Why is this interesting? - The Diamond Edition

On precious stones, ownership, and decolonization

Anita Schillhorn van Veen (ASVV) is a friend of WITI and has a couple of other WITIs under her belt (Climate Tourism & Utopias). She’s an independent strategy consultant with Frame Strategy, based in LA and New York. You can follow her on Twitter here.

Anita here. My nine-year-old niece recently informed me that her favorite diamond was the Sancy, the second-most valuable diamond in the world. Besides learning that she has expensive tastes, it also sent me down a rabbit hole of precious stones. Top of my list of questions, unsurprisingly, was what is the most valuable diamond in the world? 

The answer is the Koh-I-Noor, a massive stone that some say was mined 5,000 years ago in India, and has since been traded amongst empires, kingdoms, and colonizers until it landed in the collection of British crown jewels

(Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother rocking the Koh-I-Noor in the royal crown, with and without arches. Source: Order of Splendor)

(The Koh-I-Noor diamond at the top of the Peacock Throne, a symbol of power in the Mughal Empire. This miniature painting is from 1850 and is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, another Mughal treasure that sits in London. Source: Hindu History)

Anita Anand and William Dalrymple have written a colorful history of the precious artifact, examining the intricacies of ownership in their book, The Koh-I-Noor: History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond. The story of the Koh-I-Noor is the story of power, with the Mughal Empire, the Persians, the Afghans and the British juggling ownership of the stone and influence in the region over centuries.

The Koh-I-Noor is in the collection of the British crown, but its history is far from over. The stone’s ownership continues to be disputed. That the Koh-I-Noor sits with the British Crown Jewels today is a thorn in British-India relations, and India continues efforts to reclaim it. The prevalent opinion there is that the gem was stolen and should be returned to its rightful owner, although one Indian solicitor-general recently sided with the UK and claimed it was a gift. 

Why is this interesting?

The trade and plunder of the Koh-I-Noor maps to the shift of power structures throughout centuries. The Koh-I-Noor is a glittering reminder of the colonial legacy of the destruction wrought by the British colonies. Besides India, Pakistan and even the Taliban have also laid claim to the famous diamond. Pre-colonial ownership does not map neatly to post-colonial national borders. And that, in large part, is because colonialism resulted in new nations, new geopolitical borders, and redrawn maps.

Gems are just the tip of the iceberg. In the wake of decolonization, deciding the rightful ownership of cultural artifacts is made more complicated by entangled histories. In the last 20 years or so, there’s been a movement of countries seeking to reclaim their artifacts from the Western institutions that house them, and of those institutions divesting of cultural artifacts. Ninety percent of Africa’s cultural heritage is outside of Africa. Emmanuel Macron made history when he visited West Africa in 2017 and promised to return France’s share. 

There’s a counter movement that questions whether a modern nation can lay claim to an ancient object from a dead culture. Defenders of the museums’ stance champion the idea of a universal history, and see countries seeking repatriation as having nationalist agendas that don’t serve the common good, or rather, the common good as defined by the institutions in power. James Cuno, the director of the Art Institute of Chicago, who of course benefits from keeping ancient artifacts in his institution, argues:

Cultural property is a political construct: whatever one sovereign authority claims it to be. Cultural property is presumed to have a special meaning to the powers that claim it...It is central to their identity...But is that possibly true of antiquities? Antiquities are often from cultures no longer extant or of a kind very different from the modern, national culture claiming them. What is the relationship between, say, modern Egypt and the antiquities that were part of the land’s Pharaonic past?

However, considering the artifact in light of its historical context should include the story of how it got to be where it is, whether through colonial trading, plunder, or the black market. It’s also exclusionary. If an Indian artifact is with the British Crown Jewels, or a West African artifact is in the Louvre, it only invites people who can afford to visit to be a part of experiencing it. Tess Davis, a lawyer with the Antiquities Coalition, says:

Colonialism is alive and well in the art world. So-called leaders in the field still justify retaining plunder in order to fill their ‘universal museums’ where patrons can view encyclopaedic collections from all over the world. A noble idea, in theory, but in practice, a western luxury. The citizens of New York, London, and Paris may benefit, but those of Phnom Penh? Never.

The idea of a dominant power having full control over the world’s history no longer holds water. Decolonization has evolved from the political and geographical act of a colonized nation reclaiming power to a growing movement that considers the colonial hand in everything from artifacts in museums, to the literary canon, to holiday meals. Diamonds have been witness to power changing hands forever, and it's unlikely that this will end. Equally as unlikely to end are the conversations about how we reckon with these custodial changes and the forces that drove them. (ASVV)

Map of the Day:

Speaking of history and power, I love this map of ancient Roman trade routes by Sasha Trubetskoy, spanning from Egypt to England and Morocco to the Middle East. Another document that destabilizes the idea that power structures are fixed in history. (ASVV)

Quick Links:

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Anita (ASVV)

PS - Noah here. I’ve started a new company and we are looking for a sr. backend engineer to join the team. If you are one of those or know anyone who is great, please share. Dinner’s on me at a restaurant of your choice if you help us find someone.

Why is this interesting? is a daily email from Noah Brier & Colin Nagy (and friends!) about interesting things. If you’ve enjoyed this edition, please consider forwarding it to a friend. If you’re reading it for the first time, consider subscribing (it’s free!).