising to harness crystal energy while you sleep.

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Naturally, businesses have emerged to capitalize on the trend. You can now keep yourself hydrated with crystal-infused water, visit crystal massage beds that supposedly balance your frequencies, and stimulate your chakras—or something else—with crystal sex toys. There's also a growing industry of crystal-themed beauty treatments, like a Manhattan salon that advertises a "unique crystal treatment followed by a bespoke styling experience." Customers are asked to state their intention before their haircut, and everyone receives a sacred crystal of their own to take home. The crystal cut and color starts at $250. But crystals are not just for the well-to-do; Walmart sells them, too.

Believers say that crystals can help mend a broken heart (rose quartz), cure insomnia (amethyst), and ward off negative energy (black tourmaline). Energy comes up a lot when you're talking about crystals. Not long ago, I was walking to lunch with a friend who wears a quartz around her neck. When I asked to get a closer look, she told me that you should never touch someone else's crystal, lest it absorb your energy.

"And what exactly do you mean by 'energy'?" I asked.

"You know," she said, looking at me woefully. "Energy."

I didn't get it. I understand what physics says about energy (kind of), but she was talking about something else—something more metaphysical. None of it made sense. How can a rock possibly influence someone's life unless it falls directly on them? My friend's knowledge of crystal theory was limited, as was her patience with my questions, so I turned to the experts to find out.

NW Crystals, a small storefront in Ballard, was nothing like I'd pictured. It wasn't crammed with spiritual tchotchkes, and the scent of patchouli was strangely absent. It looked like a gallery, with bright-white walls and an array of local and imported crystals artfully displayed on glass shelves.

Shop owner AJ Crecelius, who runs the family business, wasn't what I pictured, either. For one thing, she's black—a rarity in the exceedingly white world of semiprecious stones, at least in the United States. ("I think there is one other black family," Crecelius said.) I, being biased, had pictured a millennial white woman whose trust fund paid the rent. Crecelius runs NW Crystals with her daughter Alyssa, a teenager who left public school to model full-time and who regularly goes into the woods to hunt for crystals herself, an exercise known as "rockhounding." Crecelius first learned about crystals from her dad, a well-known metallurgist and gem collector in Chicago. Her dad taught her the science behind gemstones. The metaphysics came naturally. "I think I've worked with crystals in all of my lives," Crecelius said.

She explained how it works. "Crystals contain energy. That's why they are used in electronics. So when I hold a crystal, I can feel that energy. Sometimes it feels cold or hot, or my hand will tingle." By harnessing crystal energy, the thinking goes, we can reset our own electromagnetic fields to a healthy vibrational frequency. Whatever that means.

When customers come into the shop, Crecelius advises them to just look around and see what catches their eye. "It's almost like the energy you can have with a human being," she said.

I gazed around. There was glowing purple amethyst and smoky agate, orange-tinted quartz and gold-flecked pyrite, some of it millions of years old. The stones came from family-owned mines in Washington and Arkansas as well as distant pockets of the world. Knowing the exact source of gems can be difficult, but it's important to Crecelius that her crystals are ethically mined. Just as diamond mining has led to human-rights abuses and financed wars in Sierra Leone, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the crystal market can have grave repercussions as well. Last year, a global watchdog group reported that the Taliban and other armed groups bring in $20 million a year from illegal lapis mines, money that goes to fund corruption and armed conflict. Crecelius doesn't sell recently mined lapis at her store for this reason. She doesn't want that kind of energy.

While the crystals were pretty, none of them drew me in. After pawing over the options for a few minutes, weighing them in my palm and putting them back, I picked up what looked like a cluster of glass dotted with black granite flecks. Crecelius told me it was clear quartz with hematite inclusions, good for both balance and grounding. She wrapped it up with a stick of palo santo, a holy wood native to Mexico, and told me to burn it like incense and let the smoke cleanse my new crystal. I should also set an intention, meditate, and then place the quartz somewhere in my house, maybe near my bed. "You don't seem like the type to wear crystals," she said. About that, she was right.

Steve Korn

Crecelius and others like her may be convinced of crystals' metaphysical properties, but science says otherwise. It is true that some elements and minerals can affect the human body—just think of lead or uranium—but there is no evidence that healing crystals are anything other than a placebo. That doesn't mean they're not powerful.

"The reason people think crystals work is because they do," said Erik Vance, author of Suggestible You, a 2016 book on the placebo effect. "It has nothing to do with the crystal—it has to do with your brain—but it does make people feel better."

The placebo effect has been shown to help alleviate an array of ailments, from Parkinson's disease and chronic pain to erectile dysfunction and asthma. Research has also shown that treating mild to moderate depression with a placebo is just as effective as treating it with antidepressants. The placebo in these studies was a pill, not a crystal, but the idea remains the same: When we believe something is going to work, very often it does.

In a 2001 study of healing crystals, researchers from the University of London asked 80 participants to meditate while holding either a quartz or a placebo (which, in this case, was a fake quartz). Afterward, participants were asked if they felt some of the same sensations Crecelius described—tingling, warming, an overall sense of well-being. In the end, it didn't matter who had the real crystal and who had the fake. People in both groups felt the effects.

That's not to say that crystals—or placebos—can cure disease if you just believe hard enough. Placebos don't work with cancer, and Vance says there is a real danger in choosing alternative treatments—be it crystals, juicing, or coffee enemas—instead of proven therapies like chemotherapy and radiation. Steve Jobs famously treated his pancreatic cancer with a vegan diet, acupuncture, and herbal remedies he read about online. After nine months, he finally agreed to surgery, but by that point, it was too late.

