A signet ring is any ring that is engraved with a symbol, like a monogram or a family coat of arms, or set with an intaglio gem that is similarly engraved. Historically, signet rings were of great importance to politics, religion, and commerce, as they were used as seal rings to seal letters and other documents with the mark of the sender. A dab of clay or molten wax was placed on the document and the ring was pressed into it, leaving a unique identification mark.
The Gentleman’s Ring
At a time when many did not even know how to sign their own names, signet rings were much more important than a signature for authenticating documents. They were the essential tool for confirming ownership, and were widely used by government officials and anyone involved in business. Worn conveniently on the finger, signet rings were readily available to leave their mark in a wax or clay seal that accompanied official documents.
Often referred to as a ‘gentleman’s ring,” these rings featured a marking that positively identified the specific person or family of the person wearing it. Sometimes adorned with a family crest or coat of arms, signet rings regularly became widely treasured family heirlooms. Today, signet rings function mostly as a curiosity. In an era of electronic signatures and paper free documentation, the usefulness of a signet ring may be in question, but its value as a statement making jewelry item has never been higher.
Earliest Signet Rings
Men have been wearing signet rings for thousands of years, with the earliest examples dating back to ancient Egypt—more than 4000 years ago. These early signet rings featured designs dedicated to nature and ancient gods. Beetles and scarabs were widely used to symbolize the all important sun. Some early Egyptian signet rings were made with a design or gem on top but could then be flipped over to reveal the signet side underneath when needed. Hieroglyphs were widely used as well, and could serve as a visible emblem of rank for the wearer.
The Greeks also used signet rings, and adorned them with their own symbols, including animals, gods, and mythological figures. Etruscans also adopted the use of signet rings, with designs that included griffins and lions as marks of power and authority.
After the Romans conquered Greece in 146 BCE, their signet rings began to resemble some of the Greek styles, but the Romans combined them with their own culturally significant designs. Roman signet rings included representations of gods, battle scenes, and sometimes even carved likenesses of the emperors who granted signet rings to soldiers and officials. These rings became widely used as symbols of the emperor’s authority, and were issued to senior officials and soldiers who were close to the Roman emperors.
With the expansion of the Roman Empire, the popularity of signet rings grew throughout western Europe, including France and the United Kingdom. Just as in Rome, important officials wore signet rings to signify their power and authority.
Byzantine signet rings were heavily influenced by early Christianity, and their designs mingled pagan Roman symbols with symbols from the teachings of Christianity.
Signet Rings of the Middle Ages
During the Middle Ages, signet rings continued to signify authority, as people used them to sign and seal letters and important documents. With the invention of sealing wax, signet rings were more often designed with engraved patterns rather than embossed as cameos, and the carved seals were impressed into the hot wax. Indeed, by the reign of England’s King Edward II, it was mandated that all official government documents had to carry the seal of the king’s signet ring.
The rings themselves became more ornately decorated in some instances, and were often used as a way to identify a messenger, serving as his credentials. Businessmen, landowners, merchants, and even commoners all used signet rings to seal and authenticate contracts and documents. The rings that served this purpose were generally large and heavy, made of gold or silver, and worn on the index finger or thumb. Not only did these massive rings withstand regular use, but they were often passed down in families, serving several generations.
Later Signet Rings
As Western civilization became more and more literate, the use of signet rings as official authentication for documents gave way to handwritten signatures. Signet rings, stripped of their practical use, became more symbolic, and used to signify family lineage or social status. By the middle of the nineteenth century, though men had generally abandoned wearing rings, most still chose to wear a signet ring.
More “self-made” men wore them, and these newly rich often designed their own rings to resemble those of the nobles and aristocrats. The stones used included ruby, amethyst, lapis lazuli, and carnelian; and the metal was predominantly gold, with bezel shapes ranging from square to oval, round, and even rectangular. Even though signets rings were no longer used as official seals for authenticating documents, they continued to be symbols of wealth, class rank, and family heritage.
Signet Rings Today
Although the usefulness of the signet ring is long past, wearing a signet ring today still carries the weight of tradition as a symbol of identity, and makes a strong statement for both men and women. Some contemporary signet rings are custom made with a traditional family crest or coat of arms, while others display membership or allegiance to a group, club, or fraternal order. Most often made as a simple gold band with a flat bezel, signet rings are still worn by some freemasons to indicate their membership in the order, and military men sometimes wear signet rings to show which branch they serve in or their rank.
Like signet rings themselves, which finger to wear a signet ring on is steeped in tradition, and sometimes indicated class or rank. Today, the most popular finger to wear a signet ring on is the pinky, though some choose to wear them on the third, or ring finger. Regardless of which finger they are worn on, signet rings continue to be widely perceived as the “mark of the gentleman.”
Where to Sell a Signet Ring
If you have a rare and valuable signet ring that you are looking sell for a generous cash price, Diamond Estate Jewelry Buyers is widely recognized as one of the best places in the United States to sell antique signet rings. Contact us today for a free consultation and cash appraisal.