A Brief History of Signet Rings

Signet Rings from Hancocks

Signet rings have become increasingly popular over the last few years and we have noticed a particularly significant rise in interest over the last 12 months.  For some people it is a meaningful link to family, for others a fashionable accessory and many more use it to signify membership to a group or club, whether sporting, scholastic or otherwise. However, the signet ring was originally worn for none of these reasons, it was a practical item that likely evolved out of the cylindrical seals used by ancient Mesopotamians as marks of authority and ownership.

We know from found artefacts and murals on the walls of tombs that the ancient Egyptians were the first people to regularly wear and use signet rings – or seal rings as they are also known.  The earliest tend to be carved from hardstones or quartz with unique pictures and hieroglyphs on them which illustrated to whom they belonged. At a time when few were able to write, a seal could be used to ‘sign’ documents by way of this distinctive and distinguishing mark.  The ancient Greeks and Romans used signet rings widely and elevated them to decorative and beautiful, as well as functional, items. Either plain gold or set with wonderfully carved gems, signet ring imagery and text was always carved in reverse so that when the ring was pressed into wax, the resulting image would appear the right way round and the wording would be legible.

There are refences to signet rings in the Bible and they continued to be used throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. This was when heraldry became a popular theme, with coats of arms and crests being engraved into the metal.  During the Renaissance period these rings reached new levels of ornate decoration and thanks to a growing merchant class were worn more widely than ever before to sign letters, seal business documents and mark goods. 

It was during the 18th and 19th centuries that the wearing of signet rings became more about fashion and status and it also proved a popular genre for gentlemen collectors.  An interest in ancient civilizations had led to a renewed popularity for engraved gems, both Roman originals but also more recent 16th and 17th century examples, particularly those carved in Italy which were considered the finest.  The 2nd Duke of Devonshire was a renowned collector of these artefacts and he commissioned a signet ring set to the front with a 16th century aquamarine intaglio and with his crowned cipher in blue enamel to the reverse.

The Victorians added the notion of sentiment to the signet ring and pieces were commissioned as gifts to signify friendship as well as to commemorate loved ones.  The rise in archaeological revival jewellery saw renowned jewellers such as Castellani re-create ancient style signets for their clients and by this time, few well-to-do gentlemen were without a signet ring, whether inherited or new.

During the 20th century the popularity of these rings rose and fell and for a time they were viewed very much as an accessory worn by few other than Royalty and the aristocracy.  Today however they are enjoying a resurgence and are worn by both men and women from all walks of life for many different reasons and commissioning a signet ring is only becoming more popular. They make wonderful gifts for 18th or 21st birthdays, graduations and weddings and we offer a range of styles, metals and gems along with limitless options for engraving and personalisation so that you can create the perfect ring for you.