The origin of these crystals began 15 million years ago, when a solution of hot, salty water filled cavities that were created in Mont Blanc’s granite by tectonic movement. This solution became saturated with silica, which would, in time, form quartz crystals—silicon dioxide. The process occurred under extremely high pressures around 7.5 miles below the earth’s surface, with the solution reaching temperatures above 800 degrees Fahrenheit. As the Alps rose, crystallization slowly began on the grains of quartz contained in the walls of the cavities, becoming the pockets cristalliers seek out.
The first people to climb high in the Alps, as long ago as the 16th century, were hunting either chamois—a goatlike animal—or crystals. Those first cristalliers sold their wares to chandelier-makers in Turin or Geneva. Louis XIV, who ruled France from 1643 to 1715, reportedly owned a “smoky quartz from the Savoy glaciers.” By the 19th century, new sources of crystal emerged in Brazil and Madagascar, and crystal hunting in the Alps waned.
After World War II, the Alpine pursuit resumed, this time with explosives to blast pockets and helicopters to fly the finds down to the valley. “We used helicopters. It wasn’t forbidden,” said Philippe Cardis, a veteran cristallier I spoke with in Chamonix. “It was different at that time.”
Then, in 1979, Swiss prospectors blew up a section of the Walker Spur, a soaring pillar on the north face of the Grandes Jorasses peak. Outrage ensued: the Walker, first climbed in 1938, is one of the most famous climbing lines in the Alps. A court case followed, resulting in the French authorities banning crystal gathering.
“With alpinism today, the goal is to spend as little time as possible in the mountains. As a cristallier, you spend real time in the mountains.”
Afterward, however, a campaign swung into motion—petitioners claimed it was part of their heritage. Eventually, Michel Barnier, who served as France’s environment minister in the early 1990s, distributed a directive stating that as long as the methods used were “traditional,” then the practice could continue. Crystal gathering is therefore illegal but officially tolerated as long as no explosives, pneumatic drills, or helicopters are used. “It’s very French: an activity can be both prohibited and authorized,” Péray told me.
The law has to be interpreted, however, by local leaders. For the Mont Blanc massif, that often means the mayor of Chamonix, Éric Fournier. He has pushed for more regulation, demanding that cristalliers attend, in person, a training session at the start of the season in Chamonix. He has also demanded that cristalliers declare their finds and offer first refusal to Chamonix’s geological museum. “In my opinion, there is now a need to regulate the situation,” Fournier told me. He points out that he is a cristallier himself. Fournier says he is on their side and is determined to legitimize the practice with “necessary” legislation. (Fournier is the son of celebrated crystal hunter Roger Fournier, who died in a climbing accident in the 1970s. According to Péray, however, the younger Fournier is not one of the 14 serious cristallier teams at work in the French portion of the massif.)
Others suggest Fournier is on a crusade against the cristalliers, especially those from Eastern Europe, who have showed up to dig in recent years. “We do not all agree on this question,” Péray said. “In my opinion, foreigners have the same merit, they are often remarkable climbers, and they show the same pride toward the crystals they collect.”
Fournier himself referred to a recent incident with a team of prospectors who arrived from the Czech Republic. “The guys looked more like construction workers than mountain enthusiasts,” he told me. “I thought, wow, we’re going to throw these three in the mountains in a hostile and difficult environment, probably without any knowledge of the mountain, and if ever by chance they find something, will they be able to identify if it is precious or not, and will they have the sense to say this item is an item of heritage? So all this poses a lot of questions to us.”
The unsaid quantity is money. After our time in the mountains, I toured the Crystal Museum in Chamonix with director Denis Boël and Pierre Bavuz, president of the local mineralogical club. Treasures lay under glass, notably black quartz that was apparently confiscated from the Swiss after they blew up the Grandes Jorasses. Bavuz claimed cristalliers were almost exclusively hobbyists, not motivated by money. “They are either diehard collectors or mountain guides,” Boël said. “And the rest, they are mountaineers, people who love the mountains, but who are purely amateur. There are no professionals.”
But it is not entirely true that money is not a part of crystal hunting. There is a thriving market for crystals, which has been growing in recent years thanks to the New Age wellness trend, the adherents of which claim that crystals possess healing properties. A fair in Tucson, Arizona, held over two weeks each winter, attracts 5,000 vendors and more than 60,000 visitors and generates $120 million for the local economy. And like many other forms of collecting, the internet has revolutionized the trade. Boël’s reticence to acknowledge financial motivation reflects a French idiom: “Pour vivre heureux, vivons cachés,” or “To live happy, live hidden.” Chamonix is awash with tourist euros, but it is taboo to discuss money.
On top of that, the deals made for valuable crystals are often opaque. Neil Brodie, a Scot who trained as a mountain guide in the French system, wrote a thesis on Chamonix crystal hunters for his master’s in journalism at City University in London. “The international crystal market is an obscure and confusing world of crystal hunters, traders, and collectors, with no clear-cut division between each one,” he says in his thesis. “Prices fluctuate wildly and sellers say they only know the value of a piece once they’ve sold it.” In his research, Brodie spoke to a range of dealers and crystal hunters, who emphasized how hard it is to know in advance how much a crystal will actually fetch. Tellingly, when Péray found his miracle rock in 2006, one Lebanese collector was ready to offer $600,000. But Péray wanted his crystal to stay in France, so the Total deal moved forward.