Ten years ago, Kate Middleton was still getting used to wearing one of the most iconic pieces of jewelry in history on her left hand: a sapphire and diamond engagement ring given to her by longtime boyfriend, Prince William, while the couple was on holiday in Kenya on Oct. 20, 2010.
The ring – famously worn by William’s mother, the late Princess Diana, from her own engagement to Prince Charles in 1981 until their divorce in 1996 – was still being kept under wraps from the public, who didn’t find out about the pair’s engagement until Nov. 16. On that day, in an interview about their engagement with ITV’s Tom Bradby, William said that he gave his mother’s ring to Kate “because obviously she’s not going to be around to share in the fun and excitement of it all, so this is my way of keeping her sort of close to it all.”
And so began Diana’s sons’ tradition of gifting their wives their mother’s jewelry, and their wives’ poignant manner in honoring a mother-in-law they never knew through wearing her pieces, keeping her memory alive in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. “Both William and Harry are incredibly keen to keep their mother present, particularly during major milestones,” said CNN royal commentator Victoria Arbiter in an exclusive interview with InStyle. “It’s a way of honoring their mother, a way to keep her close, and a way to honor her memory and make her feel present. It’d be a travesty if these beautiful jewels just sat in a safe forever and ever. They don’t want that.”
But even avid royal watchers may not know that the sapphire and diamond engagement ring that Kate wears — the same ring Diana wore before her — could have been Meghan’s, were it not for some generosity on Prince Harry's part.
Recently, Diana’s youngest son Harry and his wife, Meghan, sat down for their first official portrait since stepping back as senior members of the Royal Family in January of this year. On Meghan’s left wrist in the black-and-white shot is what appears to be one of Diana’s two Cartier Tank watches, this one the Tank Française, which she wore regularly in the 1990s. Eagle-eyed followers of Meghan’s fashion would also have noticed what appeared to be the same Cartier watch on her wrist while participating in The 19th Represents Summit back in August, then again when dropping in for a surprise virtual appearance on America’s Got Talent in September, and yet again while speaking at the 2020 Fortune Most Powerful Women virtual summit that same month. What Meghan Wore reported that the Duchess of Sussex had been seen wearing the watch in public as early as July of this year. (That said, before she met Harry in 2016, the then-Meghan Markle bought herself a Cartier Tank watch after the second season of her television show Suits, which she had engraved with the message “To M.M. From M.M.” with plans to gift the watch one day to her future daughter, she told Hello! in 2015. Meghan’s gift to herself is alternating in silver and gold; Diana’s watch is all gold. Though it can’t be definitively determined in the black-and-white photo which watch Meghan wore, at the Fortune summit, the watch was all gold, making it very likely that it was Diana’s.)
Interestingly, according to Vanity Fair, about four months after Diana’s death on Aug. 31, 1997 in a Paris car crash, her butler Paul Burrell walked William and Harry through Diana’s Kensington Palace apartment for a final time, and it was actually Harry who took the sapphire and diamond engagement ring and William who chose the Cartier Tank Française. William himself wore the watch in the early aughts, Vanity Fair reported, and it was emotionally significant to him. But, when William was ready long before his brother to propose to someone (Harry and Meghan didn’t get engaged until 2017), he asked Harry if he would be willing to trade the engagement ring for the watch, and Harry agreed.
“It was probably very difficult to part with such a meaningful token of his mother,” said Roberta Fiorito, cohost of the Royally Obsessed podcast in an exclusive interview with InStyle. “Harry at such a young age picked that piece, so he was probably pretty attached to it for a while. Him giving that up for William in order to propose to Kate with it shows their bond was so close. It was a selfless thing to do.”
And, in addition to honoring Diana, Rachel Bowie, cohost of the Royally Obsessed podcast, told InStyle Meghan wearing the watch is likely a nod to not just her late mother-in-law, but also the Royal Family as a whole, especially since William once wore the piece frequently.
“That piece has touched the arms of so many Royal Family members,” Bowie said. “It represents a subtle connection between the brothers. I think Meghan wearing it is a nod to Diana but also a nod to her Royal ties.”
The engagement ring and the Cartier watch certainly aren’t the only times the Duchess of Cambridge and the Duchess of Sussex have honored the Princess of Wales through jewelry – Meghan’s own engagement ring is flanked with diamonds from Diana’s collection, and at her and Harry’s wedding reception in May 2018, she symbolically wore an aquamarine ring that Diana wore frequently after her divorce; Kate, for her part, recently drew attention for revamping a pair of Diana’s sapphire earrings into a necklace for an event at Buckingham Palace.
“My goodness, Diana was everything to her sons,” Arbiter said. “To think of losing her at such a young age – it had a profound effect on both of them. She loved the boys equally, and both honor her in their own individual ways and do so consistently. She’d be immensely proud.”
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