The face of a signet ringThe face of a signet ring

History of Signet Rings

Signet rings have a long history of symbolizing an alliance, union, romance, or family ties.

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Throughout history, humans have used signet rings as a form of self-expression. There was a huge variety of shapes and sizes in ancient signet rings take - from tiny and cost-effective to chunky with inlaid gemstones. In this article we walk you through signet ring history.

The face of a signet ring is not the only place where decoration can be added. The sides of this ring feature deep carvings which highlight a lovely, abstract leafy pattern. Photo by CustomMade. Used with permission.
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Signet rings were one of the most ancient forms of personalized jewelry. A metalsmith could carve or inlay anything on the raised, flat surface called a "bezel." (This is called an "intaglio" design.) Historically, signet rings had a wide variety of uses including verifying the identity of the wearer and authenticating important documents. 

Over time various cultures contributed new types of designs to the signet ring. Here are how a few societies furthered the design elements that we now recognize as traditional for signet rings. 

Signet Rings in Ancient Egypt

Some of the earliest signet rings come from Ancient Egypt and are approximately 4000 years old.  The Egyptians used signet rings to declare the social status or political/religious role of the wearer. These rings could be made from any number of different metals. Often, the intaglio design on the bezel face featured distinctive hieroglyphs carved deeply into the metal with identifying information like the name and rank of the wearer. Some rings featured a swiveling, oblong bezel surface decorated on both sides. By pressing the carved surface of the ring into soft wax, documents were sealed and signed in a single swoop.

Signet Rings in Ancient Greece

About the 6th century BCE, the Ancient Greek culture adopted the signet ring design. The Ancient Greeks then further evolved the types of motifs used on the face. Often made from precious metals (gold, silver, or bronze), the nature theme of many of the Ancient Greek signet rings reflects the culture's fascination with the natural world. While the Egyptian rings had the function of identifying the wearer, the Greeks often wore signet rings more casually as pure adornment. 

Signet Rings in Ancient Rome

While the signet ring lost some of its ceremonial meaning to the Ancient Greeks, the Romans continued the tradition of symbolic importance for their rings. At one point in their history, all senators wore gold rings to reflect their position while those with lesser social status sported rings made of iron.

The Romans then began using gemstones instead of leaving a metal, bezel face. Gemstones like carnelians, garnets, and agates - gems that are easy to carve but also durable enough to be repeatedly pressed into wax and worn daily - were set on the top of the ring. The wearer's seal was carved into the face of the gem. 

As time wore on, signet rings became a necessary adornment for all Roman citizens. During the second Punic war, the Carthaginian leader Hannibal famously collected the signet rings from the Roman soldiers slain in battle as proof of their deaths.  

Signet Rings in the European Renaissance

Finally, during the Renaissance, the growth of the mercantile middle class saw increased demand for personalized signet rings. Businessmen involved in trade, skilled artisanal workers, and landowners all commissioned rings that bore their seals, initials, or some symbolic mark reflecting their profession. As in the past, these rings were used to sign and seal important documents. They also served as status symbols. 

While the use of symbols and initials was chosen with the wearer in mind, so were the gemstones that were used. For instance, a bloodstone is a gem associated with Christ. Some say that the green background of the gem represents the green grass that grew under the Cross and the specks of red that dot the gem mimic the blood of Christ. As such, it was not uncommon to find religious-themed rings set with bloodstones during the Renaissance.

Famous Historical Signet Rings

Many signet rings have been passed down through generations, especially when they are associated with a hereditary title or profession. Here are a few prominent examples.

Theseus Ring - Currently residing in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, this Mycenaean gold signet ring that features an intaglio image of a bull dates back to the 15th century BCE. This ring was so named because, according to myth, King Theseus defeated the minotaur, a hybrid creature with the body of a man and the head of a bull. Strengthening the connection to Theseus, there is also another story that speaks about a challenge to Theseus to recover a gold signet ring that was thrown into the sea. Such legends were an integral part of Greek culture so it is no surprise that someone would want to wear a ring that referenced one of these stories.

Ring of the Fisherman - Alternatively known as the Piscatory Ring, the Ring of the Fisherman is a signet ring worn by Popes for hundreds of years. The first mention of this ceremonial signet ring dates back to the 13th century when it was used by the Pope to seal documents. This practice continued until the year 1842 and it is still expected that devotees kiss this ring when meeting with the religious leader. 

The religious signet ring history: a signet ring is visible on the sculptured hand of the Blessed Pope John XXIII at the Church of St. Ägyd. Photo credit: Shutterstock/Sonja Mair

A new ring featuring the traditional image paired with the Latin name of the current Pope is created each time a leader is elected. As the new leadership is established, the ring of the former Pope is defaced so that it cannot be used again.

Signet ring on Pope
From the Renaissance to the modern day: a signet ring on Pope Francis's finger. Photo credit: Shutterstock/AM113

Prince of Wales Ring - Reportedly made from Welsh gold and bearing the crest of the Prince of Wales, this famous signet ring recently passed to Prince William when he became the new Prince of Wales. Almost two hundred years old, this ring symbolizes the royal status of its wearer. Its last owner, now King Charles III, faithfully wore the ring for 64 years. While Charles chose to wear his ring on the pinky finger of his left hand, there are no rules about how to wear a signet ring. 

Prince Charles's signet ring
The royal signet ring: you can see Prince Charles's signet ring in this photo. Photo credit: Shutterstock/EA Givenz

At whatever time in history you examine, every aspect of a signet ring had special meaning to its owner.  It was commonplace for individuals to pass down signet rings through multiple generations. Additionally, religious leaders began to wear rings emblazoned with symbols such as cruciform designs. 

Utilizing these several design elements, signet rings remained an important jewelry item throughout the centuries. They continue to be worn to represent social ranks and act as identifiers for their wearers.

Emily Frontiere

Emily Frontiere is a GIA Graduate Gemologist. She is particularly experienced working with estate/antique jewelry.

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