XXXI: Mountain of Light

When you ask people to name a famous gemstone, the first thing people usually come up with is the Hope Diamond, which is famous for being big, blue, and cursed (and it’s also mentioned in the theme song to that old Olsen Twins mystery show). But the Hope Diamond is only 1/7 the size of the world’s largest known diamond — the Koh-i-Noor.

The Koh-i-Noor (“Mountain of Light”) and its sister stone, the Darya-i-Noor (“Sea of Light”) were mined from the Nemalipuri mine in Andhra Pradesh, India over 700 years ago. The first mention of it in the historical record is in 1589 in the Babur-Namah, the memoirs of the Babur, the 1st Moghul Emperor. Babur, the owner of the 793-carat stone at the time, wrote that it was originally the property of an Afghan emperor who was forced to yield his possessions to Ala’uddin Khilji in 1294; it then belonged to the Tughlaq and Lodi dynasties before Babur seized it from the last Lodi Sultan of Delhi in 1526.

From there, the Diamond of Babur (as the Koh-i-Noor was then called) was passed from ruler to ruler in India, eventually ending up in the hands of Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal. Shah Jahan’s son Aurangazeb hired the remarkably unskilled Venetian lapidary Hortenso Borgia to cut the Koh-i-Noor in 1658. Borgia was so awful at his job that he butchered the 793 carat gem down to 186 carats and a really dreadful cut, destroying about 77% of its weight.

The stone was given the name “Koh-i-Noor” by Nadir Shah of Persia, who captured it 1793. Again it was passed down from ruler to ruler and occasionally captured by a new owner, finally landing in the hands of Ranjit Singh, founder of the Sihk Empire and one of the last rulers of independent Punjab. Upon his death in 1839, the British moved in to the region, declaring it part of the British Empire in 1849. Part of the treaty which ratified this occupation demanded that the Koh-i-Noor be surrendered to Queen Victoria I, Empress of India.

The East India Company acquired the Koh-i-Noor and arranged for it to be presented to Victoria by Dulip Singh, the 11-year-old Maharaja of the Sihk Empire and youngest son of Ranjit Singh. Dulip was the ward of a British army surgeon who had been given the mission of thoroughly anglicizing the young ruler; this doctor arranged for the boy and the jewel to travel to England.

The Koh-i-Noor became part of the British Crown Jewels, and in 1852 it was cut to its current 105.6 carats, reducing its weight by 42%. It was set into a brooch for Queen Victoria. It was reset into Queen Alexandra’s coronation crown upon Victoria’s death, and in 1937, it was placed in the platinum Crown of Queen Elizabeth, the official crown of female consorts of the British monarchs, where it remains to this day.

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