What is a crystal?

Strange as this may seem, considering gemstones generally gain their mystique from an aura of rarity, crystals are all around us. But their omnipresence should be more a cause of wonder than a reason to be dismissive of their powers.
Minerals are crystals. Most dust is silicon quartz, as sand is crystalline. A gem can be formed in the gas bubbles of molten magma 100kms below the earth’s crust, rising to the surface in volcanic eruptions. Even when exposed to the elements over time, breaking down through erosion, all geological crystals still maintain their essential crystalline structure.
Many living organisms can also produce crystals (organi-genic crystals). For example mollusc shells are layers of calcite crystals, and the now extinct trilobite had unique compound eyes composed of clear calcite crystals.
Pearls are created by the oyster when it secretes the mineral aragonite to cover an irritation in its delicate belly. While, in addition to collagen, our bones contain the mineral apatite, which also occurs as a pretty blue gemstone.
Liquid crystalline forms of magnetite, found the brains of migrating birds, help them to orient themselves to the polarities of the earth. This same form of magnetite is also found in the human brain, although nowadays we depend more on GPS than our brain’s inbuilt navigational capabilities.
Microscopically a single crystal has atoms in a near-perfect periodic arrangement (meaning highly regular intervals). Snow akes, salt and diamonds are single crystal forms. The hardness, density, and diffusion of a crystal is determined by its grain boundaries – in other words the spacings between the atoms. Many minerals are poly-crystals rather than single crystals and gemstones such as pearls and opals, while composed of microscopic crystals, are actually amorphous materials with irregular atomic spacings.
The creation of a gem, deep underground is quite a wondrous process. If we were putting together a recipe for a gemstone it would read something like this:
1. Combine all mineral ingredients – a selection of minerals available in a particular geological location, and sometimes an in ux of new minerals due to volcanic explosions, tectonic plate movement and the like.
2. Cook under very high temperature – generally pretty darned hot, upwards of 500 ̊c
3. Maintain a lot of Pressure – perspective: up to 5000 times the atmospheric pressure we experience at sea level.
4. For a long period of time – anywhere from 15 million to a few billion years
5. Make sure there’s some space for expansion. Crystals can grow in the cracks of rocks, or in caves, or in gas bubbles of lava. The important thing is that there is enough space for the liquid to expand into. If there is enough time, and the mix is right, crystals can become enormous. The giant gypsum crystals in La Cuerva de Los Cristales are large enough to dwarf a human.
6. Once well cooked, allow to cool (give it a few thousand years) although some crystals only form after things have cooled down.
Rather like baking a perfect cake, all the conditions have to be just right. And some crystals can get very complex; while others can change from one type into another when mineral in uxes change. Very few gemstones are created from one mineral (diamonds are pure carbon) and most get their colour from trace amounts of other minerals. You’ll nd iron and titanium in blue sapphires and a dash of chromium makes corundum into a ruby. But if you add a bit of chromium to a beryl you get an emerald.
Then there are all the variations in environmental conditions, which can mean a single uid mix may actually produce entirely different crystal forms. Diamonds and graphite are two crystalline forms of carbon but the diamond is one of the hardest substances known and graphite is soft enough to write on paper.
Some crystals are formed in magma (liquid rock and gasses) while others are shaped by metamorphic processes where existing rock changes form due to heat and pressure, in the way marble is recrystallised limestone.
They could result when the collision of continental plates raises mountains, and rocks melt with the forces. Others form as lava solidi es after an explosion, or ithey grow in plutonic rocks inside the earth, cooled very slowly and under great pressure. Other crystals form within rock layers as water infused with minerals slowly drips into the crevices and then just as slowly evaporates, in arid climates, over long stretches of time.
In essence, crystallisation is an alchemical process, where molten minerals combine with great heat and pressure over an enormous length of time. In the darkness of the earth, liquids solidify into beautiful forms with astonishing richness of colour, extraordinary strength, and transparency that is only revealed when they come to light.
The unique qualities of a crystal allow it to insulate, and oscillate, resonate, and transform electrical energy. While these properties and behaviours are mostly used for electronic processes and industrial devices, we can also call on a crystal’s electro-qualities because our bodies are, like the universe, alive with electromagnetic forces.
Synthetic gems aren’t glass, or ‘fake’ crystals. They have the same crystalline structure as natural gems, but they take about a month to grow in lab conditions instead of tens of million of years.
Many argue that synthetics are a more environmentally friendly way to acquire gemstones. Putting aside the waste products and energy used to produce them, this is probably right. Certainly when people are simply concerned with the colour and appearance of a stone then choosing synthetics makes a lot of sense.
If, however, you are in anyway interested in the metaphysics of a stone then there is no comparison between a gem produced through the alchemical processes of the earth, and one made in a lab under mechanical conditions.
It is also important that when you are using a gemstone for any amuletic or ritual purposes that you are conscious of the conditions under which the stone may have been mined. All mining can be described as a fairly brutal process, although gemstones are also found in alluvial deposits. It’s not always possible to know the stone’s place of origin, which is why it becomes super important to cleanse the stones for yourself.