The History Behind … Signet Rings

TrendsSep 07, 2016

The History Behind … Signet Rings

Once used as seals and still embraced by today’s jewelry designers, signet rings have held an enduring allure throughout the ages.

This engraved gold ring was made between 1600 and 1650 A.D. in England. The Victoria and Albert Museum acquired it from a prolific 19th century British ring collector, Edmund Waterton. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

New York--Signet rings are having a moment in jewelry design.

This ring’s origins are Italian. It is dated to 450 - 300 B.C. It features a revolving onyx scarab; on one side it is engraved with the image of a seated man. It was likely intended to be used as a seal. The Etruscans and Phoenicians are thought to have adopted the scarab motif from the Egyptians. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that they’re having a millennium, though even that is an understatement; signet rings have been in existence since before the Bible.
Signet rings have graced the fingers of Egyptian queens and Shakespeare, said jewelry expert and editor Lori Ettlinger Gross, noting that in antiquity the rings “were worn and used by anyone who had some kind of social standing and land ownership.”

For a little context on the ubiquitous style, National Jeweler spoke with Gross and historian Emily Stoehrer of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, as well as contemporary jewelry designers who are embracing the signet ring now.

How far back do signet rings date?

“In our collection alone,” Stoehrer said of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’s permanent archives, “we have (signet rings) that go back to ancient Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt and ancient Nubia.”

This ring was excavated from Sudan (what was ancient Nubia) by the Harvard University--Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition in 1923. It is dated to the Meroitic Period, between 40 B.C. - 40 A.D. It was recovered from the debris of a plundered burial and features an engraving of two mummied figures in gold. Image courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
She said that ancient signet rings have been found primarily in the Mediterranean region, stretching as far as Nubia, or what is now Sudan.

Gross said that signet rings were prevalent enough in human culture that they were mentioned in the Bible, “specifically The Book of Esther, which talks about Persian King Ahasuerus’s signet ring.”

“While the Bible may or may not be taken as entirely factual,” Gross continued, “the way people used and wore them traditionally is useful information that we can culturally rely on.”

What are the details of the ring’s origins; what was its function?

Signet rings were typically made entirely of gold or featured carved gemstones, or intaglios.

“They were really used as a signature
would be used today, as a way of leaving your mark and a way of assuring authenticity,” Stoehrer said. “You could mark a document with them, you could leave an impression in wax or clay.”

This Roman ring is dated from 100 - 200 A.D. It’s made of gold with an onyx intaglio depicting an ant, which was the symbol of Roman goddess Ceres. It is thought to have been intended to bring prosperity to its wearer. Similar styles have been found with bear and bee symbols. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

“Signet rings were used as seals,” Gross explained, “as a symbol or mark of the hand that sent or signed a document. Wax was melted onto the document and the top of the ring was impressed into the wax, leaving a clear and permanent mark. The top of the ring was usually set with a hardstone that had been deeply engraved with some kind of symbol or depiction.”

To denote the ring’s wearer, signets were comprised of “identifying marks” according to Stoehrer, like coats of arms, monograms, family seals or initials.

During which historical periods were signet rings most popular?

Signet rings were used from ancient times through the early 19th century, Gross said.

Yet even as more people became literate and the use of signet rings as document seals declined, the pieces maintained their popularity.

This ring from the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum is a prime example of a signet’s reuse. The Roman intaglio, carved in jasper, dates to the third century CE and was reset in this gold ring design in the 13th century. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Gross explained, “During the late 19th century, (signet) rings became more of a status symbol, rather than a legal mark. The tops of the rings had decoration or engraving (and) often were gem set, or if they were metal intensive, they bore initials done in shallow-yet-decorative engraving. You could probably say that it was in the 19th century that signet rings became more of a personal statement.”
Stoehrer noted that the signet style was most popular in antiquity, with a resurgence in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance period.

“In (the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’s) collection of carved gems we have a lot of ancient carved gems that have been set in rings (from the Middle Ages). We see these gemstones being reused by subsequent generations to become more of a fashionable style rather than a signature.”
Stoehrer added that the practice of repurposing gems in updated jewelry styles wasn’t necessarily a new practice in the Middle Ages. “We know that things like cameos were being reused and set into new pieces of jewelry as early as the third century B.C.,” she said.

