Millennials say gemstones don’t just look cute on T-shirts — they also offer a flexible, inclusive spiritual practice.
Jessie Oatman was suffering through a break-up — she thought that she had just lost the love of her life — when she first decided to give healing crystals a try. The 34-year-old’s heart felt blocked, she says, like it had cracked into a hundred thousand pieces. Her shoulders began to hunch forward under what she believed was heartache’s heavy load.
And so Oatman’s friend, who was studying shamanism at the time, placed a series of stones along her chakras, a string of seven linear energy portals. The vibrations and healing properties of crystals, some believe, help to cleanse the chakras of lingering negative energy and right both body and mind again. The friend placed a pale pink piece of rose quartz, the “love stone,” alleged to open and soothe an aching heart, upon Oatman’s chest.
The experience was transformative. “I was able to move some of the stuck energy that was there,” Oatman says. “I remember that weight that was once on my heart being lifted with a real focus on the heart chakra, using that rose quartz.” While Oatman has married since her first chakra cleanse, rose quartz remains her favorite crystal.
Though crystals first became a hot item during the 1970s, the new target consumers for crystal purveyors are in their twenties and thirties. Brands are “repackaging the cues of mysticism and gems, connecting them to well-being products for a hip Millennial audience,” Lucie Greene, worldwide director of trend forecaster JWT Innovation, told the Huffington Post last year. And they’re reaching a hip, urban, and diverse clientele along with young celebrities like Kylie Jenner, Katy Perry, and Miranda Kerr. In 2016, L0s Angeles’ Crystal Matrix shop owner, Patricia Bankins, said that her predominant demographic has become “a lot of young people” (30 years ago, “middle-aged women and a few gay guys” were the most likely patrons to attend metaphysical classes, Bankins told the Los Angeles Times).
Though Millennials aren’t exactly known for being religious — just half born between 1981 and 1996 believe with certainty that God exists, while only four in 10 say religion is very important in their lives, according to a 2015 Pew study — crystals aren’t purely a material trend. According to some experts, younger generations are opting for spiritual practices like crystal healing because it allows them to mix elements from multiple faiths and ancient traditions into an individualized spiritual practice.
Healing crystals date back thousands of years, according to crystal folklore. The Ancient Egyptians are believed to have used lapis lazuli, turquoise, quartz, and topaz to anoint the tombs of the dead and to wear as jewelry and protective amulets. Ancient Greek soldiers used hematite as protection before battle and amethyst to fend off hangovers, some lore claims; in other practices like Ayurveda, gems like sapphires and rubies are allegedly linked to righteousness and vitality. The current market for crystals, however, was born from marketing tactics born nearly 40 years ago: In the ’70s and late ’80s, the New Age movement — a collection of holistic-based therapies and philosophies that emphasized self-healing — brought crystals into the limelight.
Baby Boomers approaching middle age were almost exclusively attracted to the New Age movement. New Agers sought to preserve ’60s countercultural values in George Bush- and Ronald Reagan-era America, and unite old members of the New Left (devotees of radical grassroots politics) and hippies (devotees of self-exploration), says Carl Raschke, a professor in the department of religious studies at the University of Denver. But instead of evolving into a purpose-driven, political movement, New Ageism became more of a “clever packaging and marketing strategy” for preserving the fractured values of ’60s and ’70s counterculture, he says.
NEW AGEISM BECAME MORE OF A “CLEVER PACKAGING AND MARKETING STRATEGY” FOR PRESERVING THE FRACTURED VALUES OF ’60S AND ’70S COUNTERCULTURE.
“The phrase New Age was deliberately indeterminable, and by its own testimony did not have a set of core beliefs or doctrines,” Raschke says. “Broadly speaking, something could be called ‘New Age’ if it encompassed some kind of non-Western spiritual practice, or called into question all forms of materialism, consumerism, or industrial technologies.” Astrology, paganism, meditation, and yoga all became iconic features of the movement.
As New Ageism grew, it didn’t take long for crystals to surge in popularity, either. In a 1986 New York Times article “New Zeal for Gemstones: Real Search for the Unreal,” the Times reports that the price of a volume of quartz worth $1 had surged to $10 or $12. ‘’It’s hot stuff,’’ Dr. George E. Harlow, curator of gems and minerals at the American Museum of Natural History, told the paper. “The healie feelies are making for a great market in quartz, and mineral dealers are having a hard time keeping quartz crystals in stock.’’
