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Steve Korn

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Crystals are everywhere these days. For some reason, an increasing number of people are fully convinced that these inanimate hunks of rock can help mend a broken heart (rose quartz), cure insomnia (amethyst), ward off negative energy (black tourmaline), and treat everything from low sex drive to loose stools. All available science says that any physical or emotional benefit from crystals is little more than a placebo (which in itself can be very powerful), but it seems like half the female (and a quarter of the male) population in Seattle is wearing one of these things around their necks at this very moment. And while this may seem like just a harmless witchy trend that will eventually die off when the crowd moves on to something else, the growth of the crystal industry can also be a serious problem for the people who have to dig up these rocks.

As Emily Atkin documented Friday in the New Republic, it's exceedingly difficult to find the provenance of healing crystals. "I tried to track down the sources of crystals sold on popular websites," Atkin writes. "I found that some were mined in countries with notoriously lax labor and environmental regulations, and some came from large-scale U.S. mines that have contaminated ecosystems and drinking water. The impacts of extracting crystals are admittedly low compared to those of industrial gold, copper, granite, or rare earth mining, but crystals have gone from a new-age fad to a multi-billion dollar industry. And given that crystals can be used to 'make a promise to mama earth,' it would seem important to know how they were extracted from mama earth."

Indeed.

I found much the same when I was working on a feature story about crystals last year. Some of the local dealers I spoke to were well aware of the potential labor and human rights violations of their rocks and were personally committed to only selling crystals that they can confirm are ethically mined. This means that they get the majority of their crystals from small, family-owned mines in the U.S., but even giant, industrial mines here are subject to some labor and environmental rules and regulations (at least until Trump decides child labor is good for the spirit and rolls them back). Crystals mined abroad, however, can come along with a bevy of bad shit. Generally, crystals aren't the primary product these miners are looking for: They are the pretty byproducts dug out beside the more valuable rare earth elements that end up in our phones, TVs, and other tech. And these mines can be notoriously thorny when it comes to human rights. As Atkin writes, "In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, children as young as seven work the mines, and cobalt and copper mines in the country’s Katanga region are rich in minerals like tourmaline, amethyst, citrine, blue and smoky quartz—all coveted by healing crystal sellers."

In addition to poor working conditions, in 2016, a global watchdog group reported that the Taliban and other armed groups bring in $20 million annually from illegal lapis mines, money that goes to fund both corruption and armed conflict. One of the sellers I spoke to, A.J. Crecelius of NW Crystals in Ballard, doesn't sell lapis for that reason (she doesn't want that kind of energy), but retail giants like Walmart, not to mention a multitude of sketchy websites, also sell crystals now too, and do you think they really give a fuck about where their crystals are dug up? They certainly don't seem to care much about where the rest of their goods originate. Why should crystals be any different from, say, shirts?

Atkin's entire piece is worth a read, especially if you currently have a crystal dangling from your neck, but the big takeaway here is that most dealers have no idea where exactly their crystals are mined or who exactly is pulling them from the earth. The route of crystals from the ground to your altar is hardly direct: the vast majority of crystals change hands many times on their way from Africa or Asia to U.S., and as Atkin notes, no one is tracking those routes. It would certainly be possible for the government to regulate the in-flow of crystals to the U.S., although with Trump (the great regulation killer) in office, this seems unlikely for at least the time being. And even in 984 days, when the Oval Office will be fumigated and replaced by someone who actually gives a fuck about humanity (fingers crossed), unless consumers demand a way to make sure their crystals are sourced ethically (think, a Fair Trade label for rocks), the likelihood of it actually happening is slim to none.

In the meantime, crystal enthusiasts who don't want to contribute to the world's suffering may want to at least consider where they buy their rocks. If you're in Seattle, NW Crystals—a shop that, from my experience, really does give a fuck—is a good place to start. Or, there's always option b. You could give up the habit and leave those pretty rocks where they belong: in the earth.