Unlike NW Crystals, the Vajra on Broadway does smell like patchouli. It's also packed full of imports from India and Nepal, and the store offers tarot readings as well as workshops in astrology, dream interpretation, energy healing, meditation, and more. There was Enya-like music playing over the stereo when I arrived.

The Vajra has been around for almost 30 years, well before Urban Outfitters was across the street selling tarot decks, but the women I met there didn't seem bitter that metaphysical has gone mainstream.

"I might have gotten a little salty when it felt like being a witch was becoming fashionable," Vajra manager Sara Johnson told me. "I started asking my witch sisters, 'What's under that hat?' But then I realized that was probably an ego response. If someone happens upon their first tarot deck at Urban Outfitters and they use that for self-discovery, that's awesome. I don't care where it comes from."

Johnson was running the shop that day with Meagan Angus, a self-described witch, oracle, author, and artist who works part-time at the Vajra. Angus is deep into crystals, and she looks the part, with long auburn hair, stones hanging from her neck, and an easy, full-bodied laugh. She got into paganism and metaphysics young—as an infant, her mother took her to a witch coven for a blessing—and she wholly believes in the power of crystals. Still, she's not blind to the placebo effect.

"Does this rock help?" she asked, pointing to her necklace. "I don't know, but I've told myself enough times that it does, and so now it does. In a way, that's all that matters." When I asked what crystal energy feels like, she replied, deadpan, "a vibrator" and then burst out laughing.

The folks who work at the Vajra are witches and astrologers, not doctors, but people do come in seeking medical advice. "If someone with cancer comes in here asking about crystals," Angus said, "I will remind them that I'm not a medical doctor. Then I will say: 'Make sure you are smoking good weed, laughing a lot, jerking off, and hanging out with your loved ones. Do what your doctors say. Also carry some bloodstone and some selenite.' That's what I had on my altar when I had cancer." When I asked if she's cancer-free now, she laughed. "Oh, yes," she said. "I'm a witch. I'll go up in a puff of smoke."

Steve Korn

One of the ironies of healing crystals is that miners and rock hounds—the people pulling rocks out of the earth and selling them to stores like the Vajra and NW Crystals—generally think the idea is a crock. Rock hounds tend to be geologists and natural-history buffs who like to be outdoors. They believe in science not magic.

One of the more famous area rock hounds is Lann Kittleson, who founded NW Rockhounds, a rock shop in North Seattle, with his wife, Juliet. NW Rockhounds actually began as a small Facebook group of rock enthusiasts, and now they maintain an active online community with almost 20,000 members who regularly post pictures and videos of their finds: giant Oregon thunder eggs, fossilized wood that lived 50 million years ago. "Basically," Kittleson said, "I built a headquarters for a Facebook group."

NW Rockhounds, which also has a work space and hosts classes, looks part hunting lodge and part gift shop, with taxidermied fish and antlers hanging from timber walls and cases bursting with fossils, gems, and rocks. When I stopped by, Kittleson was talking shop with a couple of regulars who ribbed each other amiably. One handed me coprolite, the fossilized poop of some prehistoric mammal. Maybe a big cat.

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Although he admits there can be tension between rock hunters and crystal healers, Kittleson, who worked at the Woodland Park Zoo for 20 years, is diplomatic about the divide. He doesn't personally believe in healing crystals, but he doesn't begrudge those who do. NW Rockhounds attracts all types. "We have one main rule," he said, pointing to a wooden sign etched with two words hanging behind the counter: "Be nice."

Others were... less polite. One area rock hound said he finds healing crystals "offensive and superstitious." Another said he doesn't know a single rock hound who believes in crystals, but he knows plenty willing to sell to those who do. One woman warned me that some gem shops will make up the names and attributes of healing crystals and jack their prices up.

"There are so many semiprecious stones in the earth right now," said one lifelong rock hound in Oregon. "If they are all vibrating away at special frequencies, why is our country so fucked?"

Since starting this journey into the world of healing crystals, I met believers who fit the stereotypes and more who did not. I talked to a twentysomething journalism student who sells crystals on Etsy with her best friend and an ER nurse who carries quartz points with her at work. I met rock hounds who think spirituality is a personality flaw and others who worship at church. What these people all had in common was a simple love of rocks. "People connect with rocks," one rock hound told me. "It's the damnedest thing."

It's also infectious. Soon, I bought my first rockhounding guide and stopped rolling my eyes at the witches of Instagram posting photos of their aura quartz. Instead, I looked closer, noticing how light filters through ancient rock, illuminating layers of silica that existed when woolly mammoths roamed the earth.

Finally, after much procrastination, I lit some candles, cleansed my small crystal collection with the palo santo AJ Crecelius gave me, closed my eyes, set my intention, and meditated over my rocks. Or at least I tried to, but that song "Age of Aquarius" kept running through my head. "Mystic crystal revelation," I hummed, "and the mind's true liberation."

Despite my doubts, I half expected to feel something as I sat there with my candles and my stones. In the end, though, not much happened. There was no warmth or tingling emanating from the palm of my hand. There was, however, one small miracle: I didn't feel annoyed about what I was doing. Maybe these people are wearing off on me, I thought, or maybe there's something to magic crystals after all. I gave it a moment's consideration before "Age of Aquarius" came running back through my head.

Nah, I thought, blowing out the candles and getting up. It's just the placebo effect.