After much speculation, Camilla, the queen consort, won’t wear the controversial Kohinoor diamond that critics say was plundered under British rule — but some see the decision as an empty gesture.
The royal family announced this week that Queen Mary’s crown, which held a replica of the Kohinoor diamond, would be reset without the stone ahead of the coronation of King Charles III.
The crown will instead include the Cullinan III, IV and V diamonds as a tribute to Queen Elizabeth II. The stones, mined from South Africa, were part of her personal jewelry collection as brooches, but they are not without controversy either: Historians point out though they were gifted to King Edward VII, the nearly flawless diamonds are still artifacts of British imperialism.
“The decision to exclude the Kohinoor from the crowns used in the ceremony seems to me like an attempt to keep questions of British colonial exploitation and the royal family’s involvement with that exploitation at a minimum,” said Danielle Kinsey, an assistant professor of history at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, who focuses on the history of 19th-century Britain and its empire. “They can’t escape that history.”
The Kohinoor — also spelled Koh-i-noor — was first set in Queen Mary’s crown and was later replaced with a quartz crystal replica, while the original was moved to the queen mother’s crown, where it is now, according to the Royal Collection Trust.
The Cullinan, the world’s largest diamond, was discovered in South Africa in 1905 at a mine near one of three capital cities, Pretoria. The diamond was cut into nine large stones and about 100 small ones, including the 530-carat Star of Africa, which is set in the Sovereign’s Sceptre With Cross. The scepter is presented to the sovereign during their coronation. All of the gems are part of the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom.
The Cullinan was gifted to the royal family in 1907 as a symbolic gesture to mend Great Britain and the South African Republic’s relationship after a war between the two erupted.
Kinsey said the stone spotlights European exploitation of resources like diamonds and gold in Africa — and its long-lasting impact.
“While the royal family’s acquisition of the Cullinan is on solider legal grounds than the acquisition of the Kohinoor,” she said, “it still brings up the question of the royal family’s involvement with the development of diamond resource exploitation in southern Africa.”
Kinsey pointed to the fact that the Cullinan was a gift of reconciliation by the government of the South African Republic — unlike the Kohinoor diamond, which she said was acquired by coercion.
Kinsey said she believes that people will still talk about the nearly 106-carat diamond on the day of the coronation regardless.
She said the decision to incorporate three of the Cullinan diamonds wouldn’t sidestep the question of British colonial exploitation and could instead backfire and open up an even more urgent conversation about returning plunder.
“If the Kohinoor is a symbol of East India Company plunder imperialism in India, the Cullinan is a symbol of a different kind of British racialized settler colonialism in southern Africa — and the royal family and their literal crowns and regalia are one place where these two strains of imperialism come together,” she said.
Buckingham Palace cited “sustainability and efficiency” in its news release for the decision to reset the existing crown rather than commissioning a new one.
The decision comes months after a resurgence of demands calling for Great Britain to return the Kohinoor to the Indian government after the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
The release did not acknowledge political or diplomatic reasons. Buckingham Palace did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment.
The Kohinoor, which means “Mountain of Light,” was most likely discovered in South India in the 13th century. It found its way through several dynasties starting with the Mughals in the 16th century, then the Persians and then the Afghans before reaching the Sikh Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1813.
The governor-general of India coerced the 10-year-old son and successor of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Maharaja Duleep Singh, into “gifting” the diamond to Queen Victoria in 1849, according to private letters from the general viewed by NBC.
The push for Britain to return the diamond isn’t new. Several countries have claimed the diamond over the years, although modern-day borders make the process complicated. India, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan have repeatedly demanded that the British surrender it.
Adrienne Munich, author of “Empire of Diamonds: Victorian Gems in Imperial Settings” and professor emerita of English at Stony Brook University, said while she’s unsure if there’s any real mystery behind the decision to replace the diamond, it’s difficult to believe it’s just a fashion statement.
Munich said the reason is likely as simple as not wanting to create more controversy with the display of the diamond. She believes that there will be attention on the stone regardless of its presence.
“Symbols often seem to be more powerful or equally powerful as whatever reality we’re dealing with,” she said.