Signet rings are a fascinating piece of history, and also a great piece of modern jewellery. Often thought of as a gentleman's ring, these days they are worn by all genders, and make a great hand adornment.
The History of Signet Rings
The history of signet rings stretches back to at least the times of the Pharaohs of Egypt. The cartouche, or symbol, or the pharaoh would be carved into rings, which would be given to members of the pharaoh’s staff as a sign of his authority. The book of Genesis mentions Pharaoh's signet in the story of Joseph, and signets have been recovered from archaeological sites including Tutankhamun’s tomb.
Signets have been common for men, particularly those of higher social classes, for hundreds of years. They were originally carved in intaglio, so that when pressed into soft sealing wax or clay tablets the design would stand out in relief (with the pattern raised). The design on the ring would usually be a combination of a design that represented the family the wearer was from, and a symbol that represented the wearer himself. These rings were often destroyed upon the death of the wearer, to prevent forged documents being created after the wearer’s death.
One of the most famous signet rings in the world is the Pope’s signet, which is known as the Ring of the Fisherman. A new Ring of the Fisherman is cast for each Pope, and upon the Pope’s death (or recently, retirement) his ring is defaced with two deep cuts in the shape of a cross. This is to prevent any false documents being sent out by forgers during the period when the previous Pope was being mourned and the new Pope selected.
Today, it is more common for people of any gender to wear pseudo-signet rings, or rings that are carved in relief and not in reverse. These are not designed to be pressed into wax to seal documents, but rather to be seen on the hand.
What are Signet Rings Made Of?
These days, signet rings are usually made of sterling silver or 9ct or 18ct gold. They were originally designed to be worn on the pinky finger of the non-dominant hand, but in modern times they are worn wherever the wearer is comfortable with them.
The top of a signet ring is usually carved or engraved to suit the person wearing the ring. Some jewellers carry pre-carved rings, but these are a fashion statement carving rather than anything personal.
Signet rings come with many different shaped tops, also called ‘faces’ or ‘heads’. These shapes can include sharp rectangles or squares, more rounded cushion shapes, ovals, or even small heart shapes!
The head of a signet ring can also be set with a stone, which can be carved or engraved to suit the wearer. These stones are usually semi-precious, such as agates, hematite, or onyx, although in earlier times precious stones such as ruby or sapphire were sometimes used by the very wealthy.
What Signet Rings Are Used For
Signet rings were originally used to press a seal into a clay tablet. This was used as proof of authenticity. Later, after writing on paper or vellum became common, soft clay seals gave way to wax, which was easy to affix to these materials. Seals pressed from signet rings have always been used as a sign of authority and authenticity, and were often used on legal documents.
With the rise of the bourgeoisie, carved signet rings became very popular among nobility, as members of the bourgeoisie would not have family crests and so signet rings became signifiers of ‘higher class’ people.
In more modern times, plain signets, or signets engraved with symbols important to the wearer or the person giving the ring to the wearer, have become more common. Family crests are still very popular motifs, but it is not uncommon to have plain signets, or signets engraved with school crests, or other interesting motifs.
Signet rings make great gifts, and many jewellers will arrange to have them engraved with anything that suits your fancy. Here at Albany Village Goldsmiths, we can arrange engraving for you. Another lovely tradition that we have seen here is to give young women the gift of a small signet ring set with their birthstone, and we are happy to arrange the setting of a stone into any of our signet rings.