Although not a precious gem like the diamond, the so-called “Herkimer diamond” is itself the focus of much attention. In June 2016 I was able to add to my collection of curious stones by searching for “Herkimers” at a mine in New York state and learning more about their natural and allegedly magical properties.
Herkimer diamonds are a distinctive form of clear quartz (crystalline silicon dioxide) discovered in Herkimer County, NY, and surrounding areas in the late 18th century. They are called “Diamonds” both for their clarity and the fact that they are found already faceted—by nature, rather than by a gem cutter. While they have quartz’s typical hexagonal structure, they differ from most quartz crystals which terminate (are pointed) at only one end. Instead “Herkimers” are double-terminated, resulting from their having had little if any contact with the host rock, Dolostone, in which they are formed in cavities. Thus each has 18 facets (six at each point and six around the middle). (While doubly terminated quartz crystals are found in a few other locales—including Arizona, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Norway, and China—they should only be termed “Herkimers” if found at the county they were named for.)
Rock crystal was little understood by the ancients. St. Jerome (c. 342–420) believed it was formed by water congealing in caverns. To the Church it symbolized keeping oneself free of stain and having a pure faith (Kunz 1913, 100). It has been called the master gemstone because it is found on every continent and has long been held to effect healing—an idea promoted uncritically by New Agers. For example, recommended by its author for naturopaths and others, Gienger’s Healing Crystals (2015) not only touts clear quartz for improving perception and awareness but claims that a double-termination crystal promotes telepathy (as if it existed!) and “improves simultaneous flow of energy [that New Age buzzword] in two directions.” Kevin Sullivan’s The Crystal Handbook (1987, 121) rings in with this:
“Herkimer Diamonds are very old stones. They contain a store of ecological memory that can be utilized by a person who can tune into the energy. They can also guide you in remembering your own past-life experiences.” Humbug.
I have long been acquainted with the magic claims for clear quartz. In my collection I have a crystal-tipped “Wiccan” magic wand (these are sometimes available in New Age shops), and quartz crystals that are included in kits of “healing” stones. In 1983 I conducted an investigation of the infamous crystal “Skull of Doom” that helped to demolish its many claims (Nickell 1988).
I became closely involved with the minerals in 1996 after I was shown a video of a 12-year-old Lebanese girl using apparent supernatural ability to produce “crystal tears” from her eyes. Her father believed it was “a gift from Allah,” while I was suspicious. Lebanese ophthalmologists noted the tears were actually “crystal rocks,” but otherwise they could not explain the phenomenon. Obtaining some little crystals from a rock shop, I experimented and found that pulling out a lower eyelid to form a pouch and dropping one in so that it rested out of sight, was the secret. For the Globo program “Fantastico” in Brazil, which filmed at my office, I allowed their reporter to tug on my lower lid, causing the hidden stone to come into view and pop out dramatically—just as occurred in the Lebanese “miracle” (Nickell 2001, 235–239).
Apart from their novelty and gem value, Herkimers are no more special than other quartz crystals—none of them imbued with magical properties. Nevertheless, I enjoyed finding a few at Herkimer Diamond Mines. It was reminiscent of discovering arrowheads at the site of an ancient Native American river encampment near my hometown when I was a boy, or searching out collectible fossils on many later excursions.
Gienger, Michael. 2015. Healing Crystals. Forres, Scotland: Findhorn Press.
Kunz, George Frederick. 1913. The Curious Lore of Precious Stones. Reprinted New York: Dover Publications, 1971.
Nickell, Joe, with John F. Fischer. 1988. Secrets of the Supernatural. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.
———. 2001. Real-Life X-Files. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.
Sullivan, Kevin. 1987. The Crystal Handbook. New York: Signet.