On Friday, Feb. 6, 1981, on the grounds of Windsor Castle, Prince Charles proposed to Diana—sans ring. It came two weeks later on Feb. 22, when he and Diana were having an intimate evening with the Queen. Diana described being presented with a choice of potential gems in Andrew Morton’s 1992 book Diana: Her True Story. “A briefcase comes along on the pretext that Andrew is getting a signet ring for his 21st birthday and along come these sapphires. I mean nuggets! I suppose I chose it, we all chipped in. The Queen paid for it.”
The ring in question was a large oval sapphire surrounded by 14 round diamonds and set in 18-karat white gold, worth $67,000 and made by jeweller Garrard & Co., the official crown jewellers at the time.
Just two days later, on Feb. 24, following a private lunch with the Queen, Lady Diana Spencer and Charles officially announced their engagement. On the grounds of Buckingham Palace, the future princess of Wales posed for photographers awkwardly, placing her hand across her body assuming an uncomfortable, defensive position. Tina Brown, author of The Diana Chronicles, wrote that her department-store outfit, picked days before off a rack at Harrods, was “air-stewardess blue with a matronly print blouse tied by a large pussycat bow that made her look like a zaftig Sloane on the frontispiece of Country Life.”
Fast-forward 29 years and there’s another royal fiancée standing before photographers wearing another blue outfit and that same sapphire ring. But instead of matronly, 28-year-old Kate Middleton’s dress is form-fitting and chic. And far from being doe-eyed and bashful, the future queen confidently smiles for the cameras, resting her hand on her beau’s arm and proudly showing the ring.
Her display of the jewel makes sense. For Diana’s son William, the sapphire engagement ring is his most cherished family jewel. Upon his mother’s death in 1997, the ring was the only heirloom of hers he asked to keep. After he announced his engagement to Kate Middleton earlier this week, William explained his decision to propose with his mother’s ring: “As you may recognize now it is my mother’s engagement ring, so of course, it is very special to me, and Kate is very special to me now as well. It is only right the two are put together.”
In their sit-down interview following the engagement, William said that, prior to proposing during his 10-day safari vacation in Kenya, he’d been carrying the ring “around with me in my rucksack for about three weeks.” Kate says that when it came to the deed, he did it in a “very romantic” fashion. It’s a lovely story, and a savvy way for the prince to manage the inevitable comparisons between Kate and his mother.
But for others, the ring is a reminder of Diana’s apocalyptic marriage. In fact, the doomed princess of Wales wore the ring on the day her divorce to Prince Charles was finalized. Still, Kate and William are determined to buck any nuptial bad karma. When Kate was asked about her fiancé’s mother in the sit-down, William waited for her to finish her answer before firmly saying: “It’s about carving your own future,” he said. “No one is trying to fill my mother’s shoes.”