What Are Signet Rings?
The history of signet rings is a rich one. While these rings look like everyday elegant rings, their purpose is much more profound. Initially worn by upper-class members, these embellished rings were used to stamp or sign various legal documents.
Constructed out of durable metal, the rings were heavy enough to cast a distinct marking in any type of wax or clay. Historically speaking, some of the most important documents have been stamped with a signet ring.
The Multicultural History of Signet Rings
Signet Ring's term comes from the Latin "Signum," which means sign.
In 3500 B.C., during the Mesopotamia Period, people needed a way to place their signature or make a "seal" on documents. The main reason signatures needed to be replaced was that writing was unreliable as many couldn't read or write. However, the marks left by these rings were readily accepted and understood.
The rings would include a design, often a family or personal crest. The designs were usually made out of agate, carnelian, or sardonyx because they wouldn't stick to the wax.
It wasn't until the suffragette movements in the 1930s and 1940s that women wore signet rings. Their stone colors of green, white, and violet represented their campaign's movement and social and political colors.
In wealthy families, the head of the family wears an imposing signet, which he will pass on to his son; the tradition will pass from generation to generation. This is shown in the movie Godfather III when Al Pacino passes his signet ring on to symbolize succession.
Egyptian Signet Rings
Pharaohs quickly saw the rings' advantage and began wearing them, complete with hieroglyphic engravings. As you can imagine, the process of creating these rings was extremely tedious since the engraving had to fit on a small surface. Additionally, the level of detail of these hieroglyphics ensured the rings were expensive and would be very difficult to copy.
The rings were also mentioned in the Book of Genesis. "Removing his signet ring from his hand, Pharaoh put it on Joseph's hand; he arrayed him in garments of fine linen and put a gold chain around his neck."
King Signet Rings
When King John signed the Magna Charter in 1215 A.D, he sealed it with his ring.
Also, during the middle ages in 1307 A.D., King Edward II decreed that all documents must be signed and sealed with the King's signet ring. This decree not only made signet rings popular but necessary.
War Signet Rings
Interestingly, during WWII, the United States Air Force purchased signet rings with a carefully hidden compartment that could hold secret messages and compasses.
In the U.K, MI9 agents also purchased rings from Regent Street jewelers that were used to conceal secret compasses.
Pope Signet Rings
The seal on the Pope's ring, also known as the Piscatory Ring, is St. Peter the Fisherman. When a Pope dies, the Cardinal Camerlengo must destroy the ring to avoid any improprieties or forgeries. Additionally, this ceremony is performed to "wash away" the history of the last Pope in preparation for the new one.
The same destruction is also carried out for Kings for the same reasons.
How To Wear A Signet Ring
There are no specific rules for the placement of the rings, and it is strictly a personal preference. However, most wear people wear them on the pinky finger of their non-dominant hand.
Sir Winston Churchill wore his on his middle finger, and men from the Middle East wear them on their thumb. President Franklin D. Roosevelt wore his stacked with his wedding ring.
Men of the Middle Ages seemed to prefer wearing them on a gold chain on the fobs of their pocket watches.
Types Of Signet Rings
There are various rings designs now available. You can find them with or without stones, monograms, initials, or engravings of anything. They are usually made of gold, but it's a personal preference. They are beautiful and a simple fashion statement that are no longer just for the wealthy or elite.
- Oxford Oval
Common gemstone choices:
- Lapis lazuli
- Tiger's eye
When describing a signet ring, the band is called a shank, and the bezel is the top surface which is the main focal point. The signet is the design engraved on the bezel.
Famous Wearers of Signet Rings
Many notable people of all walks of life still wear signet rings.
- Steve McQueen
- Michael Cain
- Frank Sinatra
- Sir Winston Churchill
- Prince Charles
- Elvis Presley
- President Roosevelt
- Pipa Middleton
- Princess Diana
- Meghan Markle
Nowadays, many organizations have their own signet rings to identify members within a specific group or organization.
Some of these groups include:
- College alumni
- Military groups
- Biker gangs
- Brotherhood of Elks
The Freemasons signet rings, worn on their pinky finger, symbolize loyalty and brotherhood. This is the same with the BPOE, Brotherhood of Elks.
What Goes Around, Comes Back Around
More and more, you can see that these rings are coming back in style. You can find them online on various websites. While some are still made from precious materials, less expensive options are available for purchase too.
Also, suppose you find yourself in New York City. In that case, The Metropolitan Museum of Art has various exhibitions of ancient signet rings and is the largest in the United States.
Who knows what trend will come back into style next?
- The History Press | A Brief History of Signet Rings
Signet rings used to be important cultural items of jewelry and have played a surprisingly significant role in history.
- What Is a Signet Ring? How to Wear Them Like A Gentleman
Learn all you need to know about the signet ring, its history, style differences, how to wear it like a gentleman, and why you should wear one.
- Father’s Day Gift Guide: The Best Signet Rings
Signet rings were popular men's rings throughout history.
- A Brief History of Renaissance Jewelry
Signet or seal rings were a common way to inscribe documents and might be worn by the bourgeoisie.
fran rooks (author) from Toledo, Ohio on March 13, 2021:
Rosina, thanks for your visit. I will pay more attention to pinky rings.
fran rooks (author) from Toledo, Ohio on March 11, 2021:
Pamela, thanks for your visit. I find myself looking for signet rings on everyone's hands.
fran rooks (author) from Toledo, Ohio on March 11, 2021:
Rosina, thanks for reading and your generous comments.
Rosina S Khan on March 10, 2021:
This is an interest account about signet rings. It was interesting to watch how they varied in appearance from the ancient to the modern times. I enjoyed reading it. Thanks for the superb share, Fran.
John Hansen from Australia (Gondwana Land) on March 10, 2021:
Fran, this was a good article.. The history and photos of different signet rings was interesting and it was an enjoyable read.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on March 10, 2021:
There are a lot of famous people that wear or wore signet rings. Most of your article was new to me, Fran. I enjoyed reading your article.