The World’s Most Famous Ring: Princess Diana’s Engagement Ring
Millennial couples are forging their own path, keen to do things differently to their parents, and are now popping the question in glorious technicolour – choosing alternative engagement rings over traditional solitaires.
Forget carat weight, or any of the other criteria that make up jewellery’s famous “five Cs”, for that matter. For a decidedly fresh aesthetic, betrothed couples are turning to bold cocktail-style rings or a delicate jumble of coloured gems, expressing themselves with alternative engagement rings that are as unique as the relationships they celebrate.
So, the Queen presents to the young Diana “a rather special box of chocolates” which turns out to be a selection of engagement rings revealed by William Summers, the then Crown Jeweller and a director at Garrard, the London jeweller that served the royal family from 1843 until 2007. The tension in the room is palpable as Diana’s eyes pass over a Burmese ruby that already belongs to the royal family, instead alighting on the famous sapphire ring that is on sale from Garrard’s own collection.
“Elizabeth is said to have raised her eyebrows at the choice,” says Sulzberger.
There is much speculation about the ring’s cost at the time but even a low estimate of £28,500 means it would cost an eye-watering £123,000 today. “There are a few different theories as to why Diana selected the ring: the colour matched her eyes, the Queen may have actually selected it, or as Diana was later quoted as saying, ‘It was the biggest.’ Others claim that it simply reminded her of her mother’s engagement ring,” says Sulzberger.
Whatever the true reason, her choice, according to jewellery historian and author Vivienne Becker, was entirely a conventional one for the teenage aristocrat. “It was totally in tune with her style, she was the ultimate Sloane Ranger at the time,” says Becker. The traditional cluster style in fact had initially gained popularity 150 years earlier thanks to another royal wedding. Prince Albert designed a sapphire cluster brooch as a wedding gift for his young bride, Princess Victoria in 1840 (also created by Garrard). Fast-forward to Diana’s sapphire cluster and it was typical of high jewellery in the 1980s which, adds Becker, “was virtual all the three big gemstones (sapphire, ruby and emerald) framed by clusters of diamonds”. Since high jewellery was so expensive and destined to be passed down from generation to generation, it was felt it had to be entirely classic in design. It was only in the 1990s that things changed and the designers of the world’s most precious jewellery let their imaginations take full flight.
In real life, the engagement ring immediately became a symbol of their entire relationship and it was widely imitated all over the world.
“It’s funny that such a traditional, conventional ring has been so laboured with significance,” says Becker.
Over the years that followed, Diana adapted to her royal role and developed her own inimitable style, one that saw her leading the way in fashion rather than the following convention. The ring remained a constant, however, even after her separation from Prince Charles in 1992. “If she’d chosen it 10 years later it’s likely it would have been a very different ring,” adds Becker.
Today, the ring is as visible as ever, worn by the Duchess of Cambridge as her own engagement ring. Prince William chose to propose with the ring after Prince Harry, who had picked the ring as a keepsake of their mother when she died in 1997, reportedly offered it to his big brother for the occasion.
“I thought it was quite nice because obviously, she’s not going to be around to share any of the fun and excitement,” said Prince William of Diana at the time of his engagement to Kate Middleton in 2011.
“This was my way of keeping her close to it all.”
After decades of speculation, we ourselves are perhaps as close as we’ll ever be to understanding how the famous ring came to be owned by the People’s Princess.