The Koh-i-Noor Diamond

Murder, Mystery, and Colonialism

The Koh-I-Noor is one of the most famous diamonds in the world. Its origin myths have elevated its notoriety to the status of legend. Dozens of rulers across four countries have possessed it during its history, dating back millennia. Interestingly enough, most of its proprietors were ultimately plagued by controversy and met violent deaths, making the intrigues around this famous gemstone worthy of a George R.R. Martin novel. Even to this day, the diamond continues to spark international controversy. Is the Koh-i-Noor truly cursed or is it that fame itself is cursed?

In this article you will find: 

Replica of the Koh-i-Noor diamond at Prince of Wales Museum of Western India, Mumbai
Replica of the Koh-i-Noor diamond at Prince of Wales Museum of Western India, Mumbai
Discovered in
Ancient origins, legends suggest it was discovered more than 5,000 years ago.
Country of Origin
India (exact origin unknown)
Mine of Origin
Not specified
Carat Weight
186.10 carats
Cut Shape
Oval brilliant cut with 66 facets
Likely flawless or internally flawless
D-grade (Colorless)
Previous Owners
  • Babur
  • Shah Jahaan
  • Nadir Shah
  • Dulip Singh
  • Queen Victoria
  • Queen Alexandra
  • Queen Mary
  • Queen Mother Elizabeth
Current Owner
British Crown; part of the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London
Estimated Value
Inestimable due to its historical and cultural significance

The Origins of the Koh-I-Noor Diamond

The discovery of the Koh-i-Noor Diamond

The exact origins of the Koh-i-Noor Diamond are not known and there is a lot of folklore surrounding the mythical stone. The oldest, most known legend claims that the diamond once belonged to the Indian Deity Krishna until it was stolen in his sleep. Another popular provenance story holds that the diamond has been mentioned in ancient Sanskrit writings, more than 5,000 years ago. Yet another, different legend, claims the diamond was discovered in a river bed in India in 3,200 B.C. Apparently, we will never truly know how the diamond came to be as is.

The disputed ownership of the Koh-i-Noor Diamond: 

The Mughal Empire 

The first written mention of the gemstone is believed to be in the memoirs of Babur who was the first Mughal emperor of India from 1483 to 1530. He measured the diamond’s weight at 186.10 carats and it is said he valued the diamond’s worth at “half the daily expense of the whole world”. It is likely rulers had been fighting over the diamond ever since the 13th century due to its status as a symbol of wealth and power. Any opinion on the gemstone’s early history sparks debates within the historian community because historical records from that particular period are scarce. 

After Babur died, the diamond made its way to Persia; however, it would later return to the Mughal emperors. Its presence was most notable in the Peacock throne, built in 1628 by Shah Jahaan, who is also renowned for constructing the Taj Mahal. Moreover, with its owners falling one after the other, the diamond would continue changing hands in a cycle that would repeat itself for many generations to come. 

The Looting of Delhi

In 1739 the powerful Persian warlord Nadir Shah invaded India and looted Delhi. He looted the Mughal royal treasury, stealing a treasure hoard so vast that it took 700 elephants, 4000 camels, and 12,000 horses to carry it. His subjects would be exempted from taxation for the next three years. When Nadir Shah saw the diamond, he exclaimed “Koh-i-Noor”, which means “mountain of light” in ancient Persian. Nadir Shah’s exclamation gave the gemstone its popular name.

It was quite an appropriate reaction because the stone’s value was almost immeasurable at the time. Taking into account the ancient’s rudimentary thought, the mystic allegory to a mountain of light is rather understandable. A popular legend compares its value to a pile of golden treasures, as big as an area covered by four stones thrown by a strong man in each direction, and a fifth into the air.

This immense value brought uneasiness and paranoia to many of its owners. Nadir Shah himself fell victim to an assassination. After the Shah became deceased, the Koh-i-Noor Diamond switched hands many more times before returning to India in 1810, where it would find a resting place, but not for long.

The Young King and the Crown

In 1849 it was in the hands of Dulip Singh, the king of Punjab who was only 10 years old and had lost two wars with the British by the time. On 29 March 1849, the Second Anglo-Sikh War was concluded with the treaty of Lahore. The boy-king was forced to surrender all his belongings including the Koh-i-Noor Diamond. He would eventually present the stone personally to Queen Victoria as a gesture of submission. This brutal concession has since then sparked much-unresolved controversy about Britain’s responsibilities regarding colonial heritage.

