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