The coronation of King Charles III on May 6, 2023, brought renewed attention to the vast collection of gems and other treasures the British royal family owns. To their critics, this collection has increasingly come to represent the colonialism and looting of the British Empire.
'Sidestepping' the Koh-i-Noor Issue …
The royal family announced prior to the coronation that one of the most famous and controversial items in its possession — the Koh-i-noor diamond — would not be part of the ceremony. This diamond passed through a series of Mughal and Arab empires before becoming a symbol of the Sikh Empire.
That empire, founded by Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1799, centered around the present-day city of Lahore, Pakistan. It collapsed in 1849 after a series of wars with the British-backed East India Company.
Following two wars, the British deposed the king of the Sikh empire. Controversially, these terms were negotiated with a 10-year-old monarch whose mother had been imprisoned. As described in Smithsonian Magazine, one of the terms of surrender was gifting the Koh-i-noor diamond to Queen Victoria.
After Ranjit Singh's death in 1839, the Punjabi throne passed between four different rulers over four years. At the end of the violent period, the only people left in line for the throne were a young boy, Duleep Singh, and his mother, Rani Jindan. And in 1849, after imprisoning Jindan, the British forced Duleep to sign a legal document amending the Treaty of Lahore, that required Duleep to give away the Koh-i-Noor and all claim to sovereignty. The boy was only 10 years old.
The Koh-i-noor diamond was used in a series of British crowns. As described by the Royal Collection, its most recent use was the crown made in 1937 for Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother:
This crown was made in 1937 for Queen Elizabeth, consort of King George VI, using many stones already in the [Royal] collection. Most of the diamonds were removed from Queen Victoria's Regal Circlet. The Koh-i-nûr diamond had been successively mounted in the crowns of Queen Alexandra and Queen Mary, and was once again reset for this crown.
There had been speculation Queen Camilla would wear this crown, and its associated gem, at the coronation of her husband. As reported by The Associated Press, the Palace issued a statement ahead of time announcing that this crown and diamond would not be used:
The Koh-i-noor diamond won't be used during King Charles III's coronation, allowing Buckingham Palace to sidestep the controversy surrounding a gem acquired during the age of Empire.
Rather than commission a new crown, as is customary, Camilla will modify Queen Mary's crown using diamonds from Queen Elizabeth II's personal collection, the palace said in a statement Tuesday.
Some observers had speculated that Camilla would be crowned with the crown made for Queen Elizabeth, the queen mother, in 1937, which had the Koh-i-noor diamond as its centerpiece.
That reportedly sparked concern from some people in India, who said using the Koh-i-noor in the coronation could be an uncomfortable reminder of Britain's oppressive past.
Such a move sidestepped the issue in only a narrow sense. One of the items of jewelry worn by the Queen Consort at the coronation came to the Royal Family via the same controversial treaty.
… With the Lahore Diamond
Queen Camilla did not wear the Koh-i-noor diamond, but she did wear the late Queen Elizabeth II's coronation necklace: a collection of diamonds that includes as its centerpiece the Lahore diamond. As described in passive voice for the ages on the official website of the Royal Collection, this diamond "was presented to Queen Victoria in 1851."
In reality, the Lahore diamond was ceded to the East India Company thanks to the same amendment to the Treaty of Lahore responsible for the transfer of the Koh-i-noor. These terms included, in part, two conditions related to the transfer of property to the British:
All the property of the State, of whatever description and Chapter wheresoever found, shall be confiscated to the Honourable East India Company, in part payment of the debt due by the State of Lahore to the British Government and of the expenses of the war.
The gem called the Koh-i-Noor, which was taken from Shah Sooja-ool-moolk by Maharajah Runjeet Singh, shall be surrendered by the Maharajah of Lahore to the Queen of England.
The Lahore diamond, an item that had been in the treasury of the Sikh Empire, was "property of the State" and came into British possession when the East India Company took control of Fort Lahore in 1849. The coronation necklace containing this diamond was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth II, who wore the piece with the diamond on several public occasions.
While less infamous than the Koh-i-noor Diamond, the Lahore diamond shares the same British-colonial history. While the former made no appearance at the coronation, this fact did not stop the latter from being prominently displayed.