In 1851, six million people walked through the grand gates of the three-floor-high glass structure of the Great Exhibition at Hyde Park to see one exhibit in particular — the Koh-i-Noor, then the largest diamond in the world. Men paid three guineas each (equivalent of £275 in today’s currency), and women two.
About 4.5 million special one-shilling tickets — a concessional rate for the masses — were sold at the show. What could be better for the workers from the mines and mills of Victorian England than to gawp at a glittering diamond as large as a golf ball that had arrived from India? It represented the might of Empire in all its exotic glory.
Today, visitors to the Tower of London have to pay £19 to see the Koh-i-Noor. Though no longer the largest — that distinction goes to the Star of Africa mined in South Africa in 1905 and resting at the top of the royal Sceptre — the Koh-i-Noor is still the world’s most famous stone.
More than 160 years after the exhibition, priceless gems are once again under the arc lights. To mark the diamond jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II’s rule, the Crown Jewels — the royal bling of crowns, sceptres, maces and orbs — housed in the Tower have had a makeover. Graphics, film footage and the score of Handel’s grand coronation anthem have been used to sweep the visitor into the world of royal coronations and gilded banquets.
“The Crown Jewels, renowned for their beauty and historical significance, capture the imagination of visitors worldwide,” said Michael Day, chief executive of Historic Royal Palaces. “With all eyes on London in 2012 for the diamond jubilee and the Olympic Games, this display will enable us to showcase Britain’s most prized treasures in all their glory.”
It’s not just the sparkle, of course, but the history that comes along with it. The Koh-i-Noor arrived in England in 1849 as war booty for England’s victory in the Anglo-Sikh wars. “The gem called the Koh-i-Noor… shall be surrendered… to the Queen of England,” stated the treaty. Seized from the young Maharajah Duleep Singh, it became the symbol of Empire and the annexation of the Punjab.
Queen Victoria received the precious booty in its original form — a 186-carat rose cut diamond set in an enamelled gold armlet or bazuband with two smaller diamonds on the side. Victoria, who loved jewellery, is said to have remarked that although it was “badly cut” it was “indeed a proud trophy”.
In 1852, Prince Albert suggested that the diamond be re-cut. The exercise took 38 days and resulted in the diamond losing almost 43 per cent of its weight. It was reduced to a finely cut 105.6 carats, its present size.
Once re-designed, the Koh-i-Noor was set as a brooch and in a circlet. Queen Victoria always wore it when she met rulers and royals from the East.
Since legend had it that the stone brought bad luck to any man who wore it, the diamond was set in the crown of Queen Alexandra, wife of King Edward VII, after Victoria’s death. It then adorned the new crown made for the coronation of Queen Mary and finally for Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. In 2002, after the death of the Queen Mother, her crown with its famous centrepiece was placed over her coffin and carried in the funeral procession.
Mined in Golconda, the Koh-i-Noor was worn by Mughal Emperor Babur, who said it was “worth half of the daily expense of the whole world”. It was taken from the Mughal treasury by Nadir Shah of Persia when he sacked Delhi in 1739. Having been informed that Emperor Mohammed Shah hid the legendary diamond in his headgear, Nadir Shah suggested that they exchange turbans as a symbol of friendship. When the diamond fell into his hands, the Persian emperor is supposed to have exclaimed, “Mountain of light!” — thus giving the Koh-i-Noor its name.
Nadir Shah was killed in 1747 and the diamond changed hands again, this time moving to the Durrani rulers of Afghanistan, the last of whom offered it to Maharajah Ranjit Singh in 1813. It passed on to his heir Duleep Singh — and eventually crossed continents as war booty.
Royal crowns are not supposed to leave the country, so when in 1910 King George V wanted to be crowned in both India and Britain, a special crown was made. The Delhi Durbar of December 1911 saw the King wearing a new crown — the Imperial Crown of India — made of 6,002 diamonds and coloured gems of Indian origin.
“Rather tired after wearing the crown for 3 hours... it hurt my head as it is pretty heavy,” the King is said to have recorded in his diary. Made at a cost of £60,000 and paid for by Indian revenues, the crown was worn only once.
The most famous crown in the collection is possibly the Imperial State Crown worn by the Queen at her coronation and every year for the State opening of Parliament. When it leaves the Tower in its special velvet-lined leather box, a short note is put in the display cabinet: “In Use”.
The jewels in the Tower, with all their surrounding history, will no doubt add a sparkle to the 60th year of the Queen’s reign.