Like many fashion trends, the signet ring is a timeless piece worn by men and women. While it’s fluctuated in popularity through the centuries, it’s making a full-fledged comeback, reclaiming its previously-held status of superiority and elegance. So, what is a signet ring and do people still wear this historic accessory?
You might have noticed that people are wearing signet rings more and more lately, but what do they signify? In this article, we’ll walk you through all the details of the history and meaning of signet rings.
A signet ring is a type of jewelry that once acted as a seal of approval. Essentially, signet rings were a way to stamp your signature on something. Long before longhand, signet rings were the first tool nobility and aristocrats used to seal their names on letters, documents, and the like. The face of a signet ring acts as a stamp in which people would press to paper to imprint their name, initials, or family crest.
Of course—times have changed and now, real signatures are rarely required as digital ones replace them. Still, signet rings are no longer viewed as part-signature, part-jewelry, but the history is too fascinating to overlook. Let's talk more about the origin of signet rings and the evolution that brought them into modern society.
The earliest known records of signet rings date back to 3,500 B.C., when people of the early Mesopotamian civilization incorporated used seals as part of their daily correspondence. For these ancient people, the signet ring was massively symbolic. Why were they held in such high esteem?
For centuries, a family surname wasn’t simply a name, but an institution. Family crests adorned decor, doorways, documents, jewelry, brooches, military artillery, and essentially every physical object relating to a family’s dynasty. As such, seals were kind of a big deal and led to the creation of the signet ring! Later in history, the Egyptians adopted the seal, and crossed it over into jewelry use. However, any old citizen couldn’t get their hands on this elite accessory — no, signet rings were reserved for royalty and nobility.
Signet rings are a historical piece of jewelry with a reputation that has evolved over the years. They started out as symbols of power, status, and wealth. Presently, they’re worn for decoration over personal identification or status symbols. Signet rings are a fashion statement, making them more accessory-oriented than anything else.
Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs wore rings with seals to denote their positions of power. At this time, Egyptian signet rings were crafted from dense, durable stone, with a hieroglyph etched into the face of the ring. As time unfolded into the Middle Ages, signet rings belonged exclusively to notable and influential public figures. In today’s society, we’d call these people influencers, celebrities, or socialites. You know, Medici types! