Royal Nuptials: No Retail Fairy Tale


By Beth Carney As royal weddings go, the planned marriage of Britain's Prince Charles to Camilla Parker Bowles will look like an understated affair: no state procession, no TV cameras at the town hall ceremony, and -- for such an exalted occasion -- a paltry few souvenir tea towels and refrigerator magnets marking the event. The wedding was scheduled for Apr. 8, but Prince Charles' office announced today he is postponing the ceremony for a day so he can attend the funeral of Pope John Paul II in Rome Friday.

So far, manufacturers are producing only about 25 to 30 lines of special items commemorating the nuptials, according to Steven Jackson, secretary of the Commemorative Collectors Society (CCS), a nonprofit group that tracks and records the number of collectibles produced for such events.

This is a sharp contrast with Charles' televised 1981 wedding to Diana, which drew an estimated 750 million viewers worldwide. That ceremony generated more than 1,600 different kinds of souvenirs, many of them produced in mass quantities, according to CCS. The Queen's Golden Jubilee in 2002, marking Queen Elizabeth's 50 years on the throne, prompted 830 types of mementos. Even the relatively low-key 1999 marriage of Prince Edward to Sophie spawned 234 collector's items.

APATHY AND AMBIVALENCE. Why is Charles' marriage to Camilla generating so little business? The timing of the engagement announcement, only eight weeks before the wedding, has played a role. For example, china maker Wedgwood, which has created special products to mark royal events since George III's reign, is passing on this event, because it needs six months to design a collection. "The time was just not there," says company spokesman Andrew Stanistreet, who notes that Wedgwood will, however, make a one-of-a-kind gift to present to the couple.

Adds Anthony Whiteway, owner of Lambert of London Souvenirs, which decided not to produce any wedding-related merchandise for its wholesale business, "People aren't very excited about it."

Britons feel deeply ambivalent about the marriage. In a recent poll conducted by research outfit ICM for the Daily Mail newspaper, 57% of those surveyed approved of Prince Charles marrying Camilla. But 65% of respondents said the marriage would weaken the monarchy, and 60% said Camilla doesn't deserve the title she'll receive, Her Royal Highness.

"Among the younger generation, there's apathy," says Bob Houston, publisher of monthly magazine Royalty. "In the older generation, there are those who will be happy for Charles and those who will never be. They're the hard-line Diana [fans]."

COLLECTING ABOVE ALL. Still, plenty of commemorative items are on sale, from $2.80 refrigerator magnets featuring the couple's faces to $3,775 limited-edition hand-painted ceramic plaques depicting the Scottish hunting lodge where the bride and groom will honeymoon. The Royal Collection, which runs the gift shops at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle and is the only official royal vendor, has begun selling a tasteful pair of $38 English bone-china tankards decorated with entwined letter C's and the date of the wedding. The Royal Mail postal service expects strong demand for its commemorative stamps, which will go on sale on the wedding day and show a jolly, relaxed Charles and Camilla wearing matching green tweed jackets.

For women who want a wearable token of the event, the Wal-Mart-owned (WMT) Asda superstore is even offering a $37 emerald-cut cubic zirconia and sterling silver replica of Parker Bowles's pricey Art Deco-style diamond engagement ring (Asda will also sell a made-to-order diamond and platinum version for $57,000, if it can find any takers).

Despite the general lack of enthusiasm, makers of high-quality collectibles believe their wares will sell briskly. The reason: For many collectors, acquiring commemorative objects matters more than the actual event.

MIXED FEELINGS. "We have people out there who have bought all our previous pieces and will need to buy this to complete the collection," says Hugh Gibson, chief executive of Royal Crown Derby, a maker of tableware and figurines. The porcelain company, based in Derby, England, is producing a $75 nut tray and $225 loving cup for the event, despite receiving letters from a group of Diana supporters urging it to withdraw the items.

The controversy and relatively weak demand also may eventually add to the value of souvenirs. "Their scarcity is likely to make them highly collectible in the future," says Alan Morgenroth, managing director of Goviers of Sidmouth, a china and glass retailer that specializes in commemoratives.

Some souvenir makers have tried to capitalize on the mixed feelings around the event. Londoner Joanna Leapman, who is selling wedding-themed buttons she makes on eBay (EBAY), produced two extra designs in addition to the traditional badge featuring the happy couple. One has Princess Diana's face superimposed on a background depicting Charles and Camilla and the words "Remember Diana, 1961-1997." Another one shows a picture of the Queen over the same background and the slogan, "I'm not going, either!"

"Obviously people are thinking about Diana at this time, and some people don't support the wedding," says Leapman. "I think they'll wear them on the wedding day."

LONG SHADOW. Demand may pick up as the event draws near. In Windsor, where interest is highest, the buying has started already. Dhillon's, a gift shop located near Windsor Castle, has been selling an array of mugs, bookmarks, letter openers, and paperweights. Kirran Dhillon, who works at the family-owned store, says the most popular product has been a tea towel featuring Charles' and Camilla's faces against a backdrop of the Union Jack.

Dhillon thinks demand runs high for the memento because of an apocryphal story told about Princess Diana, who allegedly confided in friends her second thoughts about her wedding. "They told her, you can't back out now -- your face is on a tea towel," she says. "I think a lot of people remember that comment." It's just one of the many ways the previous wedding will cast its shadow over the current one. Carney is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in London


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