Dulip Singh, the defeated king, would present the diamond officially to Queen Victoria in 1851. In the same year, the diamond was exhibited at a great exhibition in Hyde Park, London where it attracted the attention of a huge crowd. Perhaps, the allure had something to do with the gem’s infamous reputation of being cursed. Tales of its value being about two million pounds sparked the imaginations of thousands. However, little did the attendants know that in 2022  the holder of their gaze would be worth 297,5 million pounds.

Yet, the public was greatly disappointed once they saw the diamond. They had expected it to be full of life and fire, sparkling and dazzling. Its antiquated rose-cut lacked the fire that the more modern cut diamonds enjoyed. Connoisseurs back then and today know to appreciate the softer light and brilliance of an old-cut diamond. The British Crown, however, noted this public disappointment, which in turn probably influenced the Sovereign decision to re-cut the 186-carat Koh-i-Noor Diamond.

The Cutting of the Koh-i-Noor Diamond

The Koh-i-Noor Diamond is recut by Prince Albert

Prince Albert, the consort of Queen Victoria set out to find the best diamond cutters in Europe who would restore the Koh-i-Noor’s flare. He consulted several physicists and academics to gather their insight on what the best course of action could be. There was a brief debate on whether the diamond should be re-cut at all. Prince Albert’s choice fell on two experts from the Dutch Royal Coster Diamonds company, Mr. Voorzanger, and Mr. Fredder, who would ultimately travel to London to examine the stone. 

They confirmed that the diamond could indeed be cut, but it also contained several inclusions which would have to be eliminated to generate the best results. Prince Albert commissioned them to cut the Koh-i-Noor Diamond. The whole operation would take 38 days and cost the British Crown 8,000 pounds. 

The rough 186,10 rose-shaped diamond was re-cut to a stellar brilliant-shaped 105,6-carat diamond with 66 facets. This resulted in a dramatic weight loss of 43%, yet the results were astounding. The diamond dazzled in the light, leaving observers speechless in contemplation of its beauty. 

The Modern Ownership History of the Koh-i-Noor Diamond

After its recutting by Coster, the diamond continued to be under the possession of Queen Victoria’s family. Queen Victoria took the initiative to show the recut gem to the young Dulip Singh, who by then had established himself in London. The young prince greatly appreciated her gesture and expressed gratitude and admiration for the gem’s refreshed look.

Legends claimed that the Koh-i-Noor Diamond brought bad luck to any man who wore it, so it was only passed down to the women of the royal family. Queen Victoria would often wear the diamond as a brooch until 1911 when it was set into the imperial crown of Queen Alexandra, the wife of Edward VII. Afterward, it was given to Queen Mary, the wife of George V, who was Victoria’s grandson.

In 1937 the diamond was set as the honorable centerpiece of Queen Mother Elizabeth’s crown where it would safely remain for the next 80 years. However, it would rarely be worn. The Koh-i-Noor’s last public appearance was during the Queen Mother’s funeral in 2002. It is now kept with the other British Crown Jewels, heavily guarded in the Tower of London. 

The Technical Characteristics of the Koh-i-Noor Diamond

The Koh-i-Noor Diamond’s first recorded measurement is 186,10 carats as an Indian-style rose cut. After its recutting, it became a 105,602-carat (21,12 grams) oval brilliant cut with 66 facets. Its dimensions are 6.00 x 31.90 x 13.04 mm. The diamond is a colorless D-grade diamond, typical of Indian diamonds from the time. Its clarity is considered to be exceptional, based on comparisons with other stones. It is likely a flawless or an internally flawless stone. The stone resides in the Maltese Cross at the front of the Queen Mother’s Crown. The Koh-i-Noot can be seen as part of the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London, His Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London

The Significance of the Koh-i-Noor Diamond

The legacy of the Koh-i-Noor Diamond sparks controversial political questions about Britain’s colonial legacy. India, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan have all claimed to be the rightful owners of the diamond and have demanded its return from Britain. Throughout the diamond’s history, it has been the case that ‘might makes right’. That is to say that the precious stone had been plundered, stolen, and extorted from most of its owners.

The British Crown claims that it obtained the diamond legally by signing the Treaty of Lahore. However, the signatory on the Punjabi side was a 10-year-old boy with his country held at gunpoint. The Crown has refused to return the Koh-i-Noor. It has also stated that it would create a precedent to return all the riches inside the British Museum in London. 

The Koh-i-Noor Diamond continues to be an uncomfortable reminder of how there are two vastly different sides to history. Especially when imperial colonial legacy is concerned. To some, it is a symbol of imperial prestige and power. To others, it represents an unwilling attitude, and lethargy when it comes to ending colonial legacies of injustice and oppression. History has taught us that the reality around such questions is never truly black and white. 

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