The Sign of the Signet

Nicola here, and today I’m talking about a specific type of jewelry. Apparently, the signet ring is having a fashion moment. The popularity of TV shows such as One Day and Saltburn, where some of the main (male) characters have worn signet rings has drawn attention to it as a signifier of power and status, as well as an accessory.

The signet ring has been a considered a sign of wealth and status in British society for hundreds of years. A traditional one would be engraved with your coat of arms, family crest or initials. The picture shows the one that was given to me when I was born. I’m not an aristocrat but my parents thought it would be nice for me to have one. It’s tiny though, so it doesn’t fit me now, but it has a sentimental value.

The signet ring was originally designed not only to mark the wearer’s bloodline but also to seal documents with wax. The metal design would leave a permanent mark in soft wax or in clay and so was used on a multitude of legal documents. In its day, the stamp of a signet was considered more authentic than a signature, which could easily be forged. Seals were used as early as 3500BC and it was the Ancient Egyptians who attached a seal to a ring as a joint sign of prestige and legal power. The first signet rings were made from stone or from ivory but the Bronze Age was the beginning of the metal signet ring as we know it today. (The picture is an Egyptian Finger Ring from the Walters Museum.)

The Ancient Greeks often put images of the natural world on their signet rings – an owl representing the goddess Athena, for example, or a butterfly or a hare. These were more fashion statements than practical items although the Romans adopted the idea of a signet ring symbolizing status. There is a famous statue of Hannibal, the Carthaginian general, counting the signet rings of the Roman soldiers killed at the Battle of Cannae to see which nobles had been slain. However, signets became so popular in Roman society that everyone except slaves were wearing them, leading to an edict that unless you were of a senatorial family, you could only wear an iron signet ring, not a gold one!

Few signet rings have been found from the period between the 5th and the 12th century and those that have are usually large, heavy and cumbersome. However, by the later Middle Ages, all persons of consequence would wear a signet ring to show their status and also to sign all letters and legal documentation. King Edward II decreed that all government documents must be signed with the monarch’s signet only. Each ring was unique and therefore impossible to copy. Rings were destroyed after their owners’ death to avoid them falling into the wrong hands and being misused to forge documentation. Papal and episcopal rings were a mark of the high status churchman and this trend was picked up by the knightly classes, squires and even men at arms.

It was only in the 16th century that the signet ring with a family crest became the universally fashionable style. The gold or silver of the rings was usually deeply incised in order to make a good pattern in the wax, or they might incorporate a precious or semi-precious stone as a base, with the engraving made on that in the “intaglio” style. As time went on, signet rings became more ornate, incorporating jewels in other ways, as well as engravings. They might even have a rotating bezel in order for the signet face to either be worn outwards to be seen, or inwards against the finger if you wanted to be incognito.

The same period of history saw the introduction of the merchant and guildsman’s signet which was introduced to give authenticity to their business dealings. This was where the signet with a person’s initials came into being; the middle classes were not entitled to a coat of arms and so used their own initials entwined with a carving of flowers or foliage of some sort.

Signet ring of the Black Prince

There are apparently a lot of historical etiquette rules around the wearing of a genuine signet ring. For example, if you have a crest on your ring it should always face towards you rather than away, as you never “bear arms to the enemy.”  Also, the ring should go on your left or “guard” hand rather than your right, sword hand. Tough on those of us who are left-handed but we’ve already been damned as “sinister” for that anyway! And the reason that the ring is worn on your little finger? So that it is easy to turn the hand over to seal a document. That said, by the Victorian era it was the fashion to wear a signet ring on the second or third finger, and to accentuate it tastefully with a diamond solitaire!

Right from the start, as now, the signet ring was an individual and a personalised statement but also one that indicated which clan or family or tribe you belonged to. At present it’s having a fashion moment, restyled for the 21st century, for both men and women and anyone who wants one, not just those with a family crest! As a form of self-expression it’s rather special, I think, since you could choose whatever design you would like to represent yourself and the things you are interested in. Nature, books, music, all captured in a little engraved picture!

