Signet Rings: A Journey Through Jewelry History
Signet rings come from an ancient tradition. There is evidence that signet rings have existed from as early as 1400 BC, and have been worn throughout history as identifiers, useful tools, and forms of signature. These distinctive rings have long served their wearers with status and function and are still popular today.
So, what is a signet ring?
Signet rings, also known as seal rings, come from the Latin 'signum,' meaning 'sign.' Usually with a flat bezel, signet rings have signs or crests engraved into them. Traditionally, the engravings are family crests or coats of arms from high-born families.
These engravings serve a dual purpose: as well as denoting status and identity, the rings were made with their flat-top design so that they could be used to press into clay or wax seals, leaving an imprint. This imprint was once an important form of authentication; the seal from a signet ring is difficult to forge, and therefore was a key marker of signatures in a time where few people could write.
Signet Rings in Ancient Egypt
Many signet rings have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs. A variety of materials were used by the Egyptians; rock crystal, amethyst, steatite, and gold. The designs were conservative and simple, and famous examples include those found in the tomb of Huy, Viceroy of Nubia under Tutankhamun (c. 1337-1327 BC). These rings served mostly administrative purposes.
Hieroglyphs of the name Nefer kheperu re was en Re, for Amenhotep IV, better known as Akhenaten, are engraved on this ring. Egypt, middle kingdom, 1379-1362 BC.
Photo and Info via Rings: Jewelry of Power, Love and Loyalty by Diana Scarisbrick.
Stirrup shaped gold finger ring. The bezel is incised with the prenomen or throne name, assumed on his accession by the heretic pharaoh Akhenaten. The bezel inscription also contains an incompletely written rebus meaning "all Egypt is in adoration." Egypt, 1352BC-1336BC. Photo © The Trustees of the British Museum.
Around 600 BC, signets with metal bezels of bronze, silver, and gold appear in Greece. They were often engraved with natural imagery and miniatures of Greek sculpture and art. The bezel also began to broaden in shape until the 5th century, where it became almost circular in shape. During the Hellenistic period (331 BC-27 BC), signet rings were sometimes set with precious stones and hardstones like cornelian and sard.
Gold signet ring: on the bezel Athena seated with an owl; the Greek inscription reads "Anaxiles". East Greek, 400 BC. Photo © The Trustees of the British Museum.
Gilt-bronze ring depicting a charioteer driving a bit (a two-horse chariot). 4th-3rd century BC. Chariots were popular sporting symbols for signet rings.
Photo and Info via Rings: Jewelry of Power, Love, and Loyalty by Diana Scarisbrick.
Aphrodite and Eros in a gold intaglio ring. Western Greek, circa 400BC-370BC.
From Greece, the signet ring traveled to Etruria where it also became popular. This is an Etruscan gold ring of the late 7th-7th century BC. The bezel is engraved with a griffin facing a lion. Photo and Info via Rings: Jewelry of Power, Love, and Loyalty by Diana Scarisbrick.
Signets were important in Roman culture. Throughout the Roman period, the signet ring moved from iron to gold and silver as the wealth of the empire increased. The signet ring also became larger over time and set with more gemstones. Great artists of the time such as Gnaios engraved mythological and historical scenes onto the rings, giving them allegorical meaning. Emperor Augustus, taking a leaf out of Alexander's book, ordered a ring with his own portrait on it. Signet rings are mentioned with sentimental effect in Ovid, as symbols of him kept by his friend and lover after he is banished.
Signets also branched out from their traditional use during the Roman periods; they depicted favorite sports, stories, public figures, or loved ones. Some men even had nude women or pornographic scenes engraved onto their rings as reminders of their mistresses! The shoulders of the rings also became extensions of the design, containing further engravings.
An eagle engraved bezel from the 3rd or 4th century with shoulders inscribed with Greek letters. The eagle was an attribute of Jupiter, the deity of the state, so the ring probably belonged to a soldier. Photo and Info via Rings: Jewelry of Power, Love, and Loyalty by Diana Scarisbrick.
1st-century Roman gold signet ring with comic mask. Photo © The Victoria and Albert Museum.
