Signet have a long history and have usually symbolized the holding of power. Signet rings were originally a ring containing a small seal employed for formal or official purposes at a time when few people could write but when a distinguishing mark was needed to authenticate wax or clay tablets or documents. and, in medieval times, were used to sign and seal their letters and other important papers. From Egyptian time onwards, the signet ring was also a symbol of the wearer’s position or rank – Pharaoh, priest, chancellor.
The signet rings of Greeks and Romans contained intaglio gems and hardstones. Intaglio rings have an image that is created by cutting, carving or engraving into a flat surface of a gemstone. Alexander the Great’s signet ring was an emerald engraved with his own portrait and Emperor Augustus also had a signet ring containing his likeness. Other intaglio rings contained engravings of gods or goddesses, symbols representing a family’s history or, for soldiers, the goddess of Victory, Nike, representing a military victory. In the 3rd century AD, St Clement stated that the only ring a Christian could wear was a signet ring and, in the case of males, it could only be worn on the little finger. The devices on the rings should be the Christian symbols of the fish, anchor, ship and fisherman. By the 4th century, it appears that the art of engraving intaglios on gemstones was lost and so the signet ring became solely a metal ring again, unless a Roman intaglio gemstone was re-used in a new setting. In the 12th, 16th, 18th and 19th centuries, there were revivals of intaglio engraving for short periods.
By the Middle Ages, signet rings had begun to display heraldic symbols, showing shields, as well as symbols such as the lion rampant or passant, boars, or flowers. The rings were heavy and ornate. By the fourteenth century, under King Edward II, all official documents had to bear the seal of the king’s signet ring. Also, merchants began to wear signet rings engraved with emblems that they used on their goods. Craftsmen began to wear gilt bronze rings engraved with a hammer or scissors, depending on their occupation, and ordinary citizens also wore rings with symbols of their hobbies, a hunter’s horn, for instance, or a ship if they were travellers.
At the beginning of the 18th century, fob seals overtook the use of the signet ring for sealing, but by the 1830s, signet rings were back, due mainly to a revived interest in the classical world. As the wealthy toured Italy and Greece, they collected ancient and Renaissance intaglio gems, many of which they had made into signet rings with plain gold settings and bands.
In the 19th century, signet rings continued to be worn, despite that fact that documents were now mostly signed. It became the mark of a gentleman and the designs were similar to what we see today – a square top, shield-shaped or oval – showing a monogram, crests or other emblems. They were usually made of gold and could have a gold top (bezel) or have a hardstone inset, like a bloodstone, carnelian, onyx, or chalcedony, or, less frequently, a precious gemstone. As the century progressed, signet rings were being worn more by women.
For many centuries the ring would be destroyed when the owner died. However, signet rings in modern times are often passed down to children.
A good reference book on antique rings is: Diana Scarisbrick, Rings: Jewelry of Power, Love and Loyalty, 2007, Thames & Hudson.