NOT LONG AFTER Malika Mathis opened the shipment of clear quartz towers she’d purchased from a dealer in China, she noticed that something felt off.
“I’m not talking energy or anything,” Mathis, who runs the online crystal shop Mother Nature Minerals, tells Popular Science. While high-quality quartz crystals can be very clear, Mathis notes, “I’m looking at it and they’re too clear.”
Small fractures and imperfections pock most natural quartz crystals. Some flaws are left over from forming under intense heat and pressure deep inside the Earth. The ones Mathis received had none. Instead, these trinkets contained free-floating, tiny bubbles, almost invisible to the naked eye—a telltale sign that they had not formed inside the Earth at all.
To Mathis, the bubbles could mean only one thing: They were made of glass. When she informed the seller, they denied the crystals were fake and refused to issue a refund. After PayPal refunded her, the seller told Mathis to keep the “clear quartz.”
Mathis’ experience is far from unique. The crystal business is rife with forgeries and misrepresentations, according to interviews with a dozen industry insiders, including crystal miners, crystal wholesale and retail businesses, and mineral identification specialists.
Some experts believe that the fake-crystal problem is getting worse. Before you consider splurging on that sparkly specimen, mull over a few best practices. The sellers’ methods aren’t always subtle. So how do they get away with peddling forgeries?
Two crystal camps
Crystal collectors typically fall into one of two groups: rockhounds who approach their hobby scientifically and spiritual types drawn to crystals for their purported healing properties. Although the two groups have very different interests, in sham crystals they share a common enemy. And in today’s world of online shopping, fakes of every flavor—including cheaply dyed stones, mislabeled minerals, and lab-grown substitutes—are ubiquitous. The pandemic-era healing-crystal boom may be partly to blame for boosting the public’s appetite for inexpensive stones. But even some in the high-end collectors’ market are growing increasingly concerned about forgeries as fine mineral specimens skyrocket in value.
“In the gem trade, fakes are commonplace,” says Gabriela Farfan, the Coralyn W. Whitney curator of gems and minerals at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. (A gem is a mineral cut and polished for jewelry, while a mineral crystal is any solid inorganic substance whose atoms are arranged in an orderly, repeating pattern.) In the broader mineral industry, Farfan says, many types of “fakes are a relatively new phenomenon.”
Giving stones more sparkle
Long before Etsy and Amazon were flooded with deceptive crystals, Justin Zzyzx was digging them out of the ground. Early in his career as a mineral dealer, Zzyzx visited a pay-to-dig emerald mine in North Carolina in search of treasures. He found a few emeralds, but something about them was strange. The gemstones had flecks of black biotite. Yet Zzyzx knew, based on the local geology, that any emeralds he found should have had white pegmatite inclusions.
The mine’s owner was unrepentant when Zzyzx confronted him about the misplaced minerals. “You found an emerald, right?” Zzyzx recalled the man saying.
The encounter motivated Zzyzx to learn everything he could about how minerals can be faked. In 2008, he launched a website, FakeMinerals.com, devoted to naming and shaming vendors who sold them knowingly. “I’ve got a terrible black-and-white sense of justice,” he says.
Fifteen years later, Zzyzx, now the general manager at the wholesale crystal dealer B2B Minerals, has started to see shades of gray in the world of fake crystals. After all, not everyone who sells them is trying to rip buyers off.
Some sellers create artistic arrangements by gluing loose crystals onto a typically natural mineral matrix, unaware that serious collectors consider that a forgery. Others simply want to “take a product range and broaden it,” Zzyzx says. When amethyst, the common purple variety of quartz, is heated to 560 degrees Celsius, its crystals turn orange. Afterwards, sellers might pass it off as citrine, a type of quartz that’s far rarer in nature.
“Chemically, it’s the same” as citrine that formed inside the Earth, says Yinan Wang, a geologist who sells crystals and gemstones. As for people heat-treating amethyst, “That’s been going on probably over a century.”
