Signet Ring Guide

The Signet Ring Primer

Today the signet ring doesn’t hold much meaning in society. It’s more of a fashion statement or family heirloom handed down from one generation to the next. Rarely seen today, it was once an important part of society and culture and played a significant role in history.

Considered the “gentleman’s ring”, there doesn’t seem a more perfect piece of jewelry to proudly exhibit at Gentleman’s Gazette than that of the signet ring. We hope you enjoy this short primer.

The History of Signet Rings

Historically, signet rings played a very important role in business and politics. Used as a seal, the gentleman would use his ring which featured his unique family crest, emblem or monogram to sign legal or important documents, some of which played remarkable roles in our history books. By dipping the ring into hot wax or soft clay, the ring left a distinct seal that was considered, at the time, to be more official than that of a signature.

Used on a global scale by the world’s leaders and monumental men, the ring was seen as a way to prove authenticity when the electronic world of the internet, was not yet at our fingertips. While they were quite resplendent, they were in fact created with the purpose of acting as a signature or seal, and because of how they were utilized, they are often referred to as seal rings today.

The ring itself had markings on it that identified the specific person or the family of the person wearing it. Sometimes this was a family crest or a coat of arms, but other times it was nothing more than an icon or a monogram that was associated with a family. The ring was made in mirrored image to ensure it came out properly when leaving its mark or impression. Therefore, the rings are often difficult to make and cost a significant amount of money. Many world leaders opted to wear these rings on a daily basis whereas others stowed them safely away. Today, variations of signet rings still occur with many Freemasons wearing a marked ring identifying themselves to others. Many other clubs and organizations offer seal rings as well. I myself wear one on an almost daily basis. There are still those who commission a ring maker to create a family signet ring, but most men who own the traditional signet rings inherited them from their ancestors and will eventually hand it down to the next generation. Therefore, the ring isn’t a true mark of them as an individual, but of someone else in the line.

Signet rings have been used since as far back as 3500 BC when the people of Mesopotamia began using them as a method of authenticity. Initially, a seal as opposed to a ring, it was a cylindrical device that was rolled across wet clay leaving a distinct impression in the clay. Used to seal a variety of envelopes, jars and packages, they also functioned in the same way as corporate seals do today, and of course, this is where the corporate seal comes from. Then, in Ancient Egypt, the ring began to be produced. Pharoahs, religious leaders and nobles would wear the rings made of stone or a pottery called faience. The rings were flat on the outside and ornate with decorations and symbols used to denote its owner.

In fact, the Old Testament even mentions signet rings in the story of Daniel in the lion’s den…

And a stone was brought, and laid upon the mouth of the den; and the king sealed it with his own signet, and with the signet of his lords; that the purpose might not be changed concerning Daniel. (Daniel 6:17)

In the Early Minoan age the rings were formed out of soft stones and ivory. Come the Middle Minoan age they were made of harder stone and by the Late Bronze age, they had become the signet rings we know today. During the Hellenistic period, they were considered an art form in addition to being used for a purpose. King Mithridates VI of Pontus was an avid collector of signet rings.

By medieval times, almost every person of nobility wore a signet ring and used it to sign and seal their letters of nobility or other important papers. The signet ring was now widely considered the only authentic way to sign without worry of forgery or tampering. By the fourteenth century and under the stronghold or King Edward II, it was said that all official documents must bear the seal of the king’s signet ring.

Despite some people having signet rings that were handed down, most of them are actually quite modern. For many centuries the ring would be destroyed when the owner passed and because they were worn by noblemen, they weren’t copied and were considered very valuable, hence their name “signet” which is translated to mean “a small seal employed for formal or official purpose”. By the middle ages and well into the nineteenth century, most men wore these rings with some form of badge on the flat side. With the King’s signet being the most prized signet in the world, all men viewed their rings as important artifacts. It was a mark of elitism, class and that you were a member of the superior society of men if you had a true signet ring. It is without question, equivocation or mental reservation, in my opinion at least, the first true piece of jewelry used for a distinctly practical purpose.

Despite legal documents being around, the art of handwriting was not and that’s one reason why the signet ring was so vital and important to members of society who would be responsible for signing such documents. In some ways, I almost wish this concept was around today. How easy it must have been to simply press your finger into a document rather than write a signature. Since the ring was so powerful, it was destroyed when the man died and often a ceremony or ritual was performed.

The first signet rings were made with raised decoration and lettering whereas, following the development of sealing wax, it was actually made with a depressed design. The image would be left when the ring was pressed into it therefore had to be resilient to wear and damage. Often the rings would be made of gold or silver with the design cast, rather than carved into the flat end of the ring. Although large in size, they were also intended as a symbol of class and wealth. Due to the considerable cost, many families had a single ring that was handed down from father to son – only the very wealthy or important members of society had rings exclusive to them. This included the king, religious leaders, doctors of medicine, barristers and solicitors as well as other noblemen. With the popularity of the rings increasing, many families would keep these heavy and large rings in family jewel boxes as they became more ornate and decorated over the years. Many times men would opt not to wear them on their finger and instead mounted them on chains or the fob of their pocket watch. The most common rings were initials and monograms with the more titled men wearing rings decorated with their official coat of arms or family crest. Some had simple symbols and others had one letter or a distinct pattern.

As the nineteenth century approached, men began to engrave precious stones such as rubies, bloodstone and other semi-precious gems fastened to their ring. The stones would be set on a bezel that rotated so it could be worn facing out or against the finger.

Made of equally important metals such as gold and silver, the solid metal varieties traditionally had raised emblems with a cable border.

Today’s Signet Rings

In most cases today it’s a matter of personal style when a man wears a signet ring. As discussed, some fraternities such as the freemasons and other organizations offer rings to their members. While not used in the same fashion exactly, these rings are still marks of status and seals of authenticity, although with the internet, it makes it easy to purchase counterfeits. This is why many of these organizations also rely on other methods of authenticating who they are. Some clubs, corporations and families continue to give seal rings as gifts upon a certain length of service, a graduation or a commendation. Many military men wear signet rings that reflect their rank as a status symbol whereas others wear symbolic rings to showcase the branch they served with. As I mentioned, I often wear a signet ring that is capable of being used as a seal if I chose to. Unfortunately, I haven’t had that pleasure and rely on a good old fashioned fountain pen for marking my name.

Signet Ring Sources

There are a variety of places online to purchase signet rings. From eBay and Amazon, it’s not hard to hunt and find a signet ring from the inexpensive to the ridiculous.

Some of our other favorite places to shop for Signet rings, that offer less affordable, but more traditionally bespoke options, are the following:

Ruffs

One of the better makers that relies on old world craftsmanship and quality materials is the legendary ring and cufflink maker Ruffs. Founded in 1904, Ruffs has long been the staple that binds today’s signet ring industry together.

Neil Oliver

Neil Oliver is a master craftsman and engraver with half a century of experience under his belt. His rings are formidable against most other jewelers and he is known for his level of quality.

Dexter

With societies view of the signet ring now looking towards fashion rather than practicality, many opt for more affordable, value options. This is where Dexter comes in, making custom rings but at a fraction of the price. These always make great graduation and birthday presents for nephews, cousins and the children of close friends.

Rebus

I was most impressed by Rebus. More expensive than most, the phrase “you get what you pay for” couldn’t ring more true in this case.

Beautiful Custom Signet Ring

Beautiful Custom Signet Ring – by Will Ruff

Shapes

There are six shapes most commonly available in signet rings, with of course others that have been introduced over the years. Here are the popular six which have lasted through time:

Round

Exactly what it sounds like, in this case the bezel of the ring is round. It’s an elegant and more refined alternative to the bulbous oval when made correctly.

Straight Oval

By and large the most popular signet ring shape, it’s very easy for the engraver to work with. It’s quite traditional and always looks spectacular, yet conservative when made correctly.

Oxford

The oxford is a term to desribe a squareish ring that takes the shape of a solid square or rectangle, yet rounds the corners for some elegance. It’s quite heavy and requires a certain man to wear it well.

Bulbous Oval

Often called the “chunky” ring by craftsmen, this ring has to be chosen for those who are looking for a heavier and more distinctive looking ring.

Octagon

It doesn’t get any more self explanatory than this. Shaped as an octagon, this is a very modern, far less traditional ring style for the modern gentleman who wears a dinner jacket with blue jeans.

Cushion

The favorite ring during the Victorian Days, this is the next most popular style second to the straight oval. It’s subtle and elegant but offers a slightly less common appearance similar to a fine nib as opposed to a medium nib with fountain pens.

