Have you ever wondered why some men wear engraved rings on their ring or pinky finger? It is a signet ring. Today the signet ring doesn’t hold much meaning in society anymore. 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 essential 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 significant 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.
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. Pharaohs, 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 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.
Signet Rings Today
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.
No Family Crest? No Problem
If you like the design or the concept of a signet ring but your family doesn’t have a coat of arms, should you get one? Legally, the answer is clear. Anyone can go out and create a ring with their own coat of arms and some people who are traditionalists may argue that it is more the sign of an impostor because you pretend to be part of the nobility or of a class of society that you are in fact not.
While certain families have had coat of arms and family crests for generations, they all started at one point in time and just because your family didn’t have one, and you really want one for your family, we think it’s legitimate to simply start a new tradition. Of course, the design is entirely up to you.
Traditionally, heraldic symbols had a certain system behind them so if you create a new symbol, maybe you just create your own, maybe use animal symbols, or something that speaks to you and your family.
If money is of no object to you, you can consult with Goldsmiths specialized in signal rings that know a lot about the history and what used to be done and also the skill to carve pretty much anything you want into your ring.
Personally, my family never had a crest and I never felt the need to create a signet ring with something that was so personalized and old-fashioned. I really like to wear rings and I even have a bunch of rings in my collection that are made to be Signet rings that could be engraved but even a simple monogram is not something I felt that I need so I simply skip that and wore the regular rings they look like a signet ring but in fact they lack the seal.
Should You Get A Signet Ring? It’s Up To You!
At the end of the day, it’s entirely up to you if you want your monogram or something else in there but at the end of the day, I think it’s a cool piece, it’s a unique piece of jewelry and as a man, besides your wedding band and maybe your collar pin or a tie pin or your cufflinks, there’s not a whole lot of jewelry you can wear. That being said, if you’re interested in rings, stay tuned for a guide on pinky rings which are of course worn on your little finger on
your pinky finger.
What Finger Should You Wear Your Signet Ring On? It Depends
In Germany, some people wear it on their ring finger and I’ve also seen that in the US. In Britain, traditionally, the signet ring is worn on the pinky finger of the left hand. Traditionally, during Victorian times, men would wear their pinky ring and their wedding band stashed together on the left pinky finger. For example, here you can see Prince Leopold, the son of Queen Victoria, in the 1870s wearing both rings in that fashion.
Also in the US, the young FDR wore exactly that same combination and he had inherited his signet ring from his father.
Prince Charles, he’s wearing a gold heirloom signet ring stashed together with his wedding band on the pinky finger of his left hand or others like Winston Churchill wore their signet ring on the ring finger of the right hand so as you can see, there is no clear rule, rhyme, or reason.
In Britain, there’s a clear preference for the pinky finger of the left hand but ultimately, it’s entirely up to you. For example, I wear my wedding band on the left ring finger which is right next to a pinky finger.
So having another signet ring next to it or any other ring in my opinion just looks weird. Because of that, I wear my rings either the ring finger or on the pinky finger of my right hand. Ultimately, there’s no right or wrong and you just have to decide what works for you and what look you like. So obviously there are all kinds of gaudy men’s rings out there but a signet ring is traditionally a little more limited and classic.
In Britain, there’s a clear preference for the pinky finger of the left hand but ultimately, it’s entirely up to you. For example, I wear my wedding band on the left ring finger which is right next to a pinky finger. So having another signet ring next to it or any other ring in my opinion just looks weird. Because of that, I wear my rings either the ring finger or on the pinky finger of my right hand. Ultimately, there’s no right or wrong and you just have to decide what works for you and what look you like. So obviously there are all kinds of gaudy men’s rings out there but a signet ring is traditionally a little more limited and classic.
Signet Ring Metal & Style Options
Most rings come in 10 Karat, 14 karats, or 18 karat gold. Either a white gold or rose gold or yellow gold. You can also go with sterling silver which is a lot less expensive but also with things like palladium which are more expensive.
Most rings come with a flat stone on top that is usually set and that can be engraved. If you don’t like the stone, you can also go with simple metal that is just fine. The band’s are usually all solid and not
decorated but you can also find Signet rings with heavy decoration on them. Traditional shapes include round, oval, or long oval, or rectangular, squares with rounded edges, or even like cut edges that gives you an octagonal look, there really is no limit under the sun as long as the stone is flat and not domed.
In terms of color and stones, the most popular are black onyx, blue lapis lazuli, a bloodstone, which is a dark green with red inclusions, you can also find a carnelian which is dark red, and we use those stones also for our cufflinks which you can find in our shop here which go quite well if you want to coordinate.
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:
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.
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.
The Oxford is a term to describe a square-ish 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.
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.
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.
Engraving & Ring Details
For a crest, you should decide if you want it raised or engraved. When it comes to engraving, there are different options. You can either have it engraved at all the same
depth or the more three-dimensional engraving which takes more time it looks much nicer but it’s also more expensive.
Another great detail in rings is where the bottom part of the stone is open or closed. By default, most rings are open so you can see the stones from the bottom. The problem with that is that it just collects dirt over time and it’s very difficult to clean so you have the option to close that off with metal but since it uses more material, it’s also more expensive.
In recent years, technological advancements have allowed for laser-engraved signet rings. Sometimes also with enamel. Personally, I think it looks cheaper, it’s less traditional, and if you opt for a signet ring, you obviously like the tradition and the historic look. For the same reason, I’d stay clear of showy diamonds because it’s just too loud and it’s not really part of the traditional signet ring.
Where to Buy A Signet Ring
You can either have them custom made for you although that will usually run you anywhere from $2000 – $5000 or you can try to find a vintage ring that is unengraved and then have it resized and engraved.
Because it is so difficult to find affordable men’s signet rings we are looking into creating our own line of them but we need your input to get a better understanding of what you are looking for. Please take our survey here so we can help you find exactly the ring you want at a price that won’t break the bank.
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.