Other treatments can also give common rocks more sparkle. “Smoky quartz” is a brown or black variety of quartz that develops in nature when emissions from radioactive rocks interact with aluminum impurities in the crystal structure. But most of a variety called Arkansas smoky quartz on the market today has been artificially irradiated, according to James Zigras of Avant Mining, the largest quartz crystal producer in the United States. “Aura quartz,” meanwhile, is clear quartz with a mineral oxide coating baked onto its surface. Aqua aura, a popular variety, gets its iridescent blue shimmer from tin oxide and gold, Zigras says.
Avant Mining sells some of its crystals to producers of aqua aura quartz, and the company itself works with a specialized facility to produce smoky quartz. For Zigras, the intent is not to trick people.
“That is part of my business,” he says. “We tell everyone it’s been treated.”
The making of a fake crystal
But as Zzyzx learned while digging for emeralds years ago, not everyone discloses when their minerals have been manipulated. Even worse, some will deliberately alter a common mineral to pass it off as something rarer or more expensive.
A classic trick is carving common minerals into uncommon shapes. Farfan first noticed this in the mid-aughts. At gem and mineral shows, Farfan says she’s seen agate, a form of “cryptocrystalline” quartz known for its distinctive banding patterns, as well as fluorite, the mineral form of calcium fluoride, carved into unusual spherical forms to “make it look like it’s a unique mineral specimen when really it’s just a hunk of agate [or fluorite] someone cut up.”
Another classic ruse is dye. The magnesium carbonate mineral magnesite and the borate mineral howlite both form irregular white nodules. When dyed bright blue, they look a bit like turquoise to the untrained eye—and they are often sold that way.
“That’s a really popular one,” says Martina Gutfreund, who runs the Etsy shop SpiritNectarGems. Most turquoise fakes, Gutfreund adds, will reveal their true colors when dipped in the solvent acetone to dissolve the dye.
Sometimes, sellers won’t even bother manipulating a crystal—they’ll simply try to pass it off as something more valuable. For years, dealers have been selling citrine under the deliberately deceptive name “golden topaz” in order to fetch a higher price. Actual topaz, meanwhile? It’s one of the most common substitutes for uncut diamonds.
In the online shopping era, more outright fakes are slipping onto the market too. It’s now common to encounter red and yellow pieces of colored cut glass advertised with fruity, fictional names like “cherry” and “lemon” quartz. Moldavite, a natural green glass formed by a meteorite impact in Bavaria approximately 15 million years ago, is also faked with human-made glass—a problem that crystal influencers on TikTok pointed out after the material went viral in 2021.
Obsidian, a type of natural glass formed from volcanic lava flows, is reproduced similarly. Obsidian comes in a variety of colors, including black, brown, and brown-green. But some sellers claim that pieces of bright red or blue glass are extremely rare forms that experts say do not actually exist.
Emboldened by the internet, today’s mineral fraudsters are even selling “crystals” made of plastic. Many crystals are easily distinguishable from the manufactured material based on their heft and hardness. But plastic “amber” can be tricky to spot, as the real material—made of fossilized tree resin—has a plasticized quality. Malachite, a bright green copper mineral, often with a banded appearance, can also be cleverly faked with plastic. People sometimes take crushed malachite—a byproduct of carving ornamental objects—and use resin to reconstitute it into what appear to be whole pieces of the mineral. Because malachite is a relatively dense stone, “it won’t feel like real malachite but it won’t feel like plastic either,” Gutfruend says.
Even experts can be fooled into purchasing plastic minerals based on convincing internet photos. Don Olson, a gemstone specialist with the U.S. Geological Survey, recalls ordering an aquamarine necklace for his daughter on eBay. What he got wasn’t exactly what was advertised.
“For some reason I had to solder a link, and when I did the aquamarine melted,” Olson says. “That was a little disturbing.”
