I’m staring at a line up of crystals. One is rose quartz, which will open my heart, another is amethyst, which is to help healing, and the other is calcite, for mental clarity. I’ve never been one to believe in alternative therapies and inadvertently find my eyes rolling whenever anyone mentions a blocked chakra. But looking at these majestic stones in all their glistening beauty, I can’t but feel a sense of peace. Plus, I bet they’ll make great bookends.
But as with many natural resources that become the subject of Western trends (quinoa, avocados, coconut oil), the backend of the picture is often far less pretty. Unsustainable consumption leads to exploitation of natural resources, communities can be disrupted, and there’s the problem of underpaid labour and unsafe working conditions associated with a demanding production line. Sadly, the crystal industry is no exception.
And so is the current obsession with healing crystals. A far cry from the niche subset of complementary therapies to which they used to be confined, these stones are as popular in mainstream wellness as they are in interiors and can be found everywhere you look, from spas to restaurants to Sainsbury’s Home. Personally, I have an array of loose crystals, three jade rollers for facial massage, a water bottle with rose quartz inside and even a lamp made out of a big crystal I’m yet to identify. Which is a pretty impressive hoard for someone who doesn’t even believe that they have any healing powers.
“As with most minerals, it is difficult to know the exact human and environmental cost of the individual crystal in your hand – but we know it is not insignificant,” says Payal Sampat, Mining Program Director of Earthworks, a non-profit organisation that is dedicated to the protection of the environment and communities. “Mining has an environmental impact, whether it’s for crystals, the copper in your phone, or the gold in your ring. These crystals aren’t lying around waiting to be plucked up. They must be extracted from the earth, sometimes with significant environmental impacts and often with serious labour violations – including child labour.”
First, let’s take the environment into account. There’s clear evidence to say that mining for at least some types of healing crystals is particularly hazardous. Crystal mining often takes place as a profitable byproduct of metal mining, including gold, copper and cobalt. Take Chrysocolla and Pyrite – both of which are extracted from copper mines. According to Earthworks, a peer-reviewed study of 14 copper mines found that their operations had a severe impact on the environment.
“At 13 of the 14 mines (92%), water collection and treatment systems have failed to control contaminated mine seepage, resulting in significant water quality impacts,” explains the Earthworks website. Another copper mine, the Ok Tedi mine in western Papua New Guinea discharges 80,000 tons of ore and 120,000 tons of waste rock into the nearby river every single day. The impact? Enormous permanent flooding, toxic contamination and species extinction.
Gold mines are no better; alongside polluting water and land with mercury and cyanide, gold mines can also produce a hell of a lot of waste. In fact, producing gold for one wedding ring alone generates 20 tons of waste. And that’s without even mentioning the toll of communities and indigenous peoples, or workers’ safety violations.
As the demand for stones increases, so does people’s desire to own the supply. This has resulted in exploitation and in the case of the mining fields of Afghanistan – violence. According to 2010 estimates, the country sits on a vast, and untapped, source of emerald, lapis lazuli, red garnet and ruby – $1 trillion’s worth of the stuff, in fact. After the mining fields were officially awarded to the Lajwardeen Mining Company in a 15 year contract, they were taken over by force by local militia, which has ties to Taliban, just days later. The situation has recently become so grave, that the countries’ President expressed, “we are faced with the curse of natural resources”.
That’s not to say all mines are the same. There are a few exceptions where the workers are treated and paid fairly. One mine owner, Brian Cook, told Business Of Fashion that he has spent the past 15 years working hard to formalise legislation surrounding miners’ rights in Brazil. He also consults for jewellery corporations including Tiffany’s on their corporate social responsibility of sourcing semi-precious stones.
Unfortunately, mine owners like Brian seem few and far between. And with all the evidence of pain, corruption and destruction, can we really keep calling upon crystals as sources of love, strength and healing? “They’re not ‘healing’ to humans and would be far more healing to the earth if they were left in the ground,” says Payal. We’re inclined to agree.