Signet rings have proved themselves to be timeless pieces of jewellery, teeming with historical significance. They were primarily used to represent power and status, as well as being an impressive accessory and a useful tool. Traditionally, they were one of the few pieces of jewellery that was worn exclusively by men; recent trends, however, have seen women opt for these simple, chunky rings as well.
Signet rings generally feature a large oval, shaped, flat surface. This surface is often ornamented with intaglio (a term encompassing incising or engraving), a family coat of arms, or a personal signature/ initials. Engraving is sometimes done directly onto the metal, or alternatively, onto a gemstone which will be set into the ring. Particular gemstones are preferable for this use, such as carnelian, sardonyx, and onyx. This is because signet rings often served a dual use as wax seals (the word ‘signet’ actually originates from the Latin “sigillum” or “seal”) and these gemstones are known for their anti-adhesive qualities.
A Little History
Similarly to a surprising amount of jewellery, signet rings originated in Ancient Egypt. Many were found upon the excavation of pharaohs and high up officials; they were evidently used to signify power during this time. Originally fashioned out of carved stone, their primary use was as a wax seal, for sealing important documents. They tended to be decorated on their flat sides and would feature traditional Egyptian designs such as hieroglyphics, inscriptions, and symbols – including the revered scarab beetle.
Other early civilisations adapted the signet ring to their own culture. The Ancient Greeks adorned theirs with depictions of animals, gods, and mythological figures; whereas the Etruscans chose symbols of prestige, including lions and griffins.
Wearing Signet Rings
When it comes to signet rings, size really did matter! During Ancient Roman times, they were used to reflect the power and status of their wearer: the bigger the ring, the more powerful its owner. Some rings are reported to have been simply too big and heavy to wear all day in the sweltering Roman heat.
Originally, these status-inducing rings were only worn by those with high social standing, such as military personnel. Eventually, however, they were popularised throughout wider civilisation. When the Roman Empire went on to colonise other countries, the popularity of the signet ring spread even further. In Britain, the unwavering trend of signet rings prevailed from the middle ages to the 19th Century. Similarly to the Romans, British signet ring owners wore them to illustrate their power and authority.
As they are often engraved, and traditionally unique and recognisable to all, these rings are normally personal and precious to their owner. A signet ring featuring a coat of arms, for example, would likely be passed down through generations, from father to son. By many families, they will be considered an important heirloom which carries historical significance (with a personal touch).
Because of their worth and significance, it is of the utmost importance for them to be kept safe on the owner’s finger. After all, they are a signifier of power and status, and are therefore kept in close proximity to their owner at all times. In England, the usual way to wear signet rings (for men) is on the little finger of the left hand. For women, it was traditional to wear their family’s coat of arms on a signet ring until the day of their wedding. After this, she could either take on her husband’s coat of arms in the form of a signet ring or, alternatively, choose to combine the two coats of arms, creating a new design.
Post-millennial fashion has seen an upsurge of women wearing signet rings. Specific signet rings are now being designed for women, such as the Yurman ‘Bubblegum Pinky Ring collection for her’. This design adds a splash of colour and femininity to the signet ring. It has also grown popular for women to wear an engraved ring with a plain surface. Perhaps a nod towards the simple beauty of the gold or the chosen stone as it is.
The Royals and Signet Rings
Signet rings have a particular standing within royal families and landed gentry. Prince Charles is often photographed wearing his; he abides to tradition and wears it on the pinky of his left hand, behind which he wears his wedding band, as is the standard for British aristocracy. His ring depicts the emblem of the prince of Wales: a fleur-de-lis. Princess Anne is another who flaunts a noble ring, as does Camilla (on occasion).
The tradition of the signet ring has continued into the current generation of royals: when Kate Middleton married William, it was decided that her family, namely Michael Middleton – her father – would be granted their own coat of arms. The Middleton coat of arms depicts three acorns, a tribute to the oak-tree-lavished Berkshire countryside where the family live. As is tradition, the coat of arms was fashioned onto signet rings which the whole family is now entitled to wear. Kate, along with her siblings Pippa and James, are sporadically seen sporting their family ring.
So there you have it! Signet rings are endowed with tradition and highly associated with royalty and grandeur. Despite this, they are no longer exclusive to certain social groups; it is refreshing to see these interesting pieces gain popularity with the masses. Male or female; family coat of arms or none- there’s sure to be a perfect signet ring out there for you!
For any information on the interesting and historical signet ring, do not hesitate to contact us in store or online! In the meantime, please browse our magnificent selection here at AC Silver.
Claire Hall – Senior Sales Assistant
Claire is the Senior Sales Assistant at AC Silver. Claire commenced her career in 1999, undertaking various roles within the jewellery industry in addition to successfully gaining qualifications in the field.