Rocks of Ages

William “Lupito” Jones, a Salt Lake City-based crystal bowl alchemist, plays a crystal singing bowl during the Gem, Mineral, and Fossil Showcase in Tucson, Arizona, February 2019.

Rocks of Ages

A new generation has gravitated toward crystals in hopes of finding on-trend spiritual solace. But for the veteran dealers and collectors at the country’s biggest gems and minerals showcase, a beautiful rock has timeless appeal.

Every winter, anyone who’s anyone in the world of crystals makes the pilgrimage to Tucson, Arizona. That’s where, in late January and February, the annual Gem, Mineral, and Fossil Showcase takes place—the largest gathering of miners, dealers, gemologists, collectors, and consumers in the United States. Sellers fly in from as far as Morocco, India, and Australia, some peddling stones so large that anything unsold is stored in Tucson warehouses for next year rather than shipped back home. Though the main event takes place at the 205,000 square foot Tucson Convention Center, when I made my first visit to the showcase this past February, I also found dealers setting up tents the size of airplane hangars in parking lots. Others hustled their wares out of cheap motel rooms, which served as showrooms during the day and crash pads at night. Shop owners from around the country eagerly flocked to buy their year’s supply of tourmaline and turquoise, driving their booty home in U-Hauls filled to the brim.

Fossilized feces, also known as coprolite, at the Globex Gem and Mineral Show, one of the many adjacent shows to take place in the run-up to the convention center event.
Leo Hakola, a bead trader from LaBarge, Wyoming, and seller at the Kino Gem Show.
Shoppers search for the finest crystal specimens at the Pueblo Gem Show.
A customer considers salt lamps at the Rapa River Gem and Mineral Show, set up in a parking lot next to the I-10 freeway.
A dealer and a buyer hand off a crystal at the Globex Gem and Mineral Show.

It’s a new golden age for healing gems and crystals, favored accessories of the 1970s counterculture turned self-care ubiquities. No longer just a staple of small hippie shops in California and the Pacific Northwest, crystals can now be found in chain stores such as Urban Outfitters (which sells a $12 amethyst cluster sourced from Brazil) and via the online store for Gwyneth Paltrow’s company Goop, in the form of a pillar of rose quartz affixed to the inside of an $80 water bottle. Some proponents think crystals have spiritual properties and healing powers; the faithful will focus their energies through their cherished stones in an attempt to find emotional or physiological solace, and lovingly “recharge” them in the light of a full moon. Although they are undeniably beautiful, gemstones’ healing powers are unproven by science; in September 2018, Goop paid nearly $150,000 in civil penalties in California after claiming a jade vaginal egg sold on its site for $66 could help cultivate sexual energy, increase orgasm, and intensify feminine energy. And jade eggs are just one of the company’s many controversial “healing” products: Goop has also claimed that its orange Carnelian crystals (sold as part of an $85 “medicine bag”) could help treat infertility and sexual trauma.

Jim Damiano, a buyer and crystal enthusiast, peers through a geode at the Tucson Ramada Inn.
San Diego resident Gary Benzel specializes in the carving of fire agate, a gemstone found primarily in Mexico and the American Southwest.
A shopper passes an array of geodes at the Globex Gem and Mineral Show.
Mohammad, a dealer from Morocco, shows off a calcite specimen at one of the gem shows set up along the I-10 freeway in Tucson.

For the lapidary enthusiasts in Tucson, though, crystals transcend fads and court cases alike. Over the course of four days exploring gem shows across Tucson, I found no shortage of characters straight out of the Wild West, many of whom had known each other for decades. Most were more than happy to welcome a wide-eyed stranger and have their photograph taken. Several even gifted me lovely crystals, perhaps as a sort of ceremonial welcome into their tribe. But I also met women who told me about experiencing sexual harassment in a heavily male-dominated industry. I heard of gem dealers laundering money through crystals and evading taxes by paying employees under the table, either in cash or in nuggets of rare minerals. And it’s an open secret that some gems are dyed and intentionally mislabeled before being sold to novices. In fact, the provenance of these gems and minerals is even more problematic than their supposed healing powers.

Gem vloggers talk rocks at the Rapa River Gem and Mineral Show.
A dealer from France hands off a crystal, from outside a tent in a Tucson parking lot.
Shoppers Brian and Chelsea examine the wares at the Kino Gem Show.
A family inspects crystals and geodes at the Mineral and Fossil Co-op.

In May of 2018, The New Republic reported that many crystals beloved by consumers for their "healing" properties are in fact the byproducts of gold, copper and cobalt mines in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Myanmar. Especially outside the United States, regulations at these mines can be lax, making the crystal industry, which could be worth up to $1.5 billion, ripe for abuse. Your prized tanzanite crystal, for example—said to open the Third Eye and awaken psychic powers when circled clockwise on one’s brow—almost definitely came from Tanzania, where it may well have been mined by a child laborer. Stones sourced in America aren’t faultless, either: this $950 tetrahedrite specimen may promote synchronicity and orderly thinking, but it was unearthed from the Bingham Canyon Mine in Utah, whose “operations have resulted in a plume of contaminated groundwater extending over 70 square miles.”

These revelations are enough to knock you square in the root chakra. But, sitting in a stall in Tucson, all the paradox seemed to melt away, as a white-frocked crystal-bowl alchemist named William “Lupito” Jones played his singing bowls for me, wrapping us both in a vortex of vibration and sound. For that moment, at least, there was no doubt I was a true believer.

Tucson’s finest, rendered in oil paint.
Don, a miner and dealer from Adelaide, Australia. If international dealers don’t manage to sell their wares during the showcase, some choose to leave them behind in storage—and haul them back out again when they return the following year.
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