Friday, March 25, 2011

The eyes of the whole world were on the UK in November when Prince William and Kate Middleton announced their engagement at a St James’s Palace press conference.

The photographers there to record the event went into overdrive the minute Ms Middleton raised her hand to show the engagement ring.

The ring the future king had chosen for his fiancée was instantly recognisable as the one once worn by his late mother, Diana, Princess of Wales.

Prince William explained in a television interview that he chose the ring as a way of including his late mother in the happy occasion.

“I thought it was quite nice because obviously she’s not going to be around to share any of the fun and excitement,” he said. “This was my way of keeping her close to it all.”

The magnificent, if old-fashioned, 18-carat white gold ring features a large oval blue sapphire surrounded by diamonds.

The enduring global fascination with Diana, Princess of Wales and the excitement that is building around the wedding of her eldest son means his choice of ring has broad significance for the jewellery industry.

Jewellers say the royal engagement has boosted sales of engagement rings, which is good news for an industry still recovering from the worst global economic downturn in decades.

Boodles, the family-owned British jeweller, has seen an increase in sales of engagement rings since the royal announcement.

“Love is in the air,” says Michael Wainwright, joint owner and managing director.

“Christmas is always a peak time for engagement rings. People are with their families. And the royal engagement may have kick-started people who had been thinking about it.”

Ms Middleton’s sapphire ring has also encouraged some couples to look beyond diamonds, which have enjoyed a stranglehold on the bridal market in recent years. “Sapphires have been very dormant for us [but] there has definitely been a renaissance,” says Mr Wainwright.

Other coloured stones, such as rubies and emeralds, have also come back into vogue recently.

For Stephen Webster, creative director of his own eponymous company and of Garrard, the company that made Diana’s ring in 1981, the return of coloured stones is positive news.

“Anything that can reinforce the possibilities in jewellery is a good thing,” says Mr Webster, one of the UK’s most successful and creative jewellers.

He recalls that the first ring he made aged 16 was a sapphire and diamond cluster and says he is keen for the bridal market to move away from the dominance of the diamond engagement ring. Diamond engagement rings are often little more than “an in-your-face wealth gauge”, he adds. “It’s all about: ‘how big is your rock?’”

Coloured stones are more attractive and offer jewellers better opportunity to be creative, he says. “Very rarely does that self-important diamond jewellery have much original character and design.”

Pointing to the ruby cluster in Garrard’s current advertising campaign – as well as his own company’s recent Seven Deadly Sins collection – he says he finds coloured stones energising.

“What makes it a beautiful gem is not the cut or clarity, as with a diamond ... a Burmese ruby can have an inclusion and still be a beautiful red gem.”

Mr Wainwright agrees that a move away from diamonds’ dominance of the engagement market is “good news for jewellers”, offering them more scope in their designs.

The engagement ring selection on Boodle’s website is still dominated by diamond rings but there are a couple of ruby and sapphires pieces, including an oval sapphire cluster that costs £46,350 ($75,921).

Garrard, the Crown Jeweller for 140 years until Kent-based company Harry Collins was appointed in 2008, has enjoyed global attention since the royal engagement, says Mr Webster.

Some of this has been driven by the ring’s history and the story of how Princess Diana came to wear it.

“The Crown Jeweller took over a selection of 12 rings and [Prince Charles and Princess Diana] chose that one,” says Mr Webster.

“It was an extremely classic choice. Back in the early 1980s, people thought about sapphires, rubies and clusters before the bling of the later 1980s.”

Pictures of Ms Middleton holding up the ring appeared on the front of newspapers the world over when the engagement was announced last November. The free publicity was good news for Garrard, which this month reported a 50 per cent increase in sales of engagement rings because of the wedding news.

Garrard has refrained from creating its own commemorative range of perhaps its most famous creation.

But many other companies have jumped at the opportunity: H Samuel, the UK high street jeweller, has two “Diana Royal Engagement” blue sapphire and diamond rings priced at £149 and £599 while the Home Shopping Network is selling a replica “Posh Princess” ring with a simulated sapphire for just $29.95.

Sapphire or not, by offering his bride a family heirloom, Prince William avoided the controversy that an expensive new ring may have generated in austerity Britain.

With all eyes on April’s ceremony, the focus will shift to the dress Ms Middleton will wear and whether she will be sporting a House of Windsor hand-me-down tiara, as is the tradition in royal weddings past.


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