There’s a lot to love about Steven Universe, what with its gorgeous cartoon world and powerful outlook on emotions, boundaries, love, and self-esteem. It’s a true gem of a show.
But for me, the true love for that show didn’t etch itself on my heart until I had this thought: “Holy smokes, they just built a whole society wherein hardness and physical perfection are prized above everything else and then they blew it up with the idea that owning your feelings is actually the strongest and best way to be and they did it with gemstones and without any male gaze.”
This show was different than any I’d watched before. The main messages were of self-worth and loving your entire being, of respect for boundaries and the strength it takes to fully understand and feel your feelings. I’m not hyperbolizing when I say this show helped me love myself more at a time when I saw very little in me worthy of it.
It’s remarkable for all those reasons, of course, but another aspect immediately grabbed my attention: As a lifelong gemstone and precious minerals nerd, I realized all of the Gem characters were intentionally and perfectly ascribed to gemstones that have the qualities the characters themselves possessed.
Emotional intelligence applied to gemstones? Sign me up forever!
The realization started as most things in the Steven Universe universe do: with White Diamond.
We don’t meet White Diamond for a while in the show, but as we get to the know the Crystal Gems, we start to learn about their culture. We learn that there are four supreme beings among the gems, the highest of all the ruling classes: the Diamonds. And there’s an intra-Diamond hierarchy: the most exalted is White Diamond, followed by Yellow, then Blue, and then Pink. (Yellow and Blue are technically the same level, but Blue’s emotive presence is often dominated by Yellow’s unfeeling strictness.)
Diamonds take up space in our culture. They represent forever, thanks to jewelry store marketing campaigns, and they are considered rare and valuable, though that’s largely due to withholding supply on the diamond market. In Steven Universe, the Diamonds represent perfection.
Earth diamonds are from pure carbon that’s under immense pressure for thousands of years. Their crystals form in a cubic (or isometric) system, meaning all three axes of the crystals have the same length and intersect at right angles, forming cubes and other balanced shapes.
We only see color in gems because of light and how certain wavelengths of light are absorbed inside the stones. A diamond with perfect crystal structure and no impurities in the carbon will appear clear, or “white,” to the human eye, because that means all wavelengths of color were able to pass through the stone.
Other gems include various metals in their creation, and those metals also absorb light to give stones their color. But in some cases, as with a smoky quartz, it’s not the impurities in the stone that create the opaque color, but rather a deformation in the crystal’s internal structure that selectively absorbs light.
By giving White Diamond the ultimate authority, the show’s creators specifically built a universe and culture where physical perfection is considered supreme. They also imbue the idea of hardness with power, because of all the stones in the universe that we know about so far, diamonds are physically the hardest.
When she takes over Steven’s friends’ bodies and turns them monochromatic white and gray in the season five finale, White Diamond spells it out directly: “Now the impurities you’ve encouraged in them are gone!” she yells at Steven. “Now they are brilliant; now, they are perfect; now, they are me.”
The Diamonds are ruthless colonizers who give no thought to the planets from which they extract the life to make more Gems. It’s the kind of brusque, unfeeling domination you’d typically expect from a stone, and the show’s creators do a good job showing how impervious the Diamonds are to everything except each other.
Nothing is hard enough scratch a diamond’s surface except another diamond, but when the show gave these characters emotions, we learn that the real strength is inside of them. Pink Diamond’s heart is softened by her experience of life on Earth, and she’s suddenly filled with the courage to stage a rebellion and fight for what and whom she loves.
White Diamond, the hardest, clearest of them all, eventually learns she’s not perfect, and the realization makes her blush. That blush turns her pink, and she sees the coloration as an impurity or something wrong. But, because this show is all about emotional intelligence, we learn that White Diamond becomes stronger, better, and more like her true self when she accepts her feelings and doesn’t base her entire self-worth on her physical structure and appearance.
Ruby and Sapphire, and Garnet
I screamed a little when the show revealed Garnet’s true form, which is actually Ruby and Sapphire in a fusion (I’ll get to fusions next). We learn that Ruby and Sapphire were in a star-crossed lover’s situation and they weren’t supposed to be together due to their class differences: Sapphire is of a higher order than Ruby, so their love isn’t allowed.
What got me hollering is that rubies are sapphires, they’re just given a different name. Both stones are formed in corundum with aluminum oxide, and the red kind are called rubies and all other colors are called sapphires. It wasn’t until the 1800s that anyone realized they were different from red spinels and red garnets.
Rubies and sapphires are the second-hardest gemstones in our universe, falling behind the diamonds, which are still 140 times harder than the corundum-based stones.
The show putting Ruby and Sapphire together isn’t a fluke — these two are a great match for each other, both stubborn and passionate and potentially dangerous with their respective abilities to generate heat and cold. They’re literally cut from the same stone. But they can’t break each other, and nothing else can break them except potentially a well-aimed Diamond.
Garnets, on the other hand, rank in the middle level of gemstone hardness, and can be red, orange, brown, green, and purple, among other colors. When pressure is applied, garnets typically fracture under stress and form irregular, sharp pieces. Garnets also come in many types, with their structure, hardness, and color all coming from their varied chemical compositions.
When the show fuses a Ruby and Sapphire to create a Garnet, not only are they following historical assumptions (with red garnets often mistaken for rubies), but they are accurate in their idea that Garnet would be a unique creation made of two different components. It’s very cool.
