Learning Library

Koh-I-Nur Diamond

Its 500 year history starts with the gem weighing a massive 739 carats, and some say whoever owns the Koh-i-Nur rules the world!

Meaning in Persian “the mountain of light”, the Koh-i-nur Diamond (also spelt Kohinoor, Koh-e-noor and Koh-i-nur) is unquestionably the most famous gemstone of indian origin.

It was first mentioned in an autobiography by the first Mughal ruler Babur (1526-1530). He had the gemstone beautifully cut, but the reshaping of the gem saw it reduced to 186cts (by anyone’s standards that’s a low yield). Upon completing the re-cutting Babur said, “Its value was more than enough to feed the whole world for half a day”.

In 1849 the Koh-i-Nur became part of the British Crown Jewels when Queen Victoria became Empress of India. After the British flag was raised on the citadel of Lahore, Punjab was formally proclaimed to be part of the British Empire in India. The legal agreement formalising this occupation included the following clause:

“The gem called the Koh-i-Nur which was taken from Shah Shuja­ul-Mulk by Maharajah Ranjit Singh shall be surrendered by the Maharajah of Lahore to the Queen of England”. Two years after arriving in the UK, the gem was shown to the public in an exhibition staged in Hyde Park. ‘The Times’ newspaper reported: “The Koh-i-Nur is at present decidedly the lion of the exhibition. A mysterious interest appears to be attached to it, and now that so many precautions have been resorted to, and so much difficulty attends its inspection, the crowd is enormously enhanced, and the policemen at either end of the covered entrance have much trouble in restraining the struggling and impatient multitude. For some hours yesterday there were never less than a couple of hundred persons waiting their turn of admission, and yet, after all, the Diamond does not satisfy. Either from the imperfect cutting or the difficulty of placing the lights advantageously, or the immovability of the stone itself, which should be made to revolve on its axis, few catch any of the brilliant rays it reflects when viewed at a particular angle.”

It wasn’t just the press who were unimpressed by this huge Diamond: Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert felt the gem lacked brilliance and ordered it to be reduced in size until it became more beautiful. The gem was cut and then re-cut and cut some more by Nottingham born lapidarist and mineralogist James Tennant. The work was carried out under Prince Albert’s close attention, and even though he was reported to have paid some £8,000 for the work, which saw the gem reduced from 186ct to 105ct, he was never satisfied with its appearance!

In 1936 the gem was set into the crown of Queen Elizabeth (whom we knew as the Queen Mother); in 2002 it was seen resting on her coffin, as the Queen Mother, at 101 years of age, lay in state. Today, the gem rests in the Tower of London, although over the past 35 years various leaders from India, Afghanistan and Pakistan have claimed they are the rightful owners of this gemstone, a gem with a long and bloody history (BBC news reported that in 1976 the Pakistan Prime Minister, out of the blue, called the British Prime Minister Jim Callaghan and asked for its return).

More recently on the 29th of July 2010 the BBC wrote, “David Cameron has rejected calls for the famous Koh-i-Nur diamond, which has been part of the Crown Jewels for 150 years, to be returned to India. The diamond, which was mined in India, was seized by the East India Company in 1849 and presented to Queen Victoria. Indian politicians have long urged the 105-carat treasure’s return. But asked about the issue during his trip to India, Mr Cameron said such a move would set an unworkable precedent and it was ‘staying put’”.

Like all of the world’s famous historic Diamonds, there are many myths and legends surrounding the Koh-i-Nur. Some of these stories say it was originally discovered some 5,000 years ago and is the gem mentioned in ancient Sanskrit under the name of Syamantaka. What is quite clear is that it originated from the State of Pradesh, India, which until 1730 was said to be the only source of Diamonds in the world.

Back to Learning Library