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Empire of Diamonds

Victorian Gems in Imperial Settings
Adrienne Munich

BUY Cloth · 296 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813944005 · $29.95 · May 2020
BUY Ebook · 296 pp. · ISBN 9780813944012 · $29.95 · May 2020

In 1850, the legendary Koh-i-noor diamond, gem of Eastern potentates, was transferred from the Punjab in India and, in an elaborate ceremony, placed into Queen Victoria’s outstretched hands. This act inaugurated what author Adrienne Munich recognizes in her engaging new book as the empire of diamonds.

Diamonds were a symbol of political power—only for the very rich and influential. But, in a development that also reflected the British Empire’s prosperity, the idea of owning a diamond came to be marketed to the middle class. In all kinds of writings, diamonds began to take on an affordable romance. Considering many of the era’s most iconic voices—from Dickens and Tennyson to Kipling and Stevenson—as well as grand entertainments such as The Moonstone, King Solomon’s Mines, and the tales of Sherlock Holmes, Munich explores diamonds as fetishes that seem to contain a living spirit exerting powerful effects, and shows how they scintillated the literary and cultural imagination.

Based on close textual attention and rare archival material, and drawing on ideas from material culture, fashion theory, economic criticism, and fetishism, Empire of Diamonds interprets the various meanings of diamonds, revealing a trajectory including Indian celebrity-named diamonds reserved for Asian princes, such as the Great Mogul and the Hope Diamond, their adoption by British royal and aristocratic families, and their discovery in South Africa, the mining of which devastated the area even as it opened the gem up to the middle classes. The story Munich tells eventually finds its way to America, as power and influence cross the Atlantic, bringing diamonds to a wide consumer culture.


Empire of Diamonds offers a sweeping, vivid, richly detailed, at times dazzling account of the diamond as a figure for empire in nineteenth-century British writing. Munich’s book is more than a sequence of sparkling interpretive rhapsodies: it has a genuine argument to make about the imaginary life of the Victorian empire.

Ian Duncan, University of California, Berkeley, author of Human Forms: The Novel in the Age of Evolution

The imperishable beauty of diamonds, so this gorgeous book argues, was a vector for imperial rapaciousness from Britain to India to South Africa; diamonds’ distracting glamor could never quite conceal the exploitation, violence, racial animosity, and death that have always accompanied their unearthing and circulation. Stylishly written, deeply learned, and richly interdisciplinary, this book provides the necessary settings (historical, geopolitical, economic, cultural, religious, and psychoanalytic) to illuminate every facet of the most fabulous and gruesome of diamond tales, from Victorian times to the present.

Margaret Homans, Yale University, author of Royal Representations: Queen Victoria and Victorian Culture 1837-1876

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