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Got Crystals? Gem Mining Could Be Your Full-Time Job

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Moonstones in Montana, amethyst and emeralds in North Carolina, garnet and quartz in upstate New York. At pay-to-dig mines around the United States, visitors can paw through piles of mine tailings to uncover crystals and gemstones on “finders, keepers” terms for as little as $10 a day.

At Herkimer Diamond Mines in central New York, home to an especially clear and unusually hard type of quartz crystal known as the Herkimer diamond, a $14 admission price includes a day of prospecting and the rental of a rock hammer. (Children under 4 mine for free.)

In a typical year, one-fifth of the mine’s customers are international tourists, so when the coronavirus halted travel and delayed the start of this year’s April-to-November digging season, the mine’s proprietor Renée Scialdo Shevat worried about what the loss in revenue may do to the 40-year-old family business.

Credit…Nina Westervelt for The New York Times
Credit…Nina Westervelt for The New York Times

By late summer, she was more concerned with how to limit the crowds. Diggers of all ages and degrees of seriousness had begun arriving in droves. “These days, every day is like a Saturday,” Ms. Shevat said in early September.

Even before the pandemic sent people searching for road trip destinations and outdoor adventure, interest in prospecting and rockhounding (or “fossicking,” as it is called in Britain and Australia) was already ticking upward. That has prompted some mines that had long been closed, like the Ruggles Mine in Grafton, N.H., toward new life.

From 1963 to 2016, Ruggles hosted tourists and hobbyists seeking mica, aquamarine, rose quartz and other treasures in its underground chutes and caverns. (It closed in 2016 when its owner, then 90, retired.) Late last year, New York City developers snatched it up with plans to reopen it as a tourist attraction, with major upgrades.

Mine owners aren’t the only ones with bright prospects. Some entrepreneurs are finding ways to carve out new careers in gemstones, too.

ImageA $14 admission price includes a day of prospecting and the rental of a rock hammer.
Credit…Nina Westervelt for The New York Times

For example, after having their jobs and schooling upended by the pandemic in the spring, Frank and Kyndall Stallings, 22 and 27, of Charleston, Mo., pivoted to digging for crystals.

“It all started in February, when Frank took me to the diamond mine in Arkansas for Valentine’s Day,” said Ms. Stallings, of the couple’s visit to a $10-a-day public mine called Crater of Diamonds State Park in Murfreesboro.

While they didn’t bring home a diamond, they did find a tiny piece of quartz. The experience was a thrill of life-changing proportions. By mid-March, Mr. Stallings’s work as a financial adviser had slowed significantly, Mrs. Stallings’s classes for a bachelor’s degree in horticulture had gone remote, and a job she had recently been offered — data entry at a hospital — never started.

With their newfound time, the Stallingses were mining nearly every day.

By mid-April, the couple had sold everything they owned on Facebook, burned everything they couldn’t sell in a bonfire, packed up their truck and hit the road to work as freelance crystal miners.

“Fifty dollars a day to dig, and if you dig really hard you find $2,000, $3,000, $5,000 worth of crystals,” Mr. Stallings said, referring to Ron Coleman Mining, a crystal mine in Arkansas where the couple recently unearthed a “once in a lifetime” 15-pound clear quartz point, which they later sold for $1,500.

Credit…Nina Westervelt for The New York Times
Credit…Nina Westervelt for The New York Times

While $5,000 days are extremely rare, the Stallingses do earn a living selling specimens of gold, amazonite, pyrite, quartz, fluorite, shark teeth and obsidian out of the back of their Toyota RAV4 and on eBay.

To keep overhead low, they are camping full-time, but expect this “tent life” phase to be just a rite of passage. Ms. Stallings recently emailed from a campsite on the Upper Peninsula in Michigan, where the couple was hunting iridescent yooperlite by UV flashlight at night. “We are just getting started and foresee huge success with this business we are building,” she wrote.

A dedicated rockhound may, in theory, make up to $10,000 a month selling his or her finds on the internet. A mineral or crystal that is hand-collected at a domestic, noncommercial site may fetch several times the price of one imported from a commercial mine abroad, especially in countries where the gemstone trade is known to finance conflict and genocide. Sellers can sometimes charge even more if they capture their finds on video (and hype them on social media).

One of the kingpins of this business model is Bryan Major, a.k.a. the Crystal Collector, a shaggy-haired prospector who posted his first crystal-digging video to YouTube nine years ago.

Video after video show him brandishing an amethyst cluster the size of his torso or an aquamarine crystal the length of his forearm — not only courting potential buyers, but also luring rockhounding newcomers with what they could achieve.

To make a career of digging crystals and gemstones, a nomadic life isn’t mandatory: Patrick and Samantha Krug, 32 and 30, go rockhounding multiple times a week a stone’s throw from their own backyard in Fonda, N.Y.

Credit…Nina Westervelt for The New York Times

“There’s nothing like birthing a crystal that has been in the dark for 500 million years, being the first one to bring it into the light, not knowing what you have until you get it out and clean,” Mr. Krug said. He and his wife fell in love with digging Herkimer diamonds while in college at SUNY Cobleskill. (The couple goes by “Him & Herk” on Instagram.)

