Signet rings are statement pieces that echo lineage, heritage and belonging. Throughout history, signet rings were not only highly decorative, but they were also functional items with a crucial administrative role within society and indicated wealth and importance. And, of course, they were a much simpler form of inheritance to pass on down the lines than property or acres of land.
Today, the signet ring is less about status and more about personalisation, worn by everyone from royalty to recording artists. With the signet ring undergoing a huge revival, these bold pieces of jewellery give you the chance to make your mark in style.
Signet rings either have a flat surface that can be plain or engraved with crests, initials, pictures or symbols, or have a domed surface if they house a stone. The term ‘signet ring’ derives from the French word signét (‘small seal’) and signetum, meaning ‘sign’ in Latin, but they are also known as seal rings and ‘pinky rings’ (from pinck, a Dutch word that means ‘small finger’) if worn on the little finger.
There’s a fascinating history behind the signet ring. Way back in 3500 BC, the Mesopotamians used cylindrical seals as an identification mark. The cylinder could be pressed in hot wax or soft clay and the characteristic impression left behind used as an official seal, taking the place of a signature. This seal was incredibly difficult to tamper with without damaging the mark, like the security tag of its day.
Signet rings needed to leave a distinct impression, so designs were created in mirror-image by the ring maker so the finished result would be the right way round.
Roman Signet ring in the British Museum, circa 5th Century
Fast forward to the Egyptians, who were quite the innovators of wearable technology when they came up with a portable version by attaching the seal to a ring. Throughout the Middle Ages, signet rings continued to be used as seals, and by the fourteenth century, all important legal documents had to be stamped with a signet ring. One of King Edward II’s demands, when he ascended to the throne in 1307, was that all official government documents had to be sealed with his signet.
To prevent fraud, only one individual ring was made, and when the wearer passed away, it was destroyed, which is why Medieval signet rings are very rare and valuable.
During the Renaissance, signet rings became a symbol of wealth and success, used by merchants to stamp seals on shipments as identification. Signet rings were an essential accessory for the well-to-do Victorian gentleman and remained popular through the Art Deco and wartime eras.
The Georgians added a clever twist to the signet ring. At the ring base was a hidden hinged key that could be opened out to unlock a box containing jewellery, valuables or documents.
Rare Georgian signet ring with key
Many suffragettes and first-wave feminists started wearing signet rings in the 1920s and 1930s to identify their allegiance to the fight for women’s rights. Suffragette jewellery was often set with stones in the order of green, white and violet to spell out the initials of ‘Give Women Votes’, representing the Women’s Social and Political Union colours.
Although signet rings are no longer used for making marks, they can still be a sign of belonging, a simple way of identifying membership to a family, club, society or organisation with a quick flash of gold or silver.
In the United States, a version of the signet ring known as a class ring (or grad, graduate, graduation or senior ring) is worn by students and alumni. Students wear the ring with the insignia facing the wearer as a reminder of the goal of graduation and facing outwards when they have graduated.
Signet rings make popular birthday presents handed down from relatives, alternatives to a traditional wedding band, or you can treat yourself to one that you simply like the look of. Pop over to our Remodelling page to see Ben’s gorgeous 21st birthday signet ring created from three pieces of gold jewellery from both sides of the family.
Although there are historical rules for wearing a signet ring, it’s entirely up to you which finger or even thumb to wear yours on. From the Middle Ages, they were worn on the little finger on the non-dominant hand as an expression of family status, embodying power and prestige and making it easier to roll the seal in wax.
Engagement and wedding rings were traditionally worn by women on their left ring fingers, as it was thought that a “vein of love” (vena amoris) ran from the fourth finger of the left hand to the heart. Men, however, wore wedding rings on their left little finger, below their signet rings.
Many musicians have singled out the signet ring, including the Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis), Elvis Presley and James Brown, up to modern minstrels Sean Combs and Pharrell Williams.
In British politics, Sir Winston Churchill was never seen without his solid gold ring displaying the Churchill family crest on his ring finger. His Labour opponent in 1945, Clement Attlee, wore a pinky ring.
You can spot signet rings on many dignified digits, including the British Royal Family. Prince Charles famously wears his wedding ring on the little finger of his left hand. Both Carole and Pippa Middleton wear signet rings engraved with the coat of arms the Middleton family was awarded after the Cambridges’ wedding, and Meghan Markle is rarely seen without her beloved gold open heart signet ring.
Even fictional characters can’t resist a signet ring, including many James Bond nemeses and the Green Lantern of DC Comics. In the seedy underworld of organised crime, signet rings are given on joining the mafia as an insurance policy to be pawned or sold for funeral costs once the wearer meets their (often gruesome) death. Al Pacino passes a pinky ring to Andy Garcia in Godfather III as a symbol of succession, James Gandolfini wears a simple signet ring in The Sopranos, and Steve Buscemi sports a gold ring with a square-cut diamond in Reservoir Dogs.
If you have been inspired to splash out on a signet ring, please get in touch. We would love to work with you to create a bespoke design using materials of your choice.