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Signet Rings

Signet Ring with Hand Engraved Anjou Coat of Arms.

intaglio gem that is engraved with a monogram, coat of arms or other symbol. Throughout history signets were used as seal rings to seal letters with the mark of the sender – in wax – in order to serve as an authentication mark.

At a time when only a few could write, seals which bore a distinguishing mark or badge – equivalent to a signature – that could be impressed on wax or clay, so as to stand out in relief as a mirror image, were essential for rulers, government officials and all engaged in business, to authenticate documents and establish the ownership of property. For convenience they were worn as rings on the finger, ready for use when needed.1

Historical Overview

Year

c. 3200 BC

Location/Era

Mesopotamia

Signet Ring

  • Cylinder Seals

Cylinder seal of the priest-king Uruk period, circa 3200 BC
© R.M.N./C. Larrieu.

c. 2000 BC

  • Bronze Age Rings
  • Most commonly made with a scarab on the top and hieroglyphs on the reverse identifying the owner.
  • These rings flipped over to reveal the signet side as necessary.

c. 1800 BC

Scarab of Amunhotep I. Steatite, glazed, 7/16 x 11/16 in. (1.1 x 1.8 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 44.123.142.
Creative Commons-BY-NC.

Ancient Egyptian Ring.
© Victoria & Albert Museum Collection

Inscription on an Egyptian Signet Ring.
Victoria & Albert Museum Collection.

c. 1500BC 

Ancient Egypt 

Signet Ring Bearing the Name of Amunhotep II, 1450-1425 B.C.E. Silver, Other (Central design): 1/2 x 1/2 in. (1.3 x 1.3 cm).
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.726E. Creative Commons-BY-NC.

Signet Ring, ca. 664-404 B.C.E. Gold, 13/16 in., 0.5 lb. (2.1 cm, 0.2kg). Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.734E.
Creative Commons-BY-NC.

  • A stirrup-shaped ring made of metal came to prominence. The top was engraved with rank and other hieroglyphs.

Ring of Ramesses IV, ca. 1152-1145 B.C.E. Silver, 7/8in. (2.3cm). Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.727E.Creative Commons-BY-NC.

  • This style ring also served as a visible badge of rank. Egyptian signet rings continued to be designed in this style until c.300 BC.

c. 1400-1300 BC 

 Middle East

 

c. 600 BC

  • Gold hoop, flat bezel, engraved seal or engraved gemstone

 

c.10th Century BC, Greece.
Getty Images.

  • Goldsilver, and bronze signet rings were engraved with natural motifs and depictions of Greek masterpieces began to appear.
  • The signet style ring from Greece makes its way to Etruria and thrives there. Again, rings flipped from scarab decoration to a figural motif on the reverse.

Etruscan c. 450-300 BC.
Victoria & Albert Museum Collection.

c. 650-400 BC

Etruscan c. 450-300 BC
Victoria & Albert Museum Collection.

c. 500 BC 

Rome

 

  • Large, ornate and with the seal engraved in a gemstone

Engraved Carnelian Signet Ring c.4th Century BC
Victoria & Albert Museum.

  • Romans wore symbolic rings
  • Senators: iron Rings – soon to be replaced by gold rings
  • Ambassador senators: Gold rings
  • Later all senators wore gold rings

 c. 300 BC

Signet Italy c. 350-250 BC
Victoria & Albert Museum Collection.

Signet Italy c. 350-250 BC
Victoria & Albert Museum Collection

  • Rings were worn as a sign of power and respect (some were given as a memento)
  • Roman Knights and Patricians wore gold rings
  • Later soldiers and born freemen could wear gold.
  • Signets were tossed into a pile, one drawn at random, the symbol on the selected ring was then interpreted as an omen – either good or bad – predicting the outcome of a contemplated action.
  • Freedmen wore silver rings (sometimes they cheated and wore blackened gold so they had the feel of gold without breaking the law.)
  • Iron rings were worn as a show of respect during mourning.

c. 216 BC

  • Hannibal defeats the Romans and orders all the rings gathered from the dead Roman soldiers on the battlefield, not as wealth but proof of the slaughter.

c. 1st Century AD

 

Roman Empire c. 100-200 AD
Victoria & Albert Museum Collection.

Roman Empire c. 100 AD
Victoria & Albert Museum Collection.

  • These signets started out small then got so large they were worn on the thumb or over the first joint but never on the middle finger.
  • Romans began to wear gem set rings. Special ivory boxes called dactyliotheca “ring treasury” were made to keep their rings safe.

Roman Empire c. 100-200 AD
Victoria & Albert Museum Collection.

c. 3rd Century AD

  • Christians were restricted to signet rings. Women could wear one signet for use in their household duties.
  • Men were allowed one signet worn on the little finger.
  • These signets were only to depict Christian symbols and a peaceful and quiet lifestyle. Pagan gods and themes of debauchery were forbidden.

c. 400-1100

7th Century Signet
Victoria & Albert Museum Collection.

7th Century Signet
Victoria & Albert Museum Collection.

9th Century Signet
Victoria & Albert Museum Collection.

  • Gem engraving was a lost art form by this time and a return to carving symbols and letters on a gold ring became the fashion.

6th – 7th Century Signet
Victoria & Albert Museum Collection.

11th Century Signet
Victoria & Albert Museum Collection.

  • Severe and roughly engraved
  • Often the bezel was of a cruciform design and contained symbols of Christianity.
  • When a carved gem is found in a ring of this period, it is usually a gem recycled from a ring of an earlier period.

Until c.1350

Dark Ages

  • After the fall of Rome many of the fine arts were no longer practiced. Ring making continued using basic monograms with the occasional example carved with a portrait or inscription.

c. 1100-1200

England

  • Mint marks on coins were often the reproduction of the local magistrate’s signet ring or that of the mint master.

c. 1200-1400

  • Rings were the most common jewel worn during the Medieval period, consequently, many examples have survived for us to study.
  • Rings became increasingly more ornately decorated and were sometimes used as a messenger’s credential.
  • They were worn on every finger, joint, stacked at the lower joint and often worn on the thumb.
  • There were rings designed to be worn over gloves and, as a result, they were quite large.
  • Red and blue stones were the most popular. Sometimes a color foil-backed crystal was used to simulate a particular gem or the reverse painted with bright colors so that they would not fade when pressed into wax.
  • Diamonds were set mostly in their natural crystal shape and were not widely used because they were difficult to cut.

Collection of rings from Europe c. 1380
Victoria & Albert Museum Collection.

 

  • Lombardic script, a rounded style, was used for engraved lettering up until about 1350.

 c. 1350 – 1400

  • The junction between the hoop and the ring’s bezel was often adorned with small dragon’s heads.

c. 1350 – 1500

Engraved Ring from the Second Quarter of the 15th Century.
Victoria & Albert Museum.

  • Gothic script, a spiky style of lettering, was popular for most engraving.

c. 1400-1600

Signet Ring with Scissors Symbolic of a Tailor c. 1475-1525, German
Victoria & Albert Museum Collection.

Signet Ring with Initial W c.1450-1550, English Victoria & Albert Museum Collection.

  • Heraldic themes became extremely popular. Often these rings were made in gilt bronze and could have colorful foil backings.

Signet Ring c.1554-75
Victoria & Albert Museum Collection.

  • Landowners, merchants and other businessmen began to use seals to make an impression in the wax that sealed their contracts and documents. Plain, simple signet rings were popular for that purpose, usually worn on the index finger or thumb.

Signet Ring c.1500-1600
Victoria & Albert Museum Collection.

  • Wearing rings in Europe became a status symbol and unsuccessful attempts were made to restrict who could wear what metals.

c. 1600

  • Seal’s mounted not on a ring but with a handle began to appear. They could be worn on a chain with other “necessaries” and began to eclipse the signet ring in popularity.

c. 1700

  • Used as an ornamental piece, sometimes with a faux cameo or intaglio.

Jasperware Intaglio c. 1780-1800, English.
Victoria & Albert Museum Collection.

  • Wealthy and prominent people collected rare engraved gems that had been created from ancient times through the Renaissance and they set them in elaborate rings
  • Miniature versions of ancient Rome began to be produced by a new generation of Roman gemstone carvers and engravers inspired by these collections. In addition, portraits of the famous and the infamous became the theme of the day.

c. 1791

Tassie Ring c. 1788
Victoria & Albert Museum Collection.

  • Only the very wealthy could afford such carvings so replicas of engraved gemstones were created by James Tassie using a custom glass paste formula. They were called “Tassies” and were set in every form of jewelry imaginable.

19th Century

Signet Ring with Reddish Orange Carnelian Intaglio of a Regal Lion with Scroll Motif Shoulders, Mid Victorian.

Signet Ring with Neo-Classical Motifs, a Quatrefoil-Shaped Lapis Lazuli and a Cryptic Insignia.

  • Desire for intaglios from ancient times began to wane but they were still available for purchase by tourists.
  • The signets of this era had a more romantic or nostalgic theme. Pride of heritage was reflected in elaborate rings with coats of arms or heraldic crests.
  • Initials carved in hardstone or gold became popular in the mid 19th century. Pio Castellani and his son Augusto lead a return to classical themes during this period.

20th Century

  • Designed as a simple gold band with initials or monogram on the flat bezel.
  • Although rarely used for sealing documents anymore, the signet ring continued to be viewed as the “mark of the gentleman.”

 

Sources

  • Campbell, Marian. Medieval Jewellery. London: V & A Publishing, 2009.
  • Newman, Harold. An Illustrated Dictionary of Jewelry, London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd., 1981.
  • Scarisbrick, Diana. Rings. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2007.

Notes

  1. Scarisbrick, p.9