June 15, 1987 12:00 PM

Rock crystals have a comforting heft and a cool, smooth feel. Yet ask the customers thronging shops like Star Magic in New York City or Bones of Our Ancestors in San Francisco why they’re buying that chunk of quartz or tourmaline and you’re likely to hear lots of vague talk about about “energy” and “vibrations” and “balance.” Press for specifics and you’ll find that silicon dioxide, the scientific term for quartz crystal, now has more uses than a Veg-O-Matic. Bay Area cosmetologist Patty Gerrie, 34, puts a crystal next to the carburetor to keep her car running smoothly. Laurie Cabot, self-proclaimed witch of Salem, Mass., drops one into her moisturizer to improve her skin. Crystal sculptor Dean Mars buried his leftover chips on the property of divorcing Santa Barbara neighbors to help sell their house, while actress Jill Ireland meditated with pieces of quartz following her mastectomy. “I’m not saying it cures cancer,” says Ireland, who has since given crystals to her daughters. “But when you have the disease, your peace of mind is damaged as well. And that’s where they worked for me.”

Tina Turner, who is now on tour, finds that holding a crystal for a few moments cures the loneliness of a strange hotel room. “I don’t know if it’s psychological or something in the rock,” she says, “but it works.”

The good that crystals do tends to be “a subjective experience,” admits Star Magic manager Esther Goldman, but it is one shared by more and more people, judging by the way crystals are selling off the wall. Particularly since Shirley MacLaine brought spiritualism and holistic healing to prime time, shops all around the country report that crystal sales—and prices—have more than tripled. There’s also a thriving market in books, seminars and personal instruction in the crystal arts of healing and meditation. If, as a West Coast crystal consultant who calls himself Joshua says, crystals are “just tools to amplify your own special spiritual gifts,” nevertheless it requires a good deal of arcane information to determine the proper tool for the job. You must know, for example, that amethyst, historically thought to cure drunkenness, also protects the respiratory system and promotes healing if placed on the body’s pressure points. Rose quartz affects matters of the heart, smoky quartz the nerves, while tourmaline—used for submarine depth gauges—balances mental and emotional states and has a direct line to the intestinal system.

Moreover, to work properly, any one of these crystals must first be “cleared” by, for example, exposing it to sun or moonlight or running it through a tape-head cleaner, or by passing it through sand or sea salt. Then a user “charges” the crystal by blowing on it with a wish to assign it a specific purpose. True believers like Patty Gerrie will put one kind of crystal in the bathtub, another on the cat’s collar and another inside her refrigerator to lower her electric bill. She also treats common ailments by drinking elixirs made by soaking crystals in water overnight and keeps a football-size hunk of quartz aimed out the window of her San Francisco home to “strengthen the immune system” of the entire city. Obviously, whoever dubbed crystals the “rabbit’s foot of the ’80s” didn’t know the half of it.

The belief that the symmetry of the crystalline structure imparts rare powers has a long history in Western culture. During the Middle Ages, European nobility draped itself in gems to ward off the plague, and when Pope Clement VII fell ill in 1534, he was instructed to eat 40,000 ducats worth of crushed gemstones. (He died soon after.) In this century the discovery that crystals vibrate precisely in response to electrical current has made them essential components of radios, computers, lasers and watches. A crystal’s prismatic effects and the tiny electrical charge it emits when rubbed lend some credence to all the “healie feelie” talk of how the stones “transmit and magnify energy.”

Even if, as Dr. Gershon Lesser, an L.A. internist and radio personality, says, “there is no scientific basis that stones can heal,” he adds that “the meditation involved does help. If the crystal with its pretty color and art form induces a belief system, then it is valuable.” Retired IBM scientist Marcel Vogel has set up a $1 million lab in San Jose to explore whether cut crystals can purify water or ease the pain of arthritis. “Patterns are stored in bones,” says Vogel, “and vibrations from crystals can replace a bad pattern.”

Perhaps more appealing to crystal consumers—the vast majority are women in their 30s and 40s—is the case made for them by Anne-Marie Bengstrom, director of the Ashram, a pricey New Age health spa in California. “Your body is crystallized thought,” she tells clients. “If you’re in harmony and at peace with yourself, it doesn’t matter what you eat, even chocolate cake.”

With rewards like that in the offing and prices starting as low as a dollar or two for an inch of clear quartz (elaborate clusters of rare crystals can run well into the thousands), it’s no wonder that the market for crystals has not only exploded but has begun to diversify. Crystal Odyssey, a New York-based travel group, now organizes pick-your-own junkets to the quartz mines of rural Arkansas. A couple in Marin County, Calif. has introduced a line of crystal jewelry (“fashion-forward and metaphysically correct!”) that is selling briskly in 700 stores around the country. Colorado entrepreneurs Jeffery Stollman and David Iden have commissioned Robert Vanosa, the artist who created Celestial Seasonings’ distinctive tea boxes, to design packages for a line of 21 types of crystals, ranging from plain quartz to diamonds. Each of these pet rocks, which sell for $20 to $100, comes with its own pedigree, a short pamphlet explaining its origin, uses and special lore. “We’re trying to provide an education along with the stone,” says Stollman, who finds most of the books about crystals “very confusing.” The Complete Crystal Guidebook, for example, offers this advice: “If you want to really know crystals, get to know rock…find a rock cliff and rub your body against it….”

Even if you don’t believe every single word about your crystal, who cares? Frank Lambert, 40, a truck driver buying a few rose quartz trinkets for his girlfriend at L.A.’s Bodhi Tree, notes, “They’re pretty, nice to handle and nice to look at.” Which is surely enough to make anyone feel better.

—Written by Lee Aitken, reported by Martha K. Babcock and various bureaus

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