22 April 2015

Jewel History: Tracing the Jewels of the English Crown (1912)

"Tracing the Jewels of the English Crown"
(originally appeared in the New York Times, 21 Apr 1912)

Curious as it may seem, no record exists of the chief crown jewels now in possession of Their Majesties, King George V and his consort, Queen Mary, and it is heard in authoritative circles that they have caused a book to be compiled on the subject [1], particularly tracing those jewels known to have had an Indian source.

The Koh-i-Noor [2], which is supposed to have been worn by the Pandus of Hindu mythology, is traceable from the time of Shah Jehan [3], the Mogul emperor. It was first seen by the French traveler, Tavernier [4], in 1665, when it was in the possession at Delhi of the Emperor Aurangzeb [5], and after many vicissitudes, came into the possession of Shah Shuja [6] who, when expelled from Kabul, carried it away with him. Shah Shuja took refuge at Lahore with the Sikh ruler Ranjit Singh [7], who, in 1813, "commandeered" the jewel, which subsequently came into the possession of Dhuleep Singh [8]. He kept it until 1849, when the East India Company annexed Lahore, and it presented the jewel to Queen Victoria in 1860.

It is, of course, well known how casually the possession of this treasure was regarded by the Lawrences [9], and the story has often been told how, placed in the trousers pocket of a suit sent to the wash, it was rescued by a native servant who thought it was a piece of glass.

About the same time, of course, various other jewels of great value came into the possession of Queen Victoria, including the famous Ranjit Singh necklace of 224 pearls [10]. Queen Victoria had two of the pearls made into earrings, but, thinking them rather showy, did not wear them, though they are still, of course, in the possession of the Royal House.

Most of the Indian crown jewels were, undoubtedly, in olden time used for purposes of raising money. The practice was not unknown in England. In 1625, Charles I pawned much of the treasure in the Tower to Holland [11], to secure funds for the war with Spain, and it does not seem that it was ever redeemed. In 1643, Charles I turned the crown and sceptre into money, and in 1649 the British regalia was completely destroyed by order of the Commons.

In India circumstances were often much the same. When the jewels, say, at Delhi, were captured, the captor very often placed the chief ones on the market again, and they eventually often drifted back to India, having been marked, as in the case of the Nadir Shah ruby [12], with the circumstances of their varied possession.

Indeed, it is thought by experts that probably nearly all the well-known jewels have their history recorded somewhere in the private books of Indian dealers.

In any case, the royal history should be a fascinating compilation. Few objects may have so full a record as the Koh-i-Noor or the Shah Shuja armlet [13], now in the Tower, but when one reads the entrancing narrative of the Frenchman, Bernier [14], of the wealth of jewels at the Court of Aurangzeb, one feels that, somewhere or other, there must be a wealth of material.

Of what he then saw, the identity of the great golden throne [15] is, of course, known: it is now at Tehran, valued at $48,000,000. Perhaps the new royal history may throw some new light on the subject.

1. My research suggests that the most prominent book to be written about the British crown jewels after 1912 was The Crown Jewels of England (1919) by George Younghusband and Cyril Davenport. Because the book was published before 1923, it is no longer copyrighted, and you can read a digital copy for free on Google Books.
2. The Koh-i-Noor Diamond is currently mounted in the crown of the queen consort; the photograph above shows the diamond set in the crown, resting on the Queen Mother's coffin. Although the diamond has been in the United Kingdom for more that 150 years, many in India still believe that it should be returned.
3. Shah Jahan (1594-1666), the 5th Mughal emperor of India; probably best known today because he built the Taj Mahal as a tomb for his wife.
4. Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1605-1689) was a French gem merchant and a world traveler. His accounts of his travels are legendary; during a journey in 1668, he acquired the stone that would one day become the Hope Diamond, then sold it to his patron, King Louis XIV.
5. Aurangzeb Alamgir (1618-1707) was the 6th Mughal emperor of India.
6. Shah Shujah Durrani (1785-1842) was the Emir of Afghanistan; he brought the Koh-i-Noor with him when he was overthrown in 1809. Maharaja Ranjit Singh took it from him in Lahore in exchange for his freedom.
7. Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839) was the first ruler of the Sikh Empire.
8. Maharaja Duleep Singh (1838-1893) was Ranjit Singh's son and successor. He was exiled to Britain at the age of 15.
9. Sir Henry Montague Lawrence (1806-1857) and his brother, John Lawrence, 1st Baron Lawrence (1811-1879), members of the Punjab Board of Administration. John is the one who reportedly accidentally sent the Koh-i-Noor to the laundry.
10. The two-stranded pearl necklace that belonged to Ranjit Singh was kept for years by the Queen Mother; today it's in the Queen's collection.
11. It was actually Charles's wife, Queen Henrietta Maria, who managed to successfully pawn the jewels.
12. The Timur Ruby (which, like so many large royal rubies, is actually a spinel).
14. Fran├žois Bernier (1620-1688), French doctor and travel writer. He was the personal physician of Shah Jahan's son, and he was also a guest at the court of Aurangzeb Alamgir for more than a decade.
15. The Peacock Throne, made for Shah Jahan; it was taken as war booty by the Persians, but it has since disappeared. The golden throne that still exists in Tehran -- in fact, in the vaults of the Central Bank with the Iranian crown jewels -- is the Sun Throne, which has apparently often been confused for the Peacock Throne.