Since times prehistoric, signet rings have been used to showcase possession, power, and status in society. The very first seal was an “x” sign followed by hieroglyphs and engravings used in the Mesopotamian region. “Signet” comes from the Roman “sigillum” which means sign, token, battle mark or symbol. The Greeks called it “sphragis”, being a seal or a mark left behind by a stamp.
Signets rings can be traced back to the 14th century BC in Egypt where dignitaries used them to mark correspondence, as well as their personal belongings. In ancient Rome, the ius anulorum or the gold signet ring was particularly designed for the equestrian aristocracy. Royals were not used to writing letters. Rather the letters were dictated and then marked with the royal seal ring for authentication.
Signet rings didn’t have an ornamental significance and women seldom wear them because they were too heavy. Crafted from a sturdy, substantial material like gold or silver, the rings could easily last for years, and were meant to be passed from one generation to the next. At this time, their main feature was functional – not ornamental.
The signet ring in the 15th to 19th centuries
The seal reached its peak in the Middle Ages when it became widespread among the general population. The rings were engraved or had a crest, and the bigger they were, the more desirable they became. The purpose of such opulent rings was to highlight social status, pomp, and wealth. These rings were worn from generation to generation by royals and heirs to the main throne, so ordinary men without a status in society were not allowed to possess such significant and noteworthy piece of jewelry. The signet had quite a valuable role; it was used to sign legal documents. Only kings and people of royal decent were allowed to do that. Ergo, that would be the main explanation towards why only wealthy gentlemen with a status in society were permitted to wear signet rings. It was in the 19th century when men started to wear signet rings regardless of their social status. However, throughout the Regency (an era in the United Kingdom from 1811-1820; King George III was considered incapable to rule, so his son George, the Prince of Wales, was his proxy at the throne) only gentlemen were permitted to wear such accessories, each and every piece had its own symbolic purpose. Simply put, each ring was unique.
Authentic rings evolved to having both a functional and an ornamental purpose. Royals and wealthy people of the 17th and 18th centuries wore the signet ring to exhibit power and status in society. The engraver was compelled to make the engraving meaningful to the wearer. Ergo, initials and coat of arms were widely used.
Some of the more proclaimed stones used to adorn signet rings were garnet, ruby, bloodstone, and cornelian. An expensive signet meant having the design set into a pivot bezel in order to wear the stone against the skin, facing out. Rings made entirely of metal were usually made of raw gold or silver. Platinum was seldom used to make signets back in the 18th century, but the metal was destined to make a come-back later on in the 19th century.
Some of the most well-known bezel shapes were oval or square. However, the desire to be different led to various innovated designs. A cameo with an en-relief was a popular men’s design; not to mention a sunken design or an intaglio. In the early years of the 19th century, men took to wearing even multiple rings.
Although the signet ring was used to place signatures in the past, today’s ring is an accessory. A major difference between traditional and antique signet rings relates to the tooling used to craft the seal. In contrast to modern rings, genuine signets had both an ornate and a functional purpose.
Thanks to Peter Smith and MyFamilySilver.com!