Two years ago, the Krugs were granted a rare privilege by a local landowner: their own Herkimer land claim, a fraction of the size of a public mine, but one they have all to themselves. They use traditional mining techniques, not power tools, the way their mentors taught them and pay a small fee — $5 per day that they dig — to use the claim exclusively, carting their 16-pound hammers, flat steel, rakes, hoes, safety goggles and other crystal digging gear on a little wagon.

Herkimer diamonds often form in free-floating, double-terminated crystals, which means they have a point on both ends, causing them to resemble a cut diamond.

After a rain, searchers may find them sparkling all over the ground, the size of a poppy seed or a pencil eraser. Or, they may need to bust through walls of dolomitic limestone to find a pocket — an air chamber in the rock where crystals form — where one might find a “palmer” (a palm-sized Herk), or maybe one even bigger.

Credit…Nina Westervelt for The New York Times
Credit…Nina Westervelt for The New York Times

The clearer and cleaner edged they are, the more value Herkimer diamonds have, and good specimens are increasingly popular both for their use in healing rituals and in jewelry. (Meghan Markle wore Herkimer diamond rings, stud earrings and a bracelet to Princess Eugenie’s wedding last October.)

Despite the Herkimer diamond’s cachet, the Krugs haven’t fully cashed in. They are keeping their operation small and holding onto most of what they find. “We’re trying to collect every formation Herkimers make,” Mr. Krug said. “If it speaks to us, we’re going to keep it.”

“Right now, we mainly only sell on social media,” Ms. Krug added. “I’d like to have a stronger personal collection before really selling them.”

In recent years, crystals — once relegated to the New Age fringes — have formed the bedrock of a mainstream market. As celebrities including Katy Perry, Kylie Jenner, Kim Kardashian West and others espoused the healing properties of crystals and gemstones, the price of small specimens rose fivefold over the past decade. Between 2017 and 2019, U.S. demand doubled.

Some stars, like Gwyneth Paltrow and the former “Hills” stars Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag, have spun the crystal craze into business opportunity. Mr. Pratt, in a recent interview, said the couple’s home is filled with “at least 1,000” crystals. Ms. Montag had $27,000 worth of them placed at her bedside during the birth of the couple’s first child. In 2018, they started a web store, Pratt Daddy, which peddled hundreds of healing gemstones per week for as much as $300 apiece.

And just as many people are asking more questions about the origins of their food, there are growing questions about the origins and ethics of mining crystals and semiprecious gemstones — the mine-to-market journey, which has been clouded with social and environmental concerns.

In a 2019 report from The Guardian on the rising popularity of crystals and their ethically dubious sources mused , “Would crystal consumers really be willing to pay more to guarantee safer, child labor-free mines, or a fair wage for miners?”

Credit…Nina Westervelt for The New York Times

Brianna Cannon, a jewelry designer on Long Island, said her customers find added value in the fact that, “for the most part, we know who pulled the stone out of the ground, from where, and when.” She said items made with Herkimer diamonds are far and away her best seller for this reason. “People love to hear that we mine them ourselves, and that they naturally form so nearby,” Ms. Cannon said.

Ally Sands, the founder of Aquarian Soul, which makes crystal-infused bath and beauty products (available at stores including Urban Outfitters), also sells crystals on an individual basis, with a marketing emphasis on ethical sourcing.

“We have strong ties to each of our mineral and crystal suppliers, many of whom are small family-run businesses that gather material from their own land,” Ms. Sands, 33, wrote in a blog post last year. Her quartz, for instance, comes from a family that has been collecting on their Arkansas property for five generations. The family that provides her kunzite were her neighbors in San Diego until they moved to their native Afghanistan.

Ms. Cannon and Ms. Sands both regularly attend gem shows, including the country’s largest, in Tucson, Ariz., in order to make connections with freelance miners and rockhounds from whom they can source whatever they don’t dig on their own.

Among those freelancers is Ron Murray, 58, an osteopath in Seattle who mined quartz at Herkimer Diamond Mines from Memorial Day to Labor Day this year.

Credit…Nina Westervelt for The New York Times

For his first six years digging crystals, Mr. Murray said he was “too attached” to part with anything he found. But this year, upon returning home to Seattle, he planned to keep the top 5 percent of his harvest, and sell everything else.

“Very few people can do this,” he said. “It takes stamina. It takes knowledge. It takes masochism.”

Like many others who share his passion for crystal hunting, he calls it an addiction — one propelled by the unshakable thought that the next pocket of untold treasure may open up on the next swing.

He recalled the legend of a Herkimer Mines regular who once found a flawless, water-clear, perfectly terminated Herkimer point worth $50,000 and traded it for a $35,000 sports car. Then there is the story of “Diamond Jim,” the retired fifth grade schoolteacher who, upon his passing, left his children with a collection of Herks worth an estimated $1 million.

These stories just fuel the obsession, Mr. Murray said. “There are a lot of broke prospectors out there.”

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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