I am always looking for intaglio rings, antique ones if possible. They appeal to me for two main reasons. The first is because they usually involve gemstones which have been carved and the second is because they can represent a personal history of a family. Intaglio rings are created when artist carves down into the stone to hollow out an image. Usually they are designed as signet rings, originally used to seal a document but later in history they were used to display coats of arms or just initials. They were generally worn by men.
The signet rings of Greeks and Romans contained intaglio gems and hardstones. 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 while some could have a gold top (bezel), others had a hardstone inset, like a bloodstone, carnelian, onyx, or chalcedony, or, less frequently, a precious gemstone like an amethyst. As the century progressed, signet rings were being worn more by women.