How Crystals Form
How are crystals formed? Crystals form in nature when molecules gather to stabilize when liquid starts to cool and harden. This process is called crystallization and can happen when magma hardens or when water evaporates from a natural mixture too. Many crystals start small but as more atoms join and create a uniform and repetitive pattern, the crystal grows. This is how crystals are formed in nature.
Sparkling, shimmering, soft and silky, or hard as flint – crystals come in a thousand shapes and colors, and each brings its own unique moods and magical elements. For millions of years, crystals have been emerging from the earth and connecting with these gems is a beautiful way to show our support and love for mother nature and to welcome healing and higher vibrations into our lives.
After spending years smitten by the kaleidoscopic existence of crystals, we wanted to take a closer look at the sweet science behind their formation. To us, crystals are a sublime dance between art and science, reality and rare dream, and it’s essential to understand these gorgeous ancient gifts from the earth so that we can respect and revel in the journey these gems have taken to sit upon our wrist or in our hands or to occupy whatever space we make for them. We take a dive into the science behind how crystals are formed and all the nitty-gritty details that go into creating these sublime stones.
What is a Crystal Really?
Say the word crystal and we instantly swoon over the idea of glittering geodes and gems like soft pink Rose Quartz and amazing Amethyst. But crystals show up everywhere in nature and aren’t just linked to the colorful stones that cleanse our chakras. The main thing that crystals share is their crystal structure. The molecular structure of crystals is super well organized and form a grid-like pattern. Each atom (or ion) in the party has its place and it’s this repetitive layout that puts it under the category of crystal. This is found in everything; from a salt crystal to a sugar crystal, to graphite, an ice crystal stashed inside a snowflake, and of course the radiant quartz crystals that occupy our altars.
We find the crystal shape and pattern scattered throughout nature – and in fact, the word crystal even comes from the ancient Greek word Krustallos, which translates to both ice/crystal. Most of the minerals found in the natural world are found in crystal form and shape also plays a part in the role of crystals. There are seven basic shapes of crystals (also known as lattices) – hexagonal, cubic, trigonal, triclinic, orthorhombic, monoclinic, and tetragonal. The shape of the crystal can vary, and the differences are a clue as to the repeating pattern happening with the internal arrangement of the atoms. Perfectly shaped crystals are tricky to find in nature as you need flat surfaces and ideal conditions for these to grow. There are so many incredible shapes within crystallization - just look at the difference between blooming gypsum and blocky pyrite.
As mentioned earlier, crystals are formed by liquids cooling and the molecules rushing to stabilize as the liquid hardens to become solid material matter. Beyond science, there is so much beauty and truth to be found in that statement alone. The idea of atoms reacting to a rapid change by using their energy to shift and bond into something strong and everlasting.
The Scientific Study of Crystals
The scientific study of different crystals is called crystallography. This bright and fascinating branch of science delves deep into crystal growth and crystal formation. Scientists in this field are fascinated by the atomic arrangement and molecular structures of a wide variety of materials and how atomic architecture works. Under this banner is every kind of science imaginable – chemistry, biology, physics, geology and everything in-between. Crystallographers, in short, study the secrets of crystalline structure. This is different to mineralogy, in which instead of studying the internal structures and distribution of atoms, turns its head to the physical properties of minerals or the chemical formulas that come together within certain stones. There is so much that can affect the creation of crystals – from the environment to temperature and how the atoms arrange themselves which can affect light, different colors, and texture within the crystal.
There are so many crystals out there ranging from the colorful common variety to the rare. Some of the most common crystals you can recognize are –
Amethyst – a style of quartz, this one is purple, but quartz comes in many different colors
Calcite – a calcium carbonate mineral
Fluorite – a calcium fluoride mineral with isometric form and a wide range of colors
Garnet - a group of silicate minerals with varying chemical composition
For those who adore the idea of crystals being born from the Earth over millions of years, crystallization that happens underground is super exciting. Deep beneath our feet, the earth’s crust is a whole new world. Some parts are 3 miles thick, and others are 25 miles thick just sitting under the seabed. Beneath the crust, is the mantle – which makes up over 80% of our earth's volume. The mantle is also mega– coming in at close to 2000 miles thick. The mantle is made up of magma – the fiery red and orange thick fluid that sometimes pushes up through the cracks of the earth to become spewing lava. This molten rock contains a mixture of minerals.
The place where the magma and the crust meet is wild, potent in energy and with constant movement. Parts of the crust break off into the magma and melt, having a knock-on effect on the surrounding magma as the chemistry changes. The bottom of the crust which has been worn and torn by the magma is full of nooks and crannies and cavities that provide the perfect environment for crystals to grow. High pressures and temperatures set the scene and when the mineral-rich fluids seep into the crusts fissures and cracks to cool - crystallization starts to happen.
Of course, to get to a place where gemstones are sparkling beneath our feet this whole process can take time and as our earth isn’t a stable thing, there are many interruptions that can slow down the process of crystallization.
How the Shifting Earth Affects Crystal Development
While crystals are busy growing in these cavities and cavernous spots within the crust, the surrounding environment is far from calm. Passageways open and then can collapse as the earth shifts and this puts an end to all crystal growth. However, the crystal simply sits dormant and when another shift happens which causes the passageway to reopen, growth can resume once more. This stop and start process can leave its mark on the crystals, leading to different colored zones appearing on the crystal, a twinning effect in color composition, new layers that don’t completely bond, and different minerals growing on each other too.