In the Byzantine period, Christian symbols and imagery pervaded. Biblical images such as the monogram of Christ, the lamb, virgins and saints were all developed into signet rings. The emphasis on figures shifted also to more of a focus on words. The demand for signet rings was high, so goldsmiths began stocking standard designs, ready to be engraved to order.
Gold finger ring with bezel showing Christ and Virgin, the former blessing bridegroom and the latter the bride. Each face of the octagonal ring hoop depicts a scene from the life of Christ: Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, Presentation in the Temple, Adoration, Crucifixion, and Angel at the Tomb. 6th-7th century (early Byzantine). Photo © The Trustees of the British Museum.
9th-century gold signet ring decorated with birds and monsters in lozenges alternating with the name + A LH ST A(and runic N) in roundels, with stylized leaf edges.
Photo © The Victoria and Albert Museum.
11th century Byzantine enameled gold ring, engraved with a Greek inscription meaning 'Lord, help Thy servant Nicetas captain of the imperial guard.' Photo © The Victoria and Albert Museum.
Pan holding his pipes in intaglio, with gold lion engraved shoulders. The sides of the bezel are engraved in Greek and read 'The Lord is my light and my salvation: whom shall I fear' from Psalm 27. 12th century. Photo and Info via Rings: Jewelry of Power, Love, and Loyalty by Diana Scarisbrick.
The Middle Ages
In the medieval period, signet rings were primarily used as signatures for sealing letters. A recognizable seal could authenticate a message. Early medieval signet rings were inscribed with owner's names or messages on the bezel, such as a Latin example translating as 'read what is written, hide what is read,' indicating a private, confidential letter.
Heraldry also rose in popularity, with arms and crests being engraved more often. For people of lower classes who did not have family crests or arms, merchant trade tools could be engraved onto the rings instead. For example, a mason might have a hammer, or a tailor might have scissors, alongside engraved initials of the maker.
During the middle ages, with the invention of sealing wax, signet rings underwent an important change; their designs moved from being mostly raised engravings to being sunken (intaglio) in order to create a raised effect on the wax they would be pressed onto.
"As David Hinton recently pointed out, the number and variety of surviving rings from the Middle Ages is an indication not only of their use for business and official purposes but also of the increase in communication by private letters." - Diana Scarisbrick in Rings: Jewelry of Power, Love, and Loyalty
Late 15th-century gold ring associated with Richard III, whose badge was a boar. The back of the bezel is inscribed with 'honneur et joye' aspiring to the bliss and purity of heaven. Photo and Info via Rings: Jewelry of Power, Love, and Loyalty by Diana Scarisbrick.
Gold and engraved sapphire ring. The sapphire is an older piece, likely from 100 BC-1 BC, and it has been set into gold somewhere between the 12th and 14th centuries. At this time, Roman or Hellenistic images of gods or mythological figures were not so much misunderstood as re-interpreted in a Christian framework.
The inscription around the bezel of the ring: 'Tecta lege, lecta tege' is translated as 'Read what is written, hide what is read' and shows the ring's use as a personal signet. The sapphire is set in an open-backed mount, allowing it to touch the skin of the wearer. Direct contact of the stone with the skin was believed to convey a medicinal or amuletic benefit.
Photo and info © The Victoria and Albert Museum.
Whilst some Renaissance signet rings were set with carvings of contemporary rulers, many rings were also collected and venerated from previous family members as heirlooms. When new rings were made with heraldic symbols, bloodstone was often used as the hardstone for engraving, as the red specks within it were seen to represent blood and therefore lineage.
During the renaissance, merchant signets became less intricate and more plainly utilitarian, whilst signets bearing initials grew in decorative aspects, with elaborate shoulders and frequent floral motifs. A new tradition also emerged for initial signets entwining the two initials of a recently married couple. Initials were also sometimes added to heraldic crest bezels.
Silver engraved signet ring with initials, 16th Century, England. Photo © The Trustees of the British Museum.
Gold signet ring showing a dog on a leash under a tree, with the initials IL, c. 1500-1600.
Photo © The Victoria and Albert Museum.