The Modern Interpretation

Today’s signet rings aren’t dissimilar to ancient styles. Many embrace the personalized aspect of signet rings, engraving them with customers’ monograms or the initials of their loved ones, a practice which “makes memories wearable,” according to Single Stone designers Ari and Corina Madilian.

Ariel Gordon has built her fine jewelry business on the nostalgic appeal of custom jewelry like engraved signet rings. She feels that personalization lends an importance to jewelry that goes beyond accessorizing.

“Most of the jewels in my personal uniform are custom engraved or set with birthstones for my loved ones,” said Gordon. “It feels more deliberate this way and less like I’m just piling things on for no reason. A signet ring is the pinnacle of personalized jewelry.”

Designer Elisa Solomon, who makes an oval-shaped signet ring in her signature organic, handmade style said, “I often inscribe (signet rings) with a bride’s married monogram or the first initial of a newborn’s name; I have also created pieces with specific birthstones. I love that they connect to a person’s individuality.”

Many designers noted the automatic heirloom status of a piece of jewelry that has been personalized to represent its wearer.

“My secret hope is that my customers view my designs as modern heirlooms to be passed down through generations, as so many of those seals were in the past,” said Delphine Leymarie, whose skull signet ring invokes the macabre mood of many historical designs.

Letters by Zoe designer Stephanie Hayoun said, “I personally possess my ancestors’ signet rings and love their simple and historic beauty and the tangible link it affords me to my family.”

The Next Incarnation

Foundrae designer Beth Bugdaycay constructed an entire range of fine jewelry around enamel-adorned signet rings with inscriptions and images that are talisman-like in their symbolism. “The cigar bands and signet rings were the very first pieces designed,” she said. “They embodied the idea of creating future heirlooms that capture at least a piece of (a woman’s) story and ideally help to inspire her next chapter.”

Designer Alison Chemla, of the brand Alison Lou, has done the most with signet rings in terms of modernizing the design and adapting the classic style to a uniquely 21st century point of view. Her playful, emoji-inspired offerings are at their wittiest in her hefty signet styles that feel as luxurious as they do clever.

“Playing with classic jewelry norms is something I do often in my designs,” said Chemla. “I love the history behind (signet rings) and the way that they look; however, instead of using my signet rings as a seal of identification, I’ve made them a seal of your personality.”
Ashley Davisis the senior editor, fashion at National Jeweler, covering all things related to design, style and trends.

The Latest

Model Wearing Eat Cake Collection
CollectionsApr 16, 2024
Akaila Reid Launches ‘Eat Cake’ Collection

It’s ultra-feminine and filled with gold, pearls, and soft pastels.

Emily Highet Morgan, Emily Bennett
MajorsApr 16, 2024
Loudr Adds 2 Directors

Emily Highet Morgan and Emily Bennett have joined the agency’s team.

Stuller catalogs
MajorsApr 16, 2024
Stuller Releases First Lab-Grown Diamond Jewelry Catalog

Its updated book for mountings is also now available.

Brought to you by
The Blueprint for Success in Scalable, Personalized Jewelry Retail

With Ho Brothers, you can unlock your brand's true potential and offer customers the personalized jewelry experiences they desire.

Headshot of Karen Rentmeesters
SourcingApr 16, 2024
Karen Rentmeesters Takes Over as Interim CEO of AWDC

She has been with the organization since 2010, most recently serving as its chief officer of PR and industry relations.

Weekly QuizApr 11, 2024
This Week’s Quiz
Test your jewelry news knowledge with this seven-question quiz.
Take the Quiz
Joyce’s Jewelry
TechnologyApr 15, 2024
Judge Rules Jeweler’s Lawsuit Against PNC Bank Can Move Forward

Joyce’s Jewelry sued the bank after cybercriminals drained its accounts of nearly $1.6 million through a series of wire transfers.

Alfred W. DeScenza
IndependentsApr 15, 2024
Alfred W. DeScenza of DeScenza Diamonds Dies at 95

He is remembered by loved ones for his loyalty, integrity, and kindness.

Jewelers of America Fly In Washington, D.C.
Brought to you by
How Jewelers of America Represents Your Business

For over 30 years, JA has advocated for the industry, fought against harmful legislation and backed measures that help jewelry businesses.

Madeleine K. Albright
AuctionsApr 15, 2024
Madeleine K. Albright Jewelry, Pins Coming to Auction

Hosted by Freeman’s | Hindman, the sale will take place May 7-8.