Crystal Specimens Composed of Different Minerals
Different minerals in the same crystal can happen when the cavity closes and reopens. As the environment where crystal growth happens isn’t a stable place and sees big fluctuations in temperature, pressure, and even the chemical build-up, when a passageway closes and later reopens, the new environmental factors can cause a whole different mineral crystal to start growing over existing material. This is where you get gorgeous examples of layered colors and textures like in watermelon tourmaline or fluorite.
Gemstone inclusions can also happen with the opening and closing of cavities. Sometimes, a new crystal will start to grow on an already established stone and then the growing process will be halted. Then, if the environment supports it, the older crystal will start to regrow and essentially swallow up the new crystal. Two different minerals may also start to grow at the same time but flourish at different speeds which also ends up in one crystal overtaking and engulfing the other. You can see this in emeralds for example which have pieces of pyrite inside.
Temperature and environmental changes can also cause some minerals to have impurities which then go on to crystallize themselves. This is when the main mineral acts like a cavity itself and the impurities crystallize and grow within the walls and space of that mineral. For example, this is how you get rutile stashed inside of a quartz crystal or corundum.
Impurities can make all the difference within crystals. For example, a perfect diamond would only contain carbon atoms (and maybe a few boron atoms), but if impurities or the 'wrong' atom is found, it can change the diamond and these impurities can even be one of the only things that separates a ruby from a sapphire.
Another natural phenomenon that can occur is something called phantoms. Ghostly and glorious, this is when a transparent crystal gets a new layer from another crystal growing over it. This setup can be quite rare as the old transparent crystal may also continue growing and can form a new layer of quartz, leaving a ghostly or shadowy specter of the other crystal sitting beneath the surface.
Everything that happens in this part of the earth’s core is all about the big drama. Fire, energy, cracks, collapses – it all adds up to a tumultuous place to be. This also makes for a challenging place for crystals to grow and means that many crystals end up broken or cracked in the process. Sometimes, materials can seep into these cracks and fissures which essentially heal the crystal and bond it once more. It creates a binding space for the crystal to fuse and grow together again. These healing fractures etched across the crystal are also called fingerprints by geologists.
Geological Processes and Gem Formation
After studying the secrets that sit beneath the earth, geologists have a pretty good handle on how gems form. This is super useful for recreating certain environments within the lab so that conditions can be mimicked when creating lab-grown gems. Traditionally, are three different processes for a rock formation.
- Igneous rocks – these rocks are created deep within the earth from high levels of heat.
- Metamorphic rocks come from changes in pressure and temperature, causing existing rocks to metamorphize into something different.
- Sedimentary rocks – these rocks form from sediment deposits.
In our modern world, geologists understand there are four processes for rock formation.
- Molten rock and associated fluids
- Gem formation in the Earth’s mantle
- Changes in the environment
- Surface water
A Closer Look at Quartz
There’s so much that feeds into crystal creation and there’s so much that goes on beneath the surface. What could be a seed of a crystal can branch and stack and stretch and bloom as all the atoms connect and grow. This process can come from fire but also the depths of water, the steam of gas and vapor, and melted rock. Some crystals need both heat and water to form such as quartz, which is one of the most well-known and beloved kinds of crystals out there.
Quartz is often one of the last minerals to crystallize and it kind of fills in the gaps in spaces where other minerals have formed. When formed in rock cavities it tends to create hexagonal crystals but when formed deep within the earth it will be smaller and in rounder masses.
Quartz is often colorless but takes its color from reflecting the surrounding minerals. Colored versions of quartz take their shading from ‘impurities’ stashed within them. Don’t be fooled by the term impurity, these cool and so-called contaminants bring so much personality to the crystals in terms of color and texture and the dance of shadow and light. For example, Amethyst takes its beautiful purple hue from the inclusion of iron oxide or maybe manganese and the citrine stone gets its golden sunshine shades from Amethyst being overheated.
Another interesting element of crystal growth is that there are no restrictions on how big a single crystal can grow. One of the largest crystals in the world can be found sitting beneath a Mexican town. The huge hunk of Selenite is 12m long and has an eye-watering diameter of 4m too. It is believed to be half a million years old, a reminder that with enough space and time, large crystals can flourish without restrictions.
The formation of crystals is a vast world and hugely complex because one single fluid has seemingly endless possibilities for how it can shapeshift and grow. There are so many ways in which crystals can come into being and it’s all at the mercy of the earth’s innermost environments. Crystals are a result of nature’s drama and the forces of energy at work. They are born from chaos and change when shifting potential orders themselves into something solid and tangible.
Each crystal has its own vibrational frequency, and this is a huge contributing factor to how crystals can help clear blockages in the chakras and help us to raise our own frequencies to achieve higher spiritual bliss. Ripe with energy, as old as time, and stashed with the secrets of the universe, crystals straddle the line between science and spirituality.
What are your thoughts on how crystal systems are formed? Do you find the science behind crystals fascinating or do you prefer to stick to the emotional and spiritual side instead? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.