Do you like the style of a signet ring? Do you have one yourself? If you were designing your own, what motif would you have on it?

17 thoughts on “The Sign of the Signet”

  1. No, I’ve never had a signet ring, but yours is a lovely memento and family heirloom. I imagine centuries ago it allowed people who were illiterate to sign documents.
    I don’t think I need one now, since people rarely write letters anymore! We even sign documents electronically.

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    • Yes, they have definitely outlived their original purpose, though I do think it would be quite fun to go back to signing things with a signet! I imagine the only people who still do it are royalty and some governments

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  2. Surprisingly, I was given a signet ring by a family member when I was a very small child. I say surprisingly, because just like the silver cup with my name that was a baptismal gift it came from someone, but I have no idea who.
    I have the cup- and since I don’t know anyone else who is named Annette , no one will want it. And the ring is so small, it would need a very tiny hand. Raccoons have tiny fingers, wonder if I could find a raccoon whose name begins with an “A”? I will accept referrals if anyone can find me an “A” named raccoon.

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    • Annette, when you find that raccoon with an A name please could you ask it if it has a friend with the initials LNJ? Like yours, my ring is so tiny and specific there is no one to give it to!

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      • I might find a raccoon with the L, or a raccoon with the N, or even a raccoon with the J, but, finding one with all three initials will be difficult. I will keep you posted.

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  3. I love that you got yours as a baby Nicola. That makes it special. They don’t really speak to me. I must say I love those rings that have the little compartment for you to poison or drug someone. LOL.

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  4. Signet rings were a thing when I was a teenager. My friend gave me one for my birthday with my initials on it. I still have it, somewhere. If I could have one with anything on it I’d pick the owl. I love them!!!

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    • Aren’t the owls beautiful, Teresa? I would also love one of those, or perhaps a running hare. I have a bracelet with a hare on so that would match!

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  5. Lovely post, Nicola. It’s a sad thing, I think that we write and receive few letters these days. Most of my mail is bills, and only because I’m still a stubborn holdout for paper statements for some things.
    When I was a teen I had (and still have) a seal (with A for Anne) and a variety of coloured wax sticks, and I used them all the time on letters. I used to write letters all the time — even to people I saw quite often — you tend to talk about different things in a letter than you do in person. I would have loved a signet ring back then.

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    • I still love receiving letters, Anne, and so send a few every so often. I agree its sad to lose that tradition and love the idea of your seal and different wax sticks. I like it so much, in fact, I think we should re-introduce it. As historical authors, what could be more appropriate?

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  6. Thanks for that most interesting post. It is sad that in our fast paced world people don,t seem to have time or inclination to write letters any more.
    When i was in college we had a class signet ring incised in metal with the symbol of our class which was a seated Pegasus(our class year was on the inside of the ring.). I was able to use it with sealing wax to seal letters and notes to classmates while still in school.
    As I got older it got too small to fit on my finger, but i still cherish it and the memories.

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  7. .Thanks for that most interesting post. It is sad that in our fast paced world people don,t seem to have time or inclination to write letters any more.
    When i was in college we had a class signet ring incised in metal with the symbol of our class which was a seated Pegasus(our class year was on the inside of the ring.). I was able to use it with sealing wax to seal letters and notes to classmates while still in school.
    As I got older it got too small to fit on my finger, but i still cherish it and the memories

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    • I’ve heard about class signet rings, Jane, but never come across an example before. Thank you for telling us about it. I think it’s a great way for a group to bond, and as you say, it also brings with it very special memories.

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  8. I enjoyed using sealing wax in my younger days and had a variety of stamps and colored sticks of wax. I would have truly LOVED a signet ring then (and perhaps today!) I continue to send letters. Don’t give up on the younger generation as my daughter (in her thirties) and her friends frequently exchange letters.
    Thanks for a fun post, Miss LNJ!

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    • LOL, thank you, Kareni. It’s wonderful to hear that the younger generation are appreciating the specialness of letters.

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