Audemars Piguet circa 1985 emerald car watch
AuctionsApr 15, 2024
All of Sotheby’s ‘Rough Diamonds’ Sold in Less Than an Hour

The auction house said all 24 timepieces offered in its underground sale of rare and avant-garde watches quickly found buyers.

AGS Conclave 2024 logo Austin
Events & AwardsApr 15, 2024
10 Can’t-Miss Sessions at AGS Conclave 2024

From lab-grown diamonds and AI to the inevitable Taylor Swift mention, here are some of Conclave’s most intriguing educational offerings.

My Next Question webinar
Recorded WebinarsApr 12, 2024
Watch: What Jewelers Need to Know About Insurance

From cybersecurity liability to trade show coverage, insurance experts share tips on how to build the right policy.

Evil Eye Charm with Turquoise Disc
CollectionsApr 12, 2024
Piece of the Week: Lionheart’s Evil Eye Gemstone Charm

The charm is a modern rendition of the evil eye amulet that has been worn for thousands of years.

The Jewelry Symposium scholarship winners 2024
Events & AwardsApr 12, 2024
The Jewelry Symposium Announces 4 Scholarship Winners

Ahead of its trade show next month, TJS awarded free registration and accommodations to one jewelry professional and three students.

SRK Empire and SRK House
Policies & IssuesApr 11, 2024
SRK Exports’ Journey Toward Net Zero Impact

By the end of this year, SRK’s diamond manufacturing complexes will achieve net zero emissions, one of an impressive array of achievements.

AGTA logo
Lab-GrownApr 11, 2024
AGTA Bans Lab-Grown Diamonds, Gemstones at GemFair

Members can still sell lab-grown stones, it said, but only natural gems are allowed on the show floor.

Steven Rosdal
IndependentsApr 11, 2024
Steven Rosdal, Co-Founder of Hyde Park Jewelers, Dies at 77

He is remembered for his charisma, passion, integrity, kindness, and wit.

Macy’s Herald Square store
MajorsApr 11, 2024
Macy’s Opens Books for Possible Buyout

The retailer also appointed two new board members, avoiding a proxy fight from a potential buyer.

Sylvie Jewelry model
CollectionsApr 10, 2024
Sylvie Launches New Nature-Inspired Collection, ‘Tulira’

The bridal collection consists of 35 engagement rings and seven wedding bands.

Rolex Oyster Perpetual Deepsea in 18-karat yellow gold
WatchesApr 10, 2024
These Are Rolex’s New Watches for 2024

The crown introduced a dozen timepieces in Geneva, including a heavy metal version of its deep-sea divers’ watch.

Levy’s Fine Jewelry diamond education
IndependentsApr 10, 2024
Levy's Fine Jewelry Explores Diamond History

The family-owned jeweler has a new education section on its website dedicated to the history of diamond cutting.

With Clarity NFL wedding bands
CollectionsApr 10, 2024
With Clarity Partners With NFL on Wedding Bands

The limited-edition men’s rings can be customized with one of 12 team logos.

Asian Star’s diamond manufacturing facility in India
SourcingApr 10, 2024
Compliance, Caution, and Concern: The Current Outlook of Indian Diamantaires

There is a willingness to comply with new government-mandated regulations, with an insistence that they should be practical and realistic.

Chrono24 watch inspection lab
WatchesApr 09, 2024
Chrono24 Debuts Pre-Owned Watch Authentication Program

The program, now live in Europe, will roll out to the U.S. this summer.

6.21-carat fancy vivid pink diamond
AuctionsApr 09, 2024
Phillips to Offer 6.21-Carat Vivid Pink Diamond

Colored gemstones and signed jewels are the focus of its upcoming Geneva sale.

Lucapa rough colorless and pink diamonds
SourcingApr 09, 2024
Former De Beers Exec Appointed to Lucapa Board

Stuart Brown, who was De Beers’ CFO and interim CEO, is now Lucapa’s independent non-executive chairman.

Jewelers for Children POS System Donations
MajorsApr 09, 2024
Jewel360 Announces New POS Integration, JFC Partnership

The point-of-sale software can now prompt customers to round up their credit card purchases as a donation to Jewelers for Children.


This site uses cookies to give you the best online experience. By continuing to use & browse this site, we assume you agree to our Privacy Policy