Kaufman’s four-year-old shop is packed to capacity with all types of rocks and minerals possessing supposed healing powers, from the smallest chips of emerald to a dazzling amethyst cluster geode the size and weight of a garden gnome. There are also feathered dream catchers, trays of gemstone rings, alien abduction kits (small bags of minerals to bring along for the ride, including copper, which Kaufman says “helps to stimulate diplomacy”), and a signed photo of a ’90s-era Brooke Shields, whom Kaufman says he met in the lobby of a D.C. movie theater and subsequently sent an amethyst pendant, the gem for strength. She was married to Andre Agassi at the time.
Shields isn’t the only boldface name of Kaufman’s acquaintance. First daughter Ivanka Trump, he reveals, is a repeat customer. The first time, “she walked in and said, ‘What a neat crystal shop,’ and within 10 seconds” one of his rock-laden shelves fell down, Kaufman says. “She has a lot of energy, I guess,” he shrugs. Kaufman has since made pendants for Ivanka’s children. “I used celestite, which is calming and uplifting.” (A person familiar with Trump’s activities didn’t respond to a request for comment on the shelf incident but confirmed that Trump has dropped by the shop on trips to her children’s dentist and bought the kids inexpensive gems as a treat.)
Healing crystals date back thousands of years: The ancient Egyptians bedecked themselves with protective amulets of lapis lazuli, carnelian and turquoise, and the ancient Greeks supposedly carried hematite to safeguard them in battle and used amethyst to fight off hangovers. Believers maintain that crystals act as conduits that allow positive energy to flow into the body as negative, disease-causing energy flows out. Though science has never found that disease results from bad energy flow, the demand for crystals is still going strong. There was a surge in popularity during the New Age movement of the 1970s and ’80s. These days, according to an article in Pacific Standard, crystals are trending with millennials, “fueled by celebrity endorsements and a New Age resurgence in major cities, and the fashion and beauty industries.” It would be remiss not to mention Gwyneth Paltrow and her jade eggs.
Kaufman, 59, is hardly fazed by his VIP clientele. After all, he has been dealing with the Washington elite since he was a kid. His father was a D.C. podiatrist with an in-home practice. When a patient named Marjorie Merriweather Post was too bedridden to make it into the office, the doctor made house calls to her estate, Hillwood, sometimes taking his son along. “I went and saw all her Faberge eggs,” Kaufman remembers, “and that really did it for me.”
In high school, he opened his first gem and rock shop in the back of a real estate office in Ocean City, Md., near his parents’ summer home. After graduating from college with a geology degree, he found there were no jobs — unless he wanted to work the oil reserves in Kuwait. Instead he opened a second gem shop in Rehoboth Beach, Del. “My employees were all Grateful Dead kids,” he says with a laugh. He eventually left Rehoboth to start a wholesale business, which he ran for 32 years, doing 40 or so shows a year, including the Denver Gem and Mineral Show, the American Gem Trade Association show in Las Vegas (“Michael Jackson loved gems and minerals”), and Nashville’s Rock-In Fossil, Gem, & Mineral Show, when Dolly Parton and Sylvester Stallone were in town filming “Rhinestone.” According to Kaufman, they were his best customers.
Kaufman opened his current shop after back and neck injuries sustained in a car accident kept him from doing trade shows: “I couldn’t keep picking up heavy boxes of rocks.” In his chinos and button-down shirt, he looks more like a dentist on his day off than a guy who makes his living selling alien abduction protection kits. This may explain why he attracts the clientele he describes, like the defense lawyer who brings a spiny chunk of black tourmaline to court to block opposing counsel’s negative psychic energy. Or the real estate agent who puts a piece of citrine in every drawer of the house she’s trying to sell. And the high-level government official who uses fluorite to take astral journeys to the International Space Station. “He can also turn himself into a fly,” Kaufman deadpans. Back down on earth, Kaufman considers these claims. “I just can’t take these people very seriously,” he says. Nonetheless, he does travel with a slab of labradorite in his right front pocket. “It’s a safety stone,” he explains.
In his shop, Kaufman is called upon to treat the many pains of the human condition. One morning in September, a woman in need of grounding buys a hematite ring. Another, whose energy level has flatlined, walks away with a platinum aura rock and instructions to put it in a glass of mineral water overnight. “You drink the water in the morning,” Kaufman explains. “Just don’t swallow the rock.” After a lull, a woman comes looking for something, anything, to help her 14-year-old daughter. “She can’t stop crying,” the mother says, on the verge of tears herself. School is a battlefield, and her daughter’s self-esteem has taken a hit.
For a moment it’s unclear whether Kaufman has a stone for that. He takes his time, rummaging through bins and turning over stones in his hand until he’s satisfied. “Garnet is for self-esteem,” he says, handing the mom a pinot noir-colored stone. “And tiger’s-eye is for stability,” he says, adding a striated brown one. The total is $9. For good measure, he tosses in a hematite ring. In addition to its grounding properties, he tells her, hematite is thought to keep bullies away.
Cathy Alter is a writer in Washington.