Camilla and the Koh-i-Noor diamond: The story of the diplomatic jewel with a bitter and bloody past

When the Duchess of Cornwall becomes Queen Consort, she’ll be wearing the Queen Mother’s crown – but that could open old wounds

Camilla will take on the Queen Mother's crown which features 2,800 diamonds, but the largest, the 105 carat Koh-i-Noor, is more of a diplomatic grenade than a jewel Credit: Getty

A dawn chorus of angry buzzes greeted me as I turned on my phone yesterday. “It needs to be returned” “It was stolen!” “How about a bring #kohinoor back to India campaign?” and “Uh oh! Queen #Camilla gets the #Kohinoor…” It felt like déjà vu.

In 2017, the historian William Dalrymple and I had published a book called Koh-i-Noor: The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond. It was born out of an earlier diplomatic kerfuffle involving the British Royal family and the Indian government. More of that in a moment, but first it’s important to understand how this hornets’ nest has been kicked this time.

Hours earlier, the Queen had announced that Camilla would be known as “Queen Consort” when Charles becomes king. The international press was largely positive. Charles paid tribute to his “darling wife” the Duchess of Cornwall for her “steadfast support”.

Then, some time during the night, the mood in India changed. Someone must have asked what crown she would be wearing when she eventually became queen. It would, it transpired, be the Queen Mother’s crown, made by Garrard & Co for the 1937 coronation of George VI.

The crown is genuinely stunning, featuring 2,800 diamonds. The largest, the 105 carat Koh-i-Noor, is more of a diplomatic grenade than a jewel. Though you wouldn’t know to look at it, this rock drips with a bitter and bloody history. Men have gouged out eyes, hacked off genitals, poured molten lead on heads, poisoned, bludgeoned, stabbed and shot each other in pursuit of this diamond.

Translated from the Persian the word Koh-i-Noor means “Mountain of Light” – ironic since its history is infused with such darkness. Named for its colossal size, the stone was originally 186 carats, and the size and heft of a hen’s egg. To put that into some context, in 2013 another diamond of Indian origin, the Princie, at 34.65 carats, was auctioned at Christie’s for $39.3 million. It was bought by the Qatari royal family.

Until the discovery of diamond mines in Brazil in 1725, all of the world’s diamonds came from India. Really ancient stones, like the Koh-i-Noor, were alluvial, coughed up by the earth through soft riverbed silt. We cannot be sure when exactly it surfaced, but Indian folklore often conflates the diamond with a mythical stone of ancient Hindu scripture. The Syamantaka was said to belong to Surya, the sun god, and had the power to destroy unworthy mortals without mercy. It is perhaps from here that the idea of the Koh-i-Noor curse comes.  

In the official historical record, the Koh-i-Noor is first mentioned in the early 17th century, when Emperor Shah Jahan ordered the manufacture of the finest throne the world had ever seen. It cost three times as much as his other, arguably more famous commission, the Taj Mahal.

The Queen Mother’s crown, which Camilla will adopt, was made by Garrard & Co for the 1937 coronation of George VI Credit: Hulton Royals Collection

The Shah’s Peacock Throne comprised a seat, canopy and pillars, and in pride of place sat two jewelled peacocks, one of which had the Koh-i-Noor for a head. Though it seemed as if the Mughals would rule for a thousand years, just four generations later, their empire was crumbling and the Peacock Throne was being carried off by a Persian army led by Nader Shah. 

Not that Nader Shah enjoyed it for long. Following a failed assassination attempt, he grew increasingly violent and ordered the blinding of his son and heir, who he suspected of being behind the failed ambush. From that point he descended quickly into madness, and was himself beheaded by an assassin, feeding the idea of a cursed diamond.

The Koh-i-Noor then passed into Afghan hands as plunder, however it brought little joy to Afghan leader Ahmed Shah Abdali, whose face  was slowly eaten away by what the Afghan sources call a “gangrenous ulcer”.  Abdali wore a jewel encrusted mask to hide his affliction, yet maggots dropped from his rotting flesh. After 25 years of rule, in 1772 he was murdered by one of his own bodyguards.

After some toing and froing, the diamond returned to its birthplace of India, via the Maharaja of the Sikhs, Ranjit Singh in 1813. With him, it seemed as if the link between hideous luck and Koh-i-Noor ownership might be broken. Ranjit Singh made the Koh-i-Noor the symbol of his reign, strapping it to his bicep for all the world to see he feared neither men nor curses.

The Sikh Maharaja ruled from Lahore for a further 26 years, dying peacefully in his sleep in 1839. Those who came after were not so lucky. In the four years after his death, Ranjit Singh’s eldest son was poisoned to death, his grandson was crushed by falling masonry in a so-called “accident”. Another son was killed in a shooting “accident”. One grandson and heir was born dead, and another was hacked to death by sabres.

By 1843, the kingdom was awash with blood, intrigue and talk of the cursed Koh-i-Noor. Five-year-old Duleep Singh, the youngest son of Ranjit Singh’s youngest queen, was the last Indian monarch to wear the Koh-i-Noor on his plump little arm, and this is where the current Indo-British mess comes in.

Duleep Singh was last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire Credit: Bridgeman Art Library

In 1849 the East India Company took over the Lahore empire and the boy king was forced to sign a treaty relinquishing the kingdom and the Koh-i-Noor. The way in which he was separated from his mother, isolated and bullied into doing so has left an open wound in the Indian psyche. The Koh-i-Noor represents the humiliation of colonial rule for many Indians to this day.

Its journey to England also reinvigorated the idea of a curse. The ship which transported the Koh-i-Noor to England was stricken with misfortune. First the crew was hit with cholera, then threatened by cannon from a supposedly friendly port, and finally it was almost broken in half by a freak typhoon, limping into Portsmouth on June 30 1850.

When Queen Victoria took possession of the Koh-i-Noor at Buckingham Palace on July 3 1850, she did so sporting a shiny black eye and a cut to the head. Two days earlier, as the diamond started to make its way towards London, a lunatic leaped out of a crowd and attacked her with a cane. 

A year later, a disastrous re-cutting of the diamond left it at half its original size. That is the Koh-i-Noor Victoria wore throughout her reign. No other British monarch has done so since and it is left to Queen Consorts to carry the burden. In the background India, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and even the Taliban make sporadic demands for its return.

In 2016 the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were on a visit to India and a member of the press asked whether they might like to return the diamond to foster better relations. In a spasm of embarrassment, the Indian Attorney General said there was no question of a return since the diamond had been a gift. The historians waded in with troublesome facts and within 24 hours the official line had changed. Narendra Modi’s government said it would do everything in its power to “amicably” encourage the British to give back the gem. Let’s see how the “amicable” dialogue goes now. Heavy is the head that wears the Koh-i-Noor crown.


Koh-I-Noor: The History of the World's Most Infamous Diamond by William Dalrymple, Anita Anand (RRP £12.99). Buy now for £10.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514.