By the ’90s and early aughts, those seeking out crystals were likely to find them atop velvet tablecloths in patchouli-drenched shops. But today, the commercial prospects for gems are again mainstream, if a bit pricey. Labradorite gemstone towers are Etsy bestsellers, as are quartz earrings; Allure, Nylon, and Vogue have all touted the metaphysical merits of beauty products that include $58 frequency-raising mists infused with moonstone, rose quartz, and amethyst, $44 tourmaline-charged hydrating cremes, and emerald-gemstone face oils just shy of $90, which are designed to stimulate the heart chakra (while conveniently fighting acne). Members of younger generations are still charging their quartz in the light of the full moon — but many are also turning to the stones to help make their skin look flawless.
Today, shopping has become its own spiritual practice, according to Matthew Hedstrom, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia. As younger generations increasingly identify with multiple faiths, “Religion becomes another one of those things you consume because you find it enjoyable or useful in some way, rather than feeling like religion is something you help make,” Hedstrom says. He notes that, in an organized religious community, “Everybody has to show up every week.”
In a 2014 study of New Age retail stores in The Service Industries Journal, two researchers from the University of Stirling wrote that buyers of New Age goods shop in what they called a “spiritual supermarket” — they handpick spiritual and religious elements to form their own beliefs, rather than subscribe to a single faith. Today’s market-driven economy, unprecedented access to spiritual guidance online, and abundance of spiritual books, podcasts, retreat centers, and workshops, have all liberated the “pursuit of a customized spiritual pathway,” according to the study’s authors.
This rise in do-it-yourself (DIY) spirituality is part of a larger “individualistic culture” among young people overall, according to Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and author of Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans are more Confident, Assertive, Entitled - and More Miserable than Ever Before. “Individualism basically says that you don’t need to hang out with a bunch of other people and go to religious services. You don’t really need to believe in something bigger than yourself like God,” Twenge says. “At an extreme, individualism is really incompatible with religion.”
But younger generations aren’t necessarily so self-involved that they don’t believe in forces larger than themselves: Millennials may be less religious, but they are just as likely to be as spiritual as their elders. More than 40 percent “feel a deep sense of wonder about the universe at least once a week,” according to Pew.
MILLENNIALS MAY BE LESS RELIGIOUS, BUT THEY ARE JUST AS LIKELY TO BE AS SPIRITUAL AS THEIR ELDERS.
At the same time, adults are increasingly deriving spiritual wonder from activities taking place outside the walls of traditional religious institutions. A 2009 Pew study of nearly 4,000 adults over the age of 18 found that almost a quarter viewed yoga as a spiritual practice, and over a quarter believed in the spiritual energy of entities like mountains or forests. About 30 percent of the 2009 survey participants who identified as religiously unaffiliated reported experiencing a “moment of sudden religious insight or awakening,” a figure that was “much higher” than a survey conducted in 1976 and nearly twice that recorded in a 1962 Gallup survey.
This uptick in the population’s belief in spirituality is altering how some religious scholars define secularism, Hedstrom says, especially as younger generations continue seeking spiritual nourishment outside of, or paired with, larger religious institutions, like the Catholic Church.
“What more and more people in religious studies are starting to think about is not the absence of religion, but that there isn’t a dominant mode of religion any longer,” Hedstrom says. “All of the sudden, instead of five options of religion, or 10 options, you’ve got every mix-and-match variety you could think of, including one you invented on your own.”
“I would say I am both [religious and spiritual],” says Travis, who follows an ancient Taoist interpretation of stone medicine in her practice. “Really, for me, what this journey is about is discovering my true nature again and again, and supporting others to do the same.”
Travis was first drawn to crystals while earning an MFA in ceramics — her work explored the idea of “subterranean sacred spaces,” she says. She has since spent the last decade integrating stones into her own spiritual practice and her work with her clients. “I place the crystals on the acupuncture points, so it’s the perfect modality for those who are not a fan of needles,” Travis says.
In the years since Oatman’s own shamanic experience, she says she has come to realize that the rose quartz did less to conjure new love than affirm the open-heartedness and empowerment she had possessed all along. Lately, she says she has been practicing with citrine, a pale-yellow or golden-brown stone representing abundance. Oatman, also a breast-cancer survivor, meditates with this variety of quartz because of its association with the Hindu goddess Lakshmi — her open and outstretched hands symbolize a constant state of giving and receiving.
The stone is a reminder, Oatman says, to be open to new opportunities throughout her life’s journey and to serve others along the way. “For me, spirituality is about going within, to a belief in something bigger,” Oatman says. “The crystals really became more, for me, about pulling out, drawing out what was already there.”
*Update — April 9, 2017: This article previously suggested Travis believes in DIY spirituality. She in fact adheres to a tradition of Shamanism taught to her by the Q’ero shamans of the Andes.