The History Behind … Signet rings

TrendsJan 28, 2015

The History Behind … Signet rings

This month’s antique jewelry feature examines the role, and resurgence, in society of signet rings, which were used to seal deals (literally) and communicate rank.

It’s signet rings like this circa 1920 14-karat gold piece with old round-cut diamonds that have survived until today. This particular ring is from Doyle&Doyle in New York.

 New York--Signet rings have been around since ancient civilization, worn as protective amulets, for betrothal or as early form of branding and currency. But, primarily, they were used to seal deals (literally) and communicate rank.

“I love how personally important signets rings were historically,” said Elizabeth Doyle, co-owner of Doyle & Doyle in New York. “They were used to identify the owner, seal business deals and/ or convey the position or importance of the owner.”

While their purpose evolved over the centuries, signet rings were primarily in the masculine domain. Now, both genders are embracing the signet.

Actress Jennifer Lawrence recently sported one in a magazine fashion spread and Brad Pitt wears his with a tux at red carpet events, as Long’s Jewelers pointed out in its blog.

“I love the classic but edgy look of a signet on a woman. It’s more street style than evening wear,” Doyle said. “We’ve also seen men looking for signet rings as an alternative wedding band. They’re are a great option because they offer beautiful detailing while maintaining a masculine aesthetic.”

What are signet rings? Signet rings date to about 1400 B.C., when they were mostly devotional.

But signets soon evolved into symbols of power. “They became associated with nobility, like the king’s or pope’s rings,” said Sarah Churgin, director of jewelry at Rago Arts and Auctions. “With heraldry came specific crests or coats of arms requiring high-precision carving in very small spaces.”

In the 14th century, signets began to appear in betrothal rings, engraved with two clasped hands, a devotional inscription like “bound in the eyes of God,” and/or the wife’s or couple’s initials.

Thanks to a growing merchant class, signets became a form of branding during the Renaissance. As European merchants took to the Silk Road and began transporting goods overseas, they split up shipments among boats and caravans to minimize loss from theft and piracy. Merchants used signet rings to stamp seals on shipments, making it easier to identify goods on arrival. Their rings became a new sign of wealth and success.

Around the same time, memorial signet rings were introduced, often inscribed with a loved one’s name or initials as a type of mourning jewelry. Signet rings also began to be used to identify somebody as a member of a guild, often referred to as guild rings.

“Signet rings are less about heraldry by this

time,” Churgin said. “They become tokens of inclusion or affiliation.”

When were they popular? By the Victorian era, signet rings had become a staple of the well-dressed gentlemen, and part of the revivals of Renaissance and ancient jewelry. Signet rings remained a staple through the Deco and wartime eras, and maintained a high level of quality and elegance.

By 1950, however, both style and craftsmanship plummet. “After that, most signet rings don’t have the same quality,” Doyle says. “Often they have cast crests, instead of hand-engraved, or machine engraving.”

Why did people wear signet rings? Essentially, for the same reason people wear them today. “Wearing signet rings makes you look important,” Churgin says. “For gentlemen, a good signet ring is comfortable but stately looking. With women, they ultimately speak of quality.”

What materials were used for these pieces? Originally, signet rings were made mainly of brass and copper, sometimes bronze or silver, but it’s the gold rings that survive, the ones owned by the wealthy classes.

Starting in ancient times, many signets were carved in hardstone, usually agate, onyx, carnelian, or sardonyx, sometimes lapis or garnet. Most experts include ancient intaglios as a type of signet.

How much are signet rings worth? At Doyle & Doyle, they range from $385 for an early 20th century 14-karat gold heart with a floral-engraved shank to $3,200 for a Victorian ring with a carnelian intaglio and an 18-karat buckle-shaped band.

An English signet ring, c. 1300, sold at Sotheby’s last year for $26,563, yet ancient Roman and Greek intaglio rings frequently go for less than $5,000 at Christie’s antiquities sales. Simple gold signet rings can be found for less than $200 at auctions, especially those based in London.

How can a retailer add signet rings to their antique jewelry offerings? “Start by adding the more accessible styles,” Doyle said. “As your following for this style of ring grows, you can add more unusual and collectible styles.”

Oval shapes and signets with a monogram or coat of arms are the most common, with round shapes coming in a close second. Carved hardstone is slightly less common but still accessible. Rectangle, square and shield shapes are rarer and very collectible.

Doyle said monograms are sometimes a hard sell because people want their own initials. This is one reason celebrities such as Rihanna turn to contemporary designers for vintage-style monogrammed signet rings, custom-engraved with their own initials.

“People tend to prefer the signet rings with crests and coats of arms,” she said. “The ones with monograms can be beautiful too but they’re so personal, they have less universal appeal.” 
Michelle Graffis the editor-in-chief at National Jeweler, directing the publication’s coverage both online and in print.

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