When I was a kid I had a rock collection. It was amassed mostly from trips to the American Museum of Natural History gift shop, or just digging around in my grandparents’ backyard. It grew to 62 specimens according to an elementary school journal, and featured the likes of pyrite, marble, limestone, and pumice. I wasn’t under the impression these rocks held any metaphysical powers, I just thought they were cool. That the same dirt could produce so many different objects, alternately glittering or sleek or waxy or colorful, seemed like magic enough.
But according to some, I was collecting powerful tools—pyrite to combat impostor syndrome and marble to lure stability and rational thinking. Crystals have ridden the modern wellness and witchiness wave into our collective consciousness, now occupying whatever portion of your brain might be aware of your moon sign or the properties of oregano oil. Knowing that rose quartz is used to attract love is no longer the realm of the patchouli-drenched New Age, and crystals have shown up in everything from jewelry to water bottles to straws, promising to infuse every aspect of our lives with their healing powers. Just choose the right one, the sales pitch goes, and your problems could be solved. Or at least you’ll get some better vibes.
The supposed properties of crystals come to us from various sources—myths both ancient and modern, early scientists and philosophers, aesthetics, whims. St. Hildegard von Bingen wrote in the 12th century that spitting on an amethyst and rubbing it on your face would get rid of unwanted spots, and that drinking pearl-infused water would cure headaches. In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare referenced the common association of opals with fickleness. According to the Feng Shui tradition, a properly-placed amethyst can bring luck in business.
Today, the casual power of the crystal has been co-opted by capitalism, wellness, and whiteness. The pressure is to buy a crystal for every mood (which can quickly add up) so you can have the perfectly Instagrammable altar that representings a perfectly boho-chic lifestyle. Crystals are advertised as vague tools for self-optimization. You are supposed to get rid of that negative energy, to communicate better so you can work better. Crystal shops and Instagram influencers now tout a diluted, mixed-up version of the varying religious and cultural beliefs a crystal’s ostensible properties sprouted from.
Take this example of orange calcite from House of Intuition, an LA-based metaphysical shop trading in crystals, incense, tarot cards and other magical items. “The energies of Orange Calcite reignite your Sacral Chakra (which also happens to be home to your creative energy),” they write. “Orange Calcite is associated with Sun energy and the warm energy of this stone will shine down on your energy field making you feel confident and uplifted.” It’s a wonderful use of the passive voice. There’s no mention of who is doing the association here, whether it was a religion or a culture or a specific person who decreed orange calcite was aligned with the Sun, or even an explanation of what “Sun energy” is.
It sounds like bullshit. So why did I still buy one?
I love my calcite, which I happened to buy at HOI. It looks like a chunk of frozen orange juice. It sits in the jar with the rest of my rock collection, which looks a lot different than the one I had in grade school. I have a labradorite by my computer, and a selenite wand, and a piece of amethyst I wear on a cord around my neck sometimes. When I’m nervous or frustrated or just curious, I’ll choose one of the stones and roll it around in my hand, thinking of the properties it’s supposed to have and imagining absorbing them through the stone into my body. And I do this despite believing all these properties are completely made up.
When I bought the orange calcite, I was feeling burnt out, and the idea of a boost to my creative energy, however fake it might be, sounded nice. Plus, the description, as divorced from its possible origins as it was, made a sort of sense. Warm, orange, light, confidence. These words fit together. I wanted to feel more creative and energized, like new, joyful ideas could bubble up inside me at any time. The power of the crystal wasn’t in what it could do to my chakras. Instead, it was a symbol of my desire; its power was a reminder of the time I said “I want this.” It felt innocent, and arbitrary. If I needed something to remind myself of my own creativity, might as well be this pretty rock.
You probably already have a talisman. Maybe it’s a “lucky” shirt or necklace you wear to a job interview, a figurine you keep at your desk, or a song you play when you need to pump yourself up for a difficult conversation. Superstition is not new to the human race, and crystals are just one glittering version of attaching your hopes and dreams to something tangible. These objects and rituals work not because they have magical abilities, but because you can work backwards from them to find out what you actually want. When I hold a stone with certain properties, I am reminded to ask myself why I reached for it in the first place. I ask why am I finding something so hard to communicate, or where this supposed negative energy is coming from, and think about what I might do about it. It’s not just crystals that have this power–if you feel the need to start a 10-minute meditation app, you may start to think of what in your life might be driving you to open that app so often. If a certain tarot card makes you think of a person in your life, well, why did they come up?
I have tried to divorce the crystals I have from the properties I’ve been sold. I try to focus on what the color and shape make me feel, and forge my own meanings. But the powers of capitalism are hard to overcome. Some days I look at my crystals, even the ones I picked up on the beach or in the woods, and think of nothing but the society that urges me to shed all my “flaws” in order to be perfectly productive and pleasant. In a fit of rebellion, I do not want to better myself.
But then I hold one, and remember where I was and what I was thinking when I first got it, and once again I remind myself of what I actually want. I remember my love for these bits of earth existed long before anyone tried to sell them to me. And I remind myself, no matter how fake these properties might be, they are as good a tool as any to use to push myself to be the person I want to be. The crystals let me name and externalize my desires, for justice or love or clarity. And by placing those desires outside myself, I can look them in the eye.
Jaya Saxena is the author of Crystal Clear: Extraordinary Talismans for Everyday Life.