The Koh-i-noor Diamond
By W. S. Ward
[Editor's Note: The following article presents the tumultuous and at times bloody history of the Koh-i-noor diamond. The article was first published by W.S. Ward in the July 1872 edition of Appleton's Journal of Science, Literature and Art. The Journal was a must-read for the well informed Victorian lady or gentleman.
Owing to the absence of any authentic information regarding the discovery and early history of this wonderful gem, an opportunity was afforded for speculation, which has been amply improved by the authors of Hindoo tradition. The more devout among these assert that it once adorned the person of their great god Krishna, where it might have remained to this day, but for the treachery of a slave, who stole away the treasure while his lord and master slept.
Another record states that it was discovered in the bed of the river Godavery, 3200 B. C., and was worn by Carna Rajah, of Anga, who was slain in one of the battles of the "great war." The first authentic statement, however, occurs in the memoirs of the Sultan Baber, founder of the Mogul Empire, in which work the writer names this gem as among the treasure secured by Ala-ud-deen, at the conquest of Malwah, 1304 A. D. For over two hundred years it remained among the crown jewels of the conqueror and his descendants, securely guarded in the royal treasure-house at Delhi, becoming, in the year 1526, the property of the Sultan Baber, who valued it at the price of a day's maintenance for the whole world. At this time its weight was seven hundred and ninety-three carats, or nearly six troy ounces. At a later day, when in the possession of the Emperor Aurungzebe, it was shown to Tavernier - an enterprising French traveller and connoisseur, who made a tour through the East in search of rare and wonderful gems - though then the most prized of all the crown-jewels, it had been greatly reduced in weight and value by the lapidary Borgio, to whom had been committed the labor of recutting it, and who, though devoting three and one half years to the work assigned him, exercised so little judgment and skill in its execution, that when the stone left his hands it had been reduced to a weight of one hundred and eighty-six carats, having a length of one and five-eighths inch, and a thickness of five-eighths of an inch. So enraged was Aurungzebe at the extravagance and stupidity of his lapidary, that he not only refused to compensate him for his labor, but confiscated all his worldly possessions, and even seriously considered the propriety of taking his head also.
Though so greatly reduced in size and value, the mysterious potency of its charms still remained, and the genius of Avarice and Envy, which had already found in the glittering bawble so able an ally, still recognized in its beauty an element of discord more powerful for evil than was the mythical apple of Eris.
Sacredly guarded by the descendants of the great sultan, the Koh-i-noor remained the property of the Mogul emperors until the year 1739, when Nadir Shah, the conqueror of India, secured the treasure after a prolonged siege of that ill-fated city. It is narrated that, on entering the royal place, Nadir Shah commanded the conquered ruler to appear before him, that the terms of the capitulation might be ratified. In obedience to this summons, the emperor presented himself in robes of state - his vanity getting the better of his prudence - with the glittering jewel in the front of his richly-embroidered turban. At the close of the interview, the wily Nadir made sure of his prize by forcing an exchange of turbans, as a pledge of mutual good faith, and, under its new name "Koh-i-noor," "Mound of Light," the long-coveted diamond passed into the hands of the victorious Persian, its departure sealing the downfall of the Mogul dynasty.
On the death of Nadir Shah, the Koh-i-noor became - through treachery and rebellion the property of Ahmed Shah, his former captain of horse, and lord of the royal treasury. This Afghan chief, having, after a prolonged and finally victorious conquest, established a throne among his native mountains, concluded an alliance with the rightful heir, and, moreover, demanded "the great diamond" as a seal of its perpetuity. Thus figuring again, as a forced pledge of fidelity, it remained true to the tradition that " he who would possess the Koh-i-noor must be invincible." And, as though impressed with the truth of this tradition, and fearful for the fate of the empire he had founded, Ahmed Shah, before his death, enjoined upon his sons to be vigilant in guarding the mysterious jewel, which he bequeathed to them with his throne, and with the history and fate of which that of the Douranee Empire was so closely linked; nor would the story of Shah Songah's life have been the wild romance that it was but for the zeal with which he defended the legacy intrusted to him, for its presence seemed ever the signal for intrigue and rebellion, while the devotion with which it was guarded proved how firm a hold popular tradition had upon the minds of the Eastern rulers.
When Shah Zeman was released from the prison in which he had long been confined, he left behind him, concealed in a crevice between the stones of his cell, the gem that had once been the brightest jewel in his crown, and which the watchful jailer, either ignorant as to its worth, or dreading its power, suffered the royal prisoner to retain as a companion during his lonely imprisonment. Little is known as to the length of time it remained concealed after Shah Zeman's release, nor of the ceremonies attending its restoration; but, when the English embassy were granted an audience at the royal court, in Peshawar, the Koh-i-noor shone again from the breastplate of the reigning Shah Songah.
This unfortunate prince was in turn forced, through the successful rebellion of his brother Mahmoud, to abandon his throne, and the royal exile sought the court and protection of Runjeet the Lion, bearing with him, as a companion and talisman, the Koh-i-noor. No sooner was its presence known, however, than the city of refuge became a fortress, and the unwilling prisoner was compelled to surrender the jewel to his false friend Runjeet. "At what price do you value this gem?" asked the lord of five rivers. "At the price of good luck," was the reply; "since it hath ever been the property of him that hath conquered his enemies." So impressed was Runjeet with this answer, that he feared to trust with his successors so dangerous a legacy, and, therefore, bequeathed it to the great god Juggernaut; but the avarice of the heirs overcame their reverence, and the stone remained in the possession of the Indian princes until the capture of Lahore by the English secured for that country the coveted treasure.
