Rock on! Marketers cash in on crystal craze

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Credit: Illustration by Nazario Graziano

Four years ago, Adam Bienenfeld was broke, making ends meet through massage therapy and yoga instruction jobs. A fan of rocks and crystals since he was a kid, Bienenfeld started selling some of his prized collection in front of a health-food store in Northern California as a way to generate extra cash. Today, his Enchanted Crystal business has bloomed into a bona fide brand with 148,000 Instagram followers. He's even launched a subscription service, for which consumers pay between $16 and $58 monthly to receive a box of crystals. Though he wouldn't specify the total, he said his subscriber count for the boxes has doubled over the past 12 months.

Bienenfeld also plans to break into higher-end stones costing $1,000 and up—far exceeding his current price range of $5 to $400 for individual crystals.

"It was a nerdy thing when I was younger. I didn't talk about it much," says Bienenfeld. "But now I'm cool because of it and my business is cool."

The crystal craze is real and it's no longer cloaked in the crushed velvet, hippie head-shop aura of decades past. Despite little or no paid marketing, the practice of keeping precious rocks, whether attached to clothing, on a necklace or at a desk, has become a mainstream movement. While most commonly associated with millennials, it's now trickling into older generations as well.

It's also a market where much of the activity is not online, but in old-fashioned trade shows. For this crowd, online buys just don't cut it, says Brad Hicks, owner of Xpo Press, a marketing and advertising company for gem, mineral and jewelry shows and vendors. His 12 published guides on crystals have an annual circulation of 144,000, he says. Buyers "need to see and feel and sensually experience their purchases," according to Hicks. "They really believe in the energy for the spiritual properties of some of the crystals they're buying."

So, apparently, do celebrities like Victoria Beckham and Kim Kardashian West, who have publicly mentioned crystals. That's drawn the attention of brands like Estée Lauder and Sephora, which are working gemstone terminology into their marketing language. Urban Outfitters sells four types of crystal clusters, as well as amethyst incense. Sephora is offering a rose quartz luminizer from Kora Organics to "enhance your natural glow," as well as its own branded pearl mask that "perfects and brightens." A new trend in spa treatments includes guzzling a glass of crystal-infused water—think amethyst and rose quartz; one to heal, one to calm—while the Ritz-Carlton spa in Los Angeles is pushing jade facials and rose quartz manicures. At their New York Fashion Week show for their label The Row in February, the Olsen twins reportedly gave out palm crystals—quartz for harmony and tourmaline for protection—in attendees' goody bags.

Normalizing mysticism

Lucie Greene, worldwide director of the innovation group at J. Walter Thompson Intelligence, the agency's "futures and innovation think tank," says crystals are rising in popularity because, while many people have moved away from traditional religion, consumers are still looking for meaning in life. The rocks provide a counter-thread to pressures of their digitally connected lives, Greene says.

"In [our] really digital, hyperconnected lives, everything is super transparent. Blockchain can have everything instantly updated and everything relatable, detectable, measurable," she says. "It's appreciating things that are more unknown, intangible."

It also helps to have Gwyneth Paltrow on your side. The actress and Goop founder was an early advocate, first touting the well-being benefits of crystals on her lifestyle site a decade ago. Such claims have only increased in frequency in recent years.

When Goop published a basic guide to essential crystals at the end of 2016, the story attracted twice the engagement of a typical story, says Elise Loehnen, chief content officer at the company, noting that readers spent more than five minutes on the page. A later launch of a medicine bag for stones sold out immediately. Loehnen says taking crystals too seriously is a mistake, but that they can be fun for people who need more focus in everyday life.

"We're never going to have peer-reviewed studies on the power of a certain stone. That's misunderstanding their power," she says. "No one thinks crystals will cure cancer."

That hasn't stopped a wave of startups from investing in the trend. Gem-Water is a company that sells water bottles with gemstones inside. Kita sells high-end skin care infused with crystals—consumers need only fill out a questionnaire to discover their crystal profile. Gucci recently introduced fishnet tights with micro-crystals inside, all the better to shape you. In 2016, Megan McCulloch started Max & Vera, a Los Angeles-based lingerie company that incorporates crystals into bras, which it sells online and at pop-up shops. "I wanted to do something different," says McCulloch, noting that a bra is a safer place than a pocket or purse, where stones could slip out. "Wearing close to the body can help with emotional and physical healing."

Not to be outdone, Bienenfeld plans to expand Enchanted Crystal to include apparel with crystal designs on it later this summer.

While not actually selling crystals, skin-care and beauty brands are incorporating ethereal terminology into their marketing in order to cash in on the craze. Trendy Glossier is selling a "moon" mask and a "galaxy" cleanse. Cosmetics brand Estée Lauder offers a Pure Color Crystal lipstick. Experts say using such language comes at little cost to the brand, as long as it isn't investing in research and development, and adding a crystal shine here and there can only benefit a brand keen to engage in the cultural movement.

"Invoking that type of ethos, spiritualism in a marketing message doesn't require a lot of upfront investment. It's easy to change when the winds change direction," says Jonah Berger, associate professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Yet he cautions that the challenge lies in putting too much marketing behind a fad that could blow over. In addition, brands should be wary of making any health claims without scientific backing.

"Companies need to be careful investing too much, but hopping a little bit on that proverbial bandwagon in the short term might be a good way to get attention," says Berger.

Some trace the trend to consumers becoming more receptive to mysticism, and the belief in crystals as healing objects is part of that. "The idea of being able to talk about your spirituality has become slightly more normalized," says Misty Bell Stiers, a creative director at New York-based Isobar who has been practicing Wicca for more than 25 years. Stiers, author of next month's "Witch, Please"—who keeps her own jade palm rock for calming purposes and other crystals on hand as a reminder to "be present"—no longer worries about scaring people when she explains she's a witch, saying, "It doesn't have a connotation to it that it once did."

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