Koh-i-noor diamond a 'symbol of conquest' in new display of Crown Jewels

The exhibition at the Tower of London will open to the public in May

The Koh-i-noor is set within the Queen Mother's coronation crown. AP
Powered by automated translation

A new exhibition at the Tower of London featuring the Crown Jewels will describe the controversial Koh-i-noor diamond as a “symbol of conquest”.

The display, which will open to the public in May, weeks after the coronation of the King Charles and Queen Consort Camilla, will explore the origins of some of the jewels for the first time.

The history of the Koh-i-noor, which is set within the coronation crown of the Queen Mother, will be explored using a combination of objects and visual projections to explain the stone's story as a “symbol of conquest”.

It was previously owned by Mughal emperors, the shahs of Iran, the emirs of Afghanistan and Sikh maharajas.

The diamond has been an integral part of the British Crown Jewels since coming into the family’s possession at the height of the empire more than a century ago.

Its presence has long been controversial, particularly in India where it awakens painful memories of its colonial past.

The gem featured prominently in the coronation of the Queen Mother in 1937 and that of Queen Alexandra in 1902.

However, it was announced recently that it will not be featured in the coming coronation, thus avoiding political sensitivities and difficult questions about its provenance.

The queen consort’s crown will instead feature other diamonds from Queen Elizabeth II's collection.

The representation of the Crown Jewels in the Jewel House is the culmination of a major four-year project for Historic Royal Palaces, the independent charity that takes care of the historic tower, where the treasures have been kept for about 400 years.

The display will begin with the state crown frames worn by past monarchs George I, George IV and Queen Victoria in a celebration of the “timelessness” of the monarchy.

It will show how many of the most historic jewels have passed from crown to crown, including the famous Black Prince's Ruby, which was one of the late Queen Elizabeth II's favourite jewels and sits in the Imperial State Crown.

It will go on to tell the story of how the original medieval Crown Jewels were destroyed on the orders of Oliver Cromwell in 1649 during the English Civil War.

Only the 12th century Coronation Spoon — used for anointing the sovereign with holy oil — survived.

The Koh-i-Noor: What is the controversy?

FILE - King Charles III and members of the Royal family follow behind the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II, draped in the Royal Standard with the Imperial State Crown and the Sovereign's orb and sceptre, as it is carried out of Westminster Abbey after her State Funeral, in London, Monday Sept.  19, 2022.   King Charles III faces the task of preserving a 1,000-year-old monarchy that his mother nurtured for seven decades but that faces an uncertain future.  The challenge is immense.  (Danny Lawson / Pool Photo via AP, File)

The Crown Jewels are the most powerful symbols of the British monarchy and hold deep religious, historic and cultural significance,” said Charles Farris, public historian for the history of the monarchy at the Historic Royal Palaces.

“From their fascinating origins to their use during the coronation ceremony, the new Jewel House transformation will present the rich history of this magnificent collection with more depth and detail than ever before.

“With 2023 bringing the first coronation in 70 years, there has never been a better time for people to come and learn about the jewels and to appreciate these awe-inspiring objects in person.”

The new display will also feature the story of the Cullinan diamond — another controversial object in the collection.

The hammer and knife used to make the first cuts to the stone will go on show in the Jewel House for the first time.

The Cullinan diamond was discovered in South Africa in 1905 and — at 3,106 carats — is the largest gem-quality uncut diamond ever found.

It was split into nine major stones, plus 96 smaller brilliants, with the largest two stones named the Cullinan I — now in the Sovereign's Sceptre with Cross — and the Cullinan II in the Imperial State Crown.

The Cullinan I — 530.2 carats and the largest colourless cut diamond in the world — has been the subject of calls for it to be returned to South Africa.

What is the Koh-i-noor’s history?

The Koh-i-noor, which means Mountain of Light, was discovered in the Golconda mines in what is now the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.

The diamond's existence was officially documented in the 18th century, although its history could date back hundreds of years before this.

The large, colourless diamond is said to have passed between Mughal princes, Iranian warriors, Afghan rulers and Punjabi maharajas before it was seized by the East India Company after its victory in the Second Anglo-Sikh War of 1849.

It was given to Queen Victoria and has remained in the Crown Jewels ever since. It is said to bring bad luck to any man who wears it.

In 1851, large crowds viewed the diamond at the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, but some complained about its dull appearance and asymmetrical shape.

Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria, had the Koh-i-Noor recut to improve its brilliance and conform to contemporary European tastes.

It is thought to be the world's most expensive diamond, with 105.6 carats worth an estimated $600 million.

Why is it controversial?

India, Pakistan and Afghanistan have long squabbled over who has the rightful claim to the gem.

India wants the diamond returned, and there have been several attempts to have it returned, including after independence in 1947 and another attempt before Queen Elizabeth's coronation in 1953.

Each time the British government has rejected the claims, saying that its ownership was non-negotiable.

Last year, a representative for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party said the use of Koh-i-noor in the coronation would bring back painful memories of the colonial past.

“Most Indians have very little memory of the oppressive past. Five to six generations of Indians suffered under multiple foreign rules for over five centuries,” he said.

“Recent occasions, like Queen Elizabeth II’s death, the [impending] coronation of the new Queen [Consort] Camilla and the use of the Koh-i-noor does transport a few Indians back to the days of the British Empire in India.”

Updated: March 16, 2023, 9:12 AM