Conclusion

Whether you wear the ring as a status symbol, for authentication or simply because it was handed down to you, a signet ring is still considered a mark of the elegant gentleman. We hope you’ve enjoyed this short primer on signet rings and will share the story of your ring in the comment section below.

Summary
Article Name
The Signet Ring Guide
Description
For centuries signet rings have been one form of jewelry for men serving a very productive role in society. Here we explore that role.
Author
Publisher
Gentleman's Gazette
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13 replies
  1. George3d says:

    English gentlemen wear their signet rings on the small finger of their left hand and German (and many American) gentlemen on the third finger of their left hand — anyone know where these traditions arose?

    • David says:

      @George3d Possibly because English rings typically show a crest only, rather than full coat of arms or armorial shield, and can thus be smaller. The PoW’s ring shows the Feathers of his emblem only, for example. A smaller ring can therefore be worn relatively easily on a small finger – and need not be taken off to use for sealing : not so practical if it’s on your 3rd finger.

  2. alkan kizildel says:

    Nice article, thanks.

    I constantly wear a gold signet bearing my initials that was made at Harrods- London in 1962…

  3. Alessio says:

    Exquisite as ever. I have to mention an italian ring crafter called stefania nicastro because i think she is second to none. Moreover, i think we should talk about how to wear such a ring, in terms of fingers (first of all) and clothing. There is also the heraldry topic to talk about and the matter of creating an armor or a family crest.

  4. Rev. James C. Joyslin says:

    I so enjoy Gentlemen’s Gazette and your online newsletter. I have put many young men on to your publications which they have found very helpful. Keep up the excellent work!

    JCJ

  5. BRENT SMITH says:

    Thank you for yet another light-heartedly informative article which I have ‘internetted’, if that’s the word, to several of my younger friends. It is quite remarkable, the way they find these matters so intriguing that they can spend a whole evening in my local pub discussing them!
    You, Mr Schneider, are fast becoming an accidental contributor to some of life’s more innocent pleasures.

    Brent.

  6. Aaron says:

    They’re definitely classy and although they look great it’s got to take a certain kind of man to be able to pull them off in today’s society- with so many of us now tech obsessed it would seems a bit out of place to wear a signet on one hand while holding a iPhone in the other, it’s definitely better left to the more sophisticated, classier gentleman, those in a completely different league

  7. Charles says:

    Here in the UK, signet rings are on the rise, as a bit of a trend. I must advise, however, how a certain class of society view them. I have an inherited, hereditary, peerage title (and coat of arms). Many of my close friends are similarly titled. With a title and coat of arms, one is supposed to wear a ring (though many elect not to –see Prince William). Unfortunately, many of the people with ‘family crest’ rings are putting on a pretension to something they do not own, nor have the right to wear. Many companies will give you a ‘family name crest’ or some other such nonsense –which really doesn’t exist (a true coat of arms must be granted/registered through the College of Arms). It can even have been an inherited ring, as these scam companies have existed for quite some time.
    Unfortunately, it is much more complicated than a simple family name trace as well. Many subjects of a local Lord of the Manor, or similar lesser title, did, at one point or another, simply adopt their lord’s family name.
    Wearing a signet ring that you are not directly entitled to wear is the mark of a cad, and is seen as extremely pretentious –as today it even borders on a pretension to wear a ring you are entitled to, when many of our current royalty do not.
    Personally, a friend of mine, and titled baron, wound up not hiring a well-qualified man for a company the baron owned… as when the baron interviewed the man, he was wearing a ‘family crest’ signet ring to which he was not entitled.

    If you elect to wear one, I strongly advise you limit it to that which you are entitled to wear. A masonic ring if you are a mason, a graduation ring from your university, or similar. One should never, however, wear a ring they are not entitled to wear… and if in doubt, don’t!

    • Sven Raphael Schneider says:

      Good advice Charles, though you make it sound like it is similar to a Dr. title or anything else of that kind, which is simply not true. You can wear fake signet rings all day long without violating the law. Of course, it is preferable to create your own family crest rather than copying someone elses and Heraldry is in fact all very precise and interesting. If one just wants to wear a ring with a stone or an initial, why not. Of course, some people like your friend won’t like it and I can understand them, at the same time it is ok to start new traditions of one’s own. After all, that’s how every family crest started in the first place.

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