When received by Queen Victoria, the Koh-i-noor was of the form given it by the unfortunate Borgio, and, though of great size, possessed so little brilliancy that it was determined, after a prolonged controversy, in which ministers, scientists, and connoisseurs, took part, to have the stone recut. From the several shapes proposed, that of a brilliant was chosen, it having been determined by Vincenzio Peruzzi, a Venetian, that by this method the most perfect refraction and reflection of light were secured. The competing forms were the table and rose - the famous Orloff, one hundred and ninety-four carats, and Grand Mogul, two hundred and eight carats, are of this latter pattern - a hemisphere having its curved surface covered with triangular planes and facets. Of this form, also, were the twelve crown diamonds known as "Les Douze Mazarins," so named from Cardinal Mazarin himself, an expert in diamond-cutting, and the reputed inventor of the method, though it is more probable that it was suggested to him by the works of certain Indian lapidaries. The rose-shape is still given to many of the smaller stones, and so skilled have these workmen become that finished rose-diamonds have been cut by them so minute that it would take fifteen hundred of them to weigh a single carat, or over two hundred thousand to a troy ounce. So light are they that a gentle breath will scatter them.
On the invention of the brilliant, this form replaced all others where the size and natural form of the stone favored its adoption. The brilliant is a modification of the table, having thirty-two facets, or faces, above the "girdle," which is the line of its greatest diameter, and twenty-four below, with a flat plane above called the "table," and a similar though smaller one below, the "culet." The proportions of a regularly-cut brilliant are as follows: "From the table to the girdle one-third, and from the girdle to the culet two-thirds of the total thickness; the diameter of the table four-ninths of that of the girdle; the culet one-fifth of the table." A diamond of this form when held before a screen, with its face toward the light, should cast a dark shadow except at the central point, which would be faintly illumined.
The lapidary chosen to superintend the recutting of the Koh-i-noor was M. Coster, of Amsterdam, then at the head of one of the largest establishments in that city of diamond-cutters, having in his employ over five hundred workmen. Taking with him three of his most skilful lapidaries, Coster crossed to London, where the work was begun under the direct supervision of the state authorities. The machine employed was similar to that now in general use. A circular disk, or "skaif," of steel, ten inches in diameter, is mounted in the centre of a horizontal shaft, which projects a few inches above the top of a wooden work-bench, the shaft receiving its motion from a steam-engine, its speed being regulated by a carefully-adjusted brake. The surface of the disk having been roughened by numerous indentations, or scratches, is coated with a mixture of oil and diamond-dust, or "bort." Just without the edge of this disk stands a round column of hard wood, firmly fixed upon the bench, its surface being indented with a number of ratchet-shaped notches. Before beginning the work of cutting and polishing, a careful examination of the stone is made with a view to determine whether it will admit of being "split," in which case the labor of grinding is greatly lessened. The portion to be removed by splitting is marked off by a deep scratch made with the point of a glazier's diamond - a diamond the natural angle of which is acute. The stone is then cemented upon the end of a metal rod, leaving exposed only that portion which is to be removed; the rod is then firmly fixed in a hole in the bench, and the edge of a steel chisel inserted in the groove, when a sharp, quick blow with a jeweller's hammer splits off the outer plate, and always in a line parallel to one of the crystalline planes. It is evident, therefore, that to mark out this line of cleavage upon the surface of a rough stone, is a work calling for intelligence as well as skill. Should the portion removed be of sufficient size, it may be cut into smaller stones; but, if too thin or irregular for this, it is broken up and ground in a steel mortar to a fine dust, or "bort," which becomes the cutting medium on the wheel. When the labor of removing the rough, natural surface is completed, the stone is again fastened to the end of the metal rod, either with cement, or, as in the case of the Koh-i-noor, by embedding it in a ball of solder; the opposite end of the rod is then inserted into that one of the notches on the bracing column which will permit of the stone's being brought into contact with the wheel at the desired angle. Motion is now applied, and the diamond pressed against the oiled surface of the revolving disk, and held there either by hand or weights until the first facet is cut, when the cement is softened, the stone removed, and a new surface presented. So great was the interest in the cutting of the Koh-i-noor that the Duke of Wellington was selected to inaugurate it by first pressing with his hand the stone against the "skaif." Thirty-seven days of twelve hours each were required to complete the work, and this, with the aid of steam-power - the wheel revolving at an average rate of two thousand revolutions a minute, the heat generated being so great as to have once set fire to the oil in its surface, and even melted the solder in which the stone was embedded. As the work progressed it was discovered that certain portions of the diamond were much harder than others, one face resisting so stubbornly that, with a pressure of twenty-eight pounds, and a speed of three thousand revolutions per minute, six hours of contact were required to reduce it. How patient and skilful must the early lapidaries have been, whose only method was to cement two stones upon separate rods, and, by rubbing them together by hand, to thus reduce the opposing surfaces, the particles of dust removed serving in turn to reduce the rest!
Though the eight thousand pounds paid to Coster for his successful effort might have been well earned, it is a question whether it was money well invested, since the Koh-i-noor, though a much more brilliant and attractive jewel, has ceased to be an object of interest to the mineralogist or antiquarian; for, in its present form - a brilliant weighing one hundred and six carats - there is no suggestion as to its natural shape, while all interest attached to it by association is now lost with the loss of its identity.
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At Bijoux Extraordinaire we do not have any diamonds as large as the Koh-i-noor currently in inventory, but we have helped clients custom create beautiful diamond rings that are just as important ....
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