Let’s talk about fusion for a minute, because it’s perhaps not immediately obvious that this isn’t an actual thing that can happen with real gemstones. In the show, strong emotional connections between two or more characters can lead to a fusion of those characters into a whole new creation and being. It requires love, in any of its variants.
Of course, in our world, a ruby plus a sapphire doesn’t suddenly mean you’ve got the chemical composition of a garnet! But it does harken back to the age-old idea of alchemy, or the ability to change one element into another.
Alchemists, who were the precursors to modern chemists, tried to do things like find a universal elixir, or change lead into gold. None of that worked, but the idea that it could be possible has transfixed humanity for centuries.
But if you’re willing to let go of the physical realm for a minute, which this show would have you do, you might consider love a certain kind of alchemy. We take two very different people and they form a bond, creating a new energy, a rare and beautiful power. Many people believe it is impossible, but others swear it is the only way to true wealth and happiness.
This show gives us fusion as a way to show alchemic love (in all its variations, not just romantic love), and tells us that even the oldest, hardest, and meanest stones can change into a completely different kind of stone under the right circumstances.
Also, just as a fun fact, Alexandrite, which is the fusion formed by Pearl, Garnet and Amethyst, is the third-hardest gemstone in our world.
Though pearls are some of the softer stones when it comes to scratching their surfaces, they are incredibly compact and nearly impossible to crush. This is important to know about the character Pearl, because she’s been through the ringer: Falling in love and then having that be mostly unrequited and then watching her love disappear only to have to care for the kid who replaced her.
That would be enough to crush me into dust, but not Pearl. She’s strong but soft, especially with Steven — she mothers him as though he’s her progeny.
Pearls are also valuable because they require little work to get them into the market. You find a pearl, and all you have to do is clean it up and it’s ready to go, unlike other gems that need to be cut and shaped. They’re also some of humanity’s most-prized gemstones, adorning the rich and powerful going back 6,000 years. It makes sense that the character Pearl would be part of the royal houses of the Diamonds, but not seen as important because her formation would be in a mollusk over a period of several years, not under high pressure for millennia like a diamond.
Amethysts are a light purple quartz, not quite as hard as a ruby but not nearly as soft as a pearl. Iron gives these quartzes their color, and they’re relatively common and inexpensive. They’re made of silicon dioxide, which is found in great deposits in North America, Brazil, the Alps, and Madagascar.
What I found so funny about the character Amethyst was her boisterous personality and how she was always ready to shirk the work and do something more fun. In ancient Greece, amethysts were used as a force to ward off drunkenness; the name amethyst is derived from the Greek for “not drunken.”
The show’s creators played with that idea and gave Amethyst a wild streak. Sure, it’s a kid’s show and no one is drinking booze, but she’s basically a garbage disposal for every other kind of human pleasure — she eats and sleeps because she likes it, not because she needs it. She’s over the top because that’s who she is.
Amethysts, like other quartzes, don’t have good cleavage, which in the rock world isn’t about a bosom but rather about how these gems split along flat lines. Quartzes don’t cleave cleanly — they can only be fractured, leaving them messy. This works for our character Amethyst, whose life is a literal mess — her room is full of piles of garbage — but she owns it and the show doesn’t shame her for it.
I also loved that she reveled in her commonality. Finding more Amethysts — aka the Famethysts — and being one of them helped make her more whole as an individual, which is really one of the goals of all the communities in the Steven Universe universe.
Other Gem Buddies
When we meet Lapis Lazuli, she’s a traumatized victim of the Gem War on Earth. The show’s creators don’t make her just get over it already — they give Lapis the time and the space to actually heal and make her home with Peridot.
What I love about Lapis and what the show got right is that actual lapis lazuli rocks are so sensitive! They are sensitive to pressure, to high temperatures, hot baths, acids, and alkalies. Like, so sensitive that people who wear these rocks should take off their rings before doing housework.
But Lapis Lazuli’s sensitivity is not treated as a weakness in the show, which is one of the aspects of Steven Universe that helped me feel less alone in the world.
Peridot, on the other hand, is presented as the opposite of Lapis. Peridot is all rationale and little feeling, and the two make a good pair teaching each other how to survive on Earth. Peridots are brittle and will burst under immense stress, which we saw our character do several times (though she always got it back together). It’s hard to find a large stones of good quality, so it made sense that the character Peridot was made small.
Still, Peridot has a fine sense of self, which is backed up by thousands of years of earthly praise for this yellow-green stone. Ancient Eqyptian Pharoah Tutankhamun proudly wore a peridot pendant, and some scholars believe that it was one of the 12 stones Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. It’s also the only gemstone we humans have found on Mars, where it sits in great quantities.
And of course, there’s Rose Quartz. She’s an interesting character just from a storytelling standpoint because we don’t really interact with her as an audience, we only interact with other characters’ memories of her.
It’s clear she’s multifaceted but secretive; Rose Quartz is opaque and shiny and warm and brittle all at once, which is a lovely representation of rose quartzes in general. Rose quartzes get their color from titanium, which is one of our strongest and lightest elements, and they are prized for their decorative nature.
But while we’re taking her into account, we also have to remember she’s a diamond pretending at being a quartz. In reality, the two stones are very different and easy to tell apart — only large, transparent quartzes can be faceted the way diamonds are, and those are rare. Cloudiness in the stone is the norm in quartzes, and clarity is the perfection of diamonds. The juxtaposition is magical in a character who is never really who she seems to be, but also feels known to so many.