Another burgeoning family of fakes is minerals grown in a lab. Rob Lavinsky, founder of The Arkenstone, a dealer in fine mineral specimens, says that the techniques for growing quartz in laboratories have vastly improved over the past decade, and that synthetic quartz in a wide range of colors and shapes is now being sold online—sometimes with disclosures, but many times without. Much of it originates in China, leading Lavinsky to believe there is now “huge production” occurring in the country.
Other experts agree with Lavinsky’s assessment. “China is the home of fake minerals,” Wang says. Wang suspects that producers in China “are growing quartz now in large quantities.” Still, Zigras adds, experts typically aren’t fooled by lab-grown quartz, which forms clusters that are not seen in nature and exhibits other clear differences in terms of color, luster, and shape.
Lavinksy says that the recent surge in popularity of crystal healing—the idea, not scientifically supported, that energy from crystals has positive effects on your physical and mental well-being—has fueled an enormous consumer appetite for quartz, which producers in China have capitalized on.
“It’s a huge economy for them,” Lavinsky says. Between January and August 2021, China’s Donghai County—also known as the crystal capital of China—sold nearly $2 billion worth of crystals online, a 40 percent increase from the same period in 2020, according to state media reports.
Whether or not a crystal healer cares that rocks can’t actually cure disease, most do care about the authenticity of their stones. Yet today, some are buying human-made materials for their purported healing properties. There are people who swear by the power of “Andara crystals,” which sellers will often assert originated on northern California’s Mount Shasta. Proponents, who can hawk these brightly colored objects for thousands of dollars, claim Andara crystals are a type of “esoteric matter” that exhibits “quantum properties at a non-quantum level.” But most of them appear to be hunks of slag glass left over from industrial processes.
“It’s the stupidest scam I’ve ever seen,” Gutfreund says.
Where are the crystal police?
A key reason fake crystals flood marketplaces today is the dearth of regulation. Other than general guidance on deceptive practices found in Section 5 of the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Act, the FTC told Popular Science it has no rules on how loose crystals and minerals must be represented at sale. (The agency’s Jewelry Guides do provide clear guidance on how natural gemstones and their synthetic counterparts can be sold, but those rules don’t apply to loose crystals that aren’t part of a jewelry item.) All the vendors contacted by Popular Science describe a Wild West of misrepresented minerals online, with no comprehensive action being taken by major platforms like eBay, Etsy, and Amazon.
“If you go on eBay and type in any sort of rare crystals, you’ll see all these 99-cent listings from China and India, and they’re almost all fake,” Wang says. “But they make the money. They send it here, there’s nothing you can do, and if eBay bans it”—which, in Wang’s experience, they don’t—the sellers will “just start a new account.”
“There is definitely no enforcement, at all,” Gutfreund adds about Etsy. “Definitely nothing being done.”
An eBay spokesperson tells Popular Science that the platform makes “every effort” to prevent buyers from being harmed by scams, pointing to the company’s money-back-guarantee policy, which allows buyers to seek a refund from eBay if the item they received doesn’t match the listing. Etsy tells Popular Science that sellers must agree to follow the site’s policies when they open a shop, including by accurately representing the items they are listing for sale. If an item arrives that is not as described, a customer may seek a refund through the company’s purchase protection program. Both platforms declined to respond to claims that fake crystals are a widespread problem, nor would they say whether they have taken action against any sellers. Amazon declined to respond on the record for this story. The FTC declined to answer whether the agency was aware of the fake crystals issue or has tried to forbid business from selling them.
With regulators missing in action, dealers in the high-end mineral trade have developed their own safeguard against fakes: sophisticated laboratory tests.
One of the biggest problems in the collectors’ market, Lavinsky of The Arkenstone says, is people taking loose crystals and precisely fitting them into a mineral matrix to create a fake specimen that, if actually real, would be worth tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars. To avoid accidentally selling fakes, Lavinksy sends almost everything he purchases to a laboratory that can verify its authenticity.
One of those labs is Nimeral Minlab, based in Milan, Italy. Founder Emanuele Marini got his start in the business by offering mineral cleaning and preparation services. But over time, more and more clients started asking him to investigate the authenticity of minerals they suspected had been manipulated. Ferreting out the dupes is a “need of the market,” Marini says, and it’s now a core part of his business.
“With some very basic techniques, we are now able to understand if a specimen is pristine and genuine, or if it has been manipulated or altered or faked,” he says.
Testing starts with a thorough visual examination of the specimen to look for obvious giveaways. Perhaps the crystals have a strange shape not typically associated with that mineral, suggesting a nefarious cut or polish. Or the piece might contain two minerals that don’t typically appear together in nature. Placing the specimen under an ultraviolet lamp to inspect if pieces were glued together in an unnatural way can also reveal a forged secret, as many commercial glues will shine brightly under a UV lamp.
If an expert still has doubts after carefully examining a specimen, other identification techniques come into play. Those can include raman spectroscopy, in which laser light is bounced off a specimen, creating a scattering pattern that represents a unique mineral fingerprint, or X-ray diffraction, in which X-rays are used to see the crystal structure. Specialists may use microscopes to hunt for tiny air bubbles that would suggest the presence of a human-made material like glass or plastic. They might also investigate the optical properties of a stone. Take a comparison between diamond and topaz, for example. Diamond is singly refracting, meaning light passes through it and remains a single beam as it exits, but topaz, a common substitute, is doubly refracting, meaning it can split a beam of light in two.
Farfan of the Smithsonian, which tests all the minerals it receives in-house to verify their identity, says that while fakes are an “increasing problem” in the collector’s world, “most of them are pretty easy to spot.” Marini agrees: “If there is something fishy or something not straight, it comes out immediately.”
How to not get scammed
At the end of the day, mineral-testing labs are expensive and often cater to an exclusive set of clients. Depending on the size of the specimen, for those without hundreds of dollars to spend confirming their new desk ornament is a genuine, Earth-made chunk of rose quartz, people in the crystal business say there are a few red flags to look out for when buying. They include unusually low prices, strange names, and what Wang calls “food-coloring type colors” like lime green and hot pink. “Natural [common] minerals, aside from one or two, usually do not come in hot pink,” he explains.
Finding a trustworthy shop is also essential. As a first step, Gutfreund recommends asking sellers where their crystals were mined. If they’re evasive or don’t know, customers should be on heightened alert. If a vendor is selling treated stones, like aura quartz or heat-treated citrine, without any disclosures, that’s another red flag. “If they’re disclosing, that’s a really good sign,” Gutfreund says.
Ultimately, the best protection against fake crystals is knowledge. If you care about buying authentic stones that showcase the raw, unglittered beauty of the planet, a little geological knowledge goes a long way. Museums and local rock clubs are great places to start learning about minerals, while rockhounding guides can help new collectors learn how to dig up their own natural treasures.
On the other hand, if you just want a colorful trinket to give your mother-in-law on her birthday, then maybe that pink agate candleholder is fine—as long as you’re not paying exorbitant prices because the seller claims it’s something rare.
If you do accidentally purchase fake crystals, it can help to embrace a sense of humor about it. In late 2021, science journalist Maya Wei-Haas was sent a fake “National Geographic healing crystal” Advent calendar by her mother, who didn’t realize it was a knockoff. Wei-Haas, who covered geology for National Geographic as a staff writer at the time, says that the box had real rocks and minerals pictured on the outside. But day by day as she opened each of the 24 flaps, she’d discover a piece of brightly colored fishbowl glass.
“It made December a lot of fun,” Wei-Haas recalls. “It was the highlight of each day, actually, to see whether or not I’d get a piece of glass.”
Wei-Haas says that she held out hope for real minerals throughout the entire Advent season. She got one drab white stone, and to this day she’s not entirely sure of its origin.
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