The Lee Ring: chalcedony intaglio ring with enameled gold back, 1544-1575. Sir Thomas Gresham was a mercer, trading in woolen cloth, silks, velvets, and tapestries between England and Flanders and acting as an agent to the Netherlands. Gresham's badge was the grasshopper and this can be seen, brightly enameled on the back of this ring. Photo © The Victoria and Albert Museum.
Gold and enamel signet ring, c. 1600. Photo © The Victoria and Albert Museum.
Gold signet ring with bone on the back, c. 1600-1650. The skull on this ring and the piece of bone set in the back of the bezel so that it would touch the skin of the wearer were potent symbols of mortality. 'Memento mori' or 'remember that you must die' imagery was found in poetry, paintings, and jewelry, a reminder to the Christian of the need to keep their soul in good order for the final judgment. The name 'Edward Cope' engraved in reverse around the skull shows that it was used as a signet ring.
Photo and info © The Victoria and Albert Museum.
The 18th Century
The 18th century saw a change in how signet rings were used and perceived. Both the Duc d'Orléans in France and the Duke of Devonshire in England collected ancient and antique Renaissance jewelry, bringing them into public focus. The 18th-century fascination with ancient Greek and Roman cultures also saw a rise in signet rings being engraved once more with beloved public figures of the time, including rulers, philosophers, and royals.
The demand for classical jewels grew higher as the century progressed, but only the richest could afford them. As such, by the end of the century, a large market appeared for mass-produced lookalikes using pastes. By harking back to classical styles, the elaborate shoulders and decorative elements also fell out of style, calling back to earlier, simpler tastes.
The signet ring of the 2nd Duke of Devonshire (1672-1729) a collector of engraved jewelry. The aquamarine intaglio shows Empress Sabina and dates back to the 16th century. It is set in an early 18th-century gold ring with blue enamel and the Duke's cipher beneath a crown on the back. Photo and Info via Rings: Jewelry of Power, Love, and Loyalty by Diana Scarisbrick.
Bloodstone intaglio signet ring in gold. Features a falcon, a lion-headed serpent, and an ibis. 1700-1725. Photo © The Victoria and Albert Museum.
In the 19th century, the fascination for classicism grew into nostalgia for the renaissance and medieval periods. Along with the Romantic movements in art and literature, Romanticism abounded in jewelry. Meanwhile, the signet ring continued in its use as a wax seal. John Everett Millais, famous for his painting of Shakespeare's Ophelia, solidified his friendship with William Holman Hunt by marking a signet ring.
The signet of the 6th Duke of Devonshire. The chrysoprase intaglio bears the Duke's monogram within the collar of the Order of the Garter. Photo and Info via Rings: Jewelry of Power, Love, and Loyalty by Diana Scarisbrick.
Carnelian intaglio set in gold mounted in rose-cut diamonds. The intaglio here depicts Victory, a winged figure driving a chariot, c. 1810. Photo © The Victoria and Albert Museum.
Signet ring shapes from a late 19th-century catalog from T. Moring, showing the most popular designs. Photo and Info via Rings: Jewelry of Power, Love, and Loyalty by Diana Scarisbrick.
2 of AAJ's own rare signet rings:
Green: early/mid-Victorian 18-carat signet ring with a secret key. The key is hinged and folds into the back of the ring face. It would have been used to open a box of documents or perhaps jewelry. The bloodstone intaglio is carved into a ship and castle battlement, the flag announcing 'Montevideo.'
Blue: a Georgian signet ring also with a removable document casket key.
A Victorian photo locket signet ring, also an AAJ find.
Hardstone intaglio signet rings from AAJ.
Signet Rings Today
Eventually, the signet ring's primary function would be replaced by the glue-sealed envelope. However, the signet continues to be the 'mark of a gentleman,' denoting status. Freemasons wear signets, as do certain military figures, as a sign of rank. To this day, signet rings are a rare example of a unisex item of jewelry, beloved and worn by both men and women. The traditional elitism of the ring has worn away, and they can be worn and enjoyed by anyone.
Another one of AAJ's own to sign off: a 1940s signet ring with a photo locket compartment.
For more antique jewelry to feast your eyes on, visit AAJ's Instagram.