Signet rings are having a another moment in jewelry design.
Seals and signet rings (from Latin “signum” meaning sign) were used in the earliest civilizations and are of considerable importance in archaeology and history because of their practicality. The useful seal evolved into jewelry because of its utilitarian purpose of authenticating a document while being portable. At a time when few could read or write, seals bore a distinguishing mark or badge, equivalent to that of a signature. The seal was essential for establishing the ownership of property, for legitimizing business transactions, for rulers, governments and church officials authenticating any kind of correspondence. The signet ring became popular for its convenience because the seal was ready to be used at a moment’s notice. Only later did it become ‘a piece of jewelry’. The signet ring has been worn and used throughout history in all cultures around the world.
Signets were often made of soft metals such as yellow gold because they were easy to engrave with a monogram, coat of arms or other identifying symbol. Carved gemstones such as agate, onyx, carnelian etc. also became very popular.
Because it is used to attest to the authority of its bearer, the signet ring has also been seen as a symbol of power, which is one explanation for its inclusion in the regalia of certain monarchies. After the death of a Pope, the destruction of his signet ring is a prescribed act clearing the way for the sede vacante and subsequent election of a new Pope.
The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all utilized the signet/seal but in different ways. The Egyptians favored the double sided scarab ring made of all gold or carved amethyst or crystal. When the scarab rotated, the underside would be engraved with the names and titles of its owners or some other message.
An Egyptian electrum gold ring, circa 399-343 B.C., engraved with hieroglyphs reading “for the Bearer of the Standard of Horus of Edfu, give protection to Hakoris”. Photograph courtesy of Christie’s.
Etruscan agate scarab ring, circa 4th-3rd century B.C. The underside is engraved in the “globolo” style with a horseman enclosed within a hatched border. Photo courtesy of Christie’s.
The side and top of Etruscan scarab ring. Photo courtesy of Christie’s.
The Greeks preferred fixed bezels made from soft metals like gold, silver or bronze. They also used engraved gemstones favoring motifs from nature, animals, portraits of their owners or miniatures of famous Greek sculptures.
The Romans loved their signet rings and the size and different gemstones used reflect their importance of the time. The motifs ranged from the owner’s portrait, to depictions of Roman life, to gods and goddesses, to symbols for love and loss. The signet ring became more than a seal, it became an artistic representation of the individual who wore it, it became jewelry.
Roman red jasper ring depicitng a chariot race in the Circus Maximus, second or third century A.D. Photo courtesy of the British Museum.
A Roman green jasper intaglio ring, circa 4th-rth century A.D. displaying a victorious bearded nimbate and radiate emperor, wearing tunic, holding right hand aloft, an orb with cross in his left hand, driving a facing quadriga, all four horses rearing up. Photo courtesy of Christie’s.
Signet rings were so symbolic that it was the Roman custom to remove a signet ring from the finger of a dying person. In one case the custom backfired. Believing the Emperor Tiberius to have expired, his attendants slipped his signet ring from his hand. When the distempered Emperor woke from his coma he demanded it back!
The signet ring was highly representative of the individual who wore it. It was, in effect, his or her signature. Pompey’s displayed a lion bearing a sword. Julius Caesar had an armed Venus. Caesar Augustus first had a sphinx, then the head of Alexander the Great, and finally his own image. Nero, so vain of his own singing that he had other singers whipped, wore a signet ring representing the flaying of Marsyas by Apollo. Michelangelo’s signet ring contained a carving of a segment of the Sistine Chapel.
It was considered bad taste to wear more than one ring. Cicero mentions them and Pliny cites that the fashion of wearing signet rings eventually shifted to the little finger – the pinky ring was born!!
By the Middle Ages and up to the 19th century, heraldry became the most popular motif for signet rings. A family’s coat of arms or crest reflected the owner’s pride of heritage, and heraldic carvings could range from very simple to extremely elaborate. Classical subjects also carried favor with the very wealthy and prominent persons, who studied the ancient civilizations and excavated their cities’ ruins.
Historically while the majority of seals were circular in design, in the Middle Ages it became customary for the seals of women to have a pointed oval shape.
Unusual English gold signet ring with posey, circa 1600. The signet entwines the letters H&A with flowers and the posey engraved on the interior of the shank reads “when this you see remember me +”. Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s.
French gold signet ring, circa 1890. Photo courtesy of 1st dibs.
Today, the old signet rings of yesterday are beautiful collectibles or family heirlooms. The new signet rings are about recognizing a family’s history while creating new family heirlooms. Styles range from the traditional to all kinds of fun updated personalized creations. You decide what message you want to create and personalize.
I don’t know if this is currently true or not, but apparently at one time the etiquette of wearing signet rings varied around the world. It was said, in Belgium men and women both wear the signet ring upon the little finger of their left hand. However, in England and Ireland, it is only men who do so. In Switzerland, men wear signet rings upon the ring finger of their right hand, while in France, men use the ring finger of their left hand and women use the little finger of their left hand. In the United States, anything goes but it is common for the ring to be worn on the little finger of whichever hand is used least for both men and women. I would say most women would wear it on the little finger of their right hand so it did not compete with their engagement ring or wedding band if they are married.
Do you have a signet or seal ring? Let me know!
*The featured ring is an antique blue sapphire signet ring bearing a coat of arms. It dates to 1910.