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  • Writer's pictureValerieBound

Signet Rings: Now & Then

Rings, rings, and more rings. Today let's talk about signet rings, because I have been seeing them everywhere. And I think it’s because it fits into the larger jewelry trend of personalization. Everyone seems to want something unique, and a cool signet ring with your initial is a great way to do that.

Nowadays, men and women can and do wear signet rings, but of course, it wasn’t always that way.

Let’s first ask, what's a signet ring anyway?

Since ancient times

Like earrings, signet rings also go back to ancient times. Way, way back. Back before the Bible, back before writing as we currently know it. All the way back to ancient Egypt, with hieroglyphics and clay tablets. For those of you doing the math, that’s more than 3,000 years before Jesus was born. That’s how old signets are.

Signet rings from ancient Egypt
An assortment of signet rings from ancient Egypt

The name signet comes from the Latin signum which means “sign.” From what I was able to research, Egyptian pharaohs were the first to use signet rings to put their seal on official communication. Essentially, it allowed you to “sign” a document by leaving an impression in wax or clay. The ring had a design that was unique to you, and typically was either destroyed or buried with you upon your death.

Seal created with a signet ring
An example of the seal created with a signet ring

In the Bible

The Good Book also mention signets. In the Book of Esther, for example, they talk about Persian King Ahasuerus’s signet ring. And when telling the story of Daniel and the lions’ den, there’s this:

“A stone was brought, and laid upon the mouth of the den; and the king sealed it with his own signet, and with the signet of his lords; that the purpose might not be changed concerning Daniel.” – Daniel 6:17.

All the Roman Catholic Popes used to wear a signet ring called the Ring of The Fisherman. They’ve done that since around 1265, and it was actually used to seal documents up until the mid-1800’s. It has an engraving of Saint Peter, a way to represent that the apostles were “fishers of men.” People used to line up and seek the Pope’s blessings by kissing his ring, but that hasn’t been done for quite some time now.

Religious document with a papal seal
Religious document with a papal seal

Medieval Markers

All the way up through the Middle Ages, signet rings were used “sign” documents. Of course, not just anyone was allowed to have one. You had to be a landowner, royalty or nobility, and/or wealthy. Best if you were all three! If you came from an important family, your signet ring would typically be engraved with your family’s crest or coat of arms. You would use it to mark all your wills, deeds, contracts, etc. It basically let everyone else know that it was really you. Because of how unique they were, and how difficult it was to forge them, they became almost like a legal signature.

Like in ancient Egypt, all signet rings were destroyed when their owner died. This was to protect the documents from forgery.

Signets become obsolete

I did find one woman who used a signet ring. Henrietta, Queen of France (b. 1609, d. 1669). She wore a diamond signet ring engraved with her husband’s coat of arms. But mostly, they were worn by men.

Actor Henry Cavill's custom signet ring
Actor Henry Cavill's custom signet ring

The good news is that as time marched on, signet rings became something everyone could wear.

As society became more and more literate, it wasn’t necessary to use signet rings for authenticating documents. But people still liked the rings, and they remained popular. By the end of the 1800’s, men of all classes were wearing them to show how sophisticated they were. And since they didn’t need to be destroyed anymore, they began to be treasured family heirlooms, passed from generation to generation.

Pippa wearing a gold signet ring
Pippa wearing a gold signet ring on her pinky

Who Wears Them Anyway?

In the recent past, Winston Churchill, Steve McQueen, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley wore them. Today, they're back in style, with Megan Markle, Pippa Middleton, and Cara Delevingne wearing ones with unique designs.

Besides individual people, groups often wear signets. Like the Freemasons. And class rings are essentially signet rings.

Your signet ring

We live in the modern era, which means your signet ring can look like whatever you want it to! Make it reflect your style and personality.

Signet rings from Sofia Kaman and Allison Lou
Modern signet rings from Sofia Kaman & Allison Lou

Most of the signets I see today have your initials on them. But as you can see from the examples above, you can certainly be more creative. As long as the design is simple and meaningful to you, it works!

Lots of jewelry designers have signet rings as part of their collections. There's even a company called Rebus specializing in custom signet rings.

Signet ring from Rebus
Signet ring from Rebus

I don't have a signet ring yet, but I think I will soon!

Random Vocab

I want to leave you with new words I learned while researching information for this post!

Chancery – a medieval writing office

Sigillography or Sphragistics – the official study of seals

There! Don’t you feel smarter already?

This post has edited and updated since it was originally published October 11, 2018.


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