The great maharaja of the Sikhs was, in general, a man of unassuming tastes. A diminutive figure with a pockmarked face, he reminded one British observer who saw him in old age of ‘an old mouse, with grey whiskers and one eye’. He dressed in simple white robes and rarely took pains with his appearance. He did, however, love the Koh-i-Noor with a rare passion and wore it on all public occasions.
It was during his reign that the Koh-i-Noor first began to achieve real fame and gained the singular status it has retained ever since: up to this point, as a possession of Nader Shah and his Durrani successors, it had always been worn as part of a pair along with the gem known to the Mughals as the great ruby of Timur, to Nader Shah as the Eye of the Houri and to the Durranis as the Fakhraj. Now the Koh-i-Noor was worn alone, quickly becoming a symbol of all Ranjit Singh had strived for and the independence he had fought so hard to achieve.
It was not just that Ranjit Singh liked diamonds, and respected the stone’s vast monetary value; the gem seems to have held a far greater symbolism for him. Since he had come to the throne he had won back from the Afghan Durrani dynasty almost all the Indian lands they had seized since the time of Ahmad Shah. Having conquered all the Durrani territories as far as the Khyber Pass, Ranjit Singh seems to have regarded his seizure of the Durrani’s dynastic diamond as his crowning achievement, the seal on his status as the successor to the fallen dynasty. It may have been this, as much as the beauty of the stone, that led him to wear it on his arm on all state occasions.
When Ranjit Singh first took the great diamond in 1813, he suspected that Shah Shuja may have tried to trick him. So he immediately assembled the jewellers of Lahore to test the stone. There was much relief, and even a little...