Not many gems have such an interesting life as the cursed diamond at the centre of Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone (1868). They mostly hang around bank vaults or rich women's necks, or else down the back of sofas, suffering vague existential crises and contemplating the blooms of tarnish on their shiny surfaces. If they're part of a famous museum collection, they run the risk of the creeping invisibility that settles on things that get looked at too often. Perhaps the trick is to keep mobile, to gather different histories and meanings as the years wear on.
Stuck in the Queen Mother's coronet, the Koh-i-Noor diamond squats indignantly among less valuable stones. But it wasn't always that way. For the short duration of London's Great Exhibition in 1851 the Koh-i-Noor managed to live all its lives at once, to expand itself like a lab-grown crystal until, for a few months at least, it was the mirror-ball at the centre of the Victorian disco.
Asked what the Koh-i-Noor was worth, its 16th-century owner Sultan Baber replied, 'the price of a day's maintenance of the whole world'.1 It's a brilliant image, evoking some great cosmic auditor with an endless tally of sunlight, firewood, bread and woolly jumpers. Baber's remark also hints at the diamond's peculiar geopolitical ambitions. Before the East India Company snatched it from Maharajah Dulep Singh in 1849, the gem bounced around India's rulers for centuries, followed by two alarming prophecies: invincibility for its rightful guardian and endless misfortune for its aspiring thief. These predictions didn't much bother the East India Company, which quickly presented it to Queen Victoria. Two years later the Koh-i-Noor formed one of the 100,000 exhibits displayed in Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace at the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations.
It seems odd that a plundered diamond should have formed the centrepiece of a show stuffed with manufactured objects promising universal social improvement. Imperial grandstanding was one reason for its inclusion, but I think it also had something to do with shopping. Diamonds are perfect consumer objects - pretty much useless, but the only things that would make Audrey Hepburn's Holly Golightly eat her breakfast on the pavement. Price labels aren't displayed in expensive jewellery stores (and they weren't at the Great Exhibition either), but their absence only increases our itching for our own glittering prize. A tiny double of the vast glass building that housed it; the Koh-i-Noor transformed the Crystal Palace into Victorian Britain's first shopping centre.
Reviewing the Great Exhibition, the writer John Tallis described how the Koh-i-Noor was displayed in a 'parrot cage with gilded bars'. 2 Trapping it like an exotic bird, the bars also got visitors thinking about the gold-bearing properties of the soil in which diamonds are found. Resting on a plump velvet cushion, the Koh-i-Noor was rigged with further protective devices. Ornamented with a policeman, it was 'placed on a machine, which causes it, on the slightest touch, to enter an iron box'. 3 Despite the stone's theatrical presentation and contemporary poets riffing on its 'brilliant sparkling fire', the Koh-i-Noor stubbornly refused to shine at the Great Exhibition. 4 Attempting to remedy the problem, the show's organizers covered the cage in a crimson cloth, lit the diamond from below with dozens of gas jets and hoped to catch its light with tiny mirrors scattered around its base. The gem still wouldn't glitter, but this didn't prevent a host of commentators frothing about its lustre. 5 Weirdly, it seems that the Victorian imagination could project the quality of sparkle onto the exhibit, despite empirical evidence to the contrary. Like convincing yourself that your new trainers are ugly-beautiful rather than just plain hideous, this manoeuvre depended on a certain investment in the Koh-i-Noor brand. Naomi Klein in a stovepipe hat, Tallis remarked, 'it is nothing more than an egg-shaped lump of glass. They may show us what they like, and call it Koh-i-Noor.' 6
Perhaps the oddest aspect of the diamond's display was its ability to infect the other items at the exhibition with its own peculiar values. This depended partly on Victorian Britain's curious geological beliefs. By 1851 the scientist M. Vosey had popularized the notion of the continual crystalline growth of diamonds, while a certain Professor Jameson conjectured that the gemstones 'may be a vegetable secretion, perhaps of some antediluvial boabab or banian tree'. 7 Right next to the Koh-i-Noor's cage, rising like a diamanté stalagmite towards the roof panes of the Crystal Palace, stood a gushing, glassy fountain. This was the conduit of the diamond's crystalline growth, shooting the stone's useless beauty up into the great glass greenhouse and oozing it over the practical gizmos displayed within the Palace's walls. It might be worth leafing through Jean Baudrillard's System of Objects (1968) at this point, but an eminent Victorian beat Baudrillard to it. Recognizing that, far from being a showcase for dinky industrial solutions, the exhibition was really a turbo-charged department store, the critic Gottfried Semper quipped, 'needs do not go anymore to the market, but the market creates new needs'. 8 Priceless and untouchable in its gilded cage, the Koh-i-Noor embodied the secret ingredient of capitalism: the perfect thing you just can't have. Having something almost like it is pretty easy though and, as the exhibition's visitors swooshed off in their frock coats and lace, the age of mass consumerism drew a little bit closer.
And what of the ancient prophesies? Depending on your politics, the Koh-i-Noor brought to Queen Victoria's descendants either resilience or ruin. Recently an Indian farmer named Beant Singh Sandhawalia wrote to Buckingham Palace claiming to be the heir of Dulep Singh and requesting the gem's return. He hasn't received a reply yet, and nor is he likely to see the diamond itself in the immediate future; though as this year marks the Queen's Golden Jubilee you never know.
1. W. S. Ward, 'The Koh-i-Noor Diamond', Appleton's Journal of Science, Literature and Art (July 1872).
2. John Tallis, Tallis' History and Description of the Crystal Palace, and the Exhibition of the World's Industry in 1851, 3 vols., John Tallis & Co., London, 1852; quoted in E. de Mare, London 1851: The Year of the Great Exhibition, Folio Society, London, 1972, p. 69.
4. A. J. Hoffstaedt, Britain's Koh-i-Noor: A New National Song, John Such, London, 1852, p. 2.
5. Examples include: R. Hogt, The Koh-i-Noor; or, Mountain of Light; G.Y. van Debogart, Schenectady, 1852, p. 1; and Encyclopaedia Britannica or Dictionary of Arts, Sciences and General Literature, 8th edn, vol. 8, Adam & Charles Black, Edinburgh, 1855, p. 3.
6. Tallis, quoted in de Mare, op. cit., p. 69.
7. J. Murray, A Memoir on the Diamond, Longman, London, 1831, p. 24.
8. Gottfried Semper, quoted in J. McKean, Crystal Palace: Joseph Paxton and Charles Fox, Phaidon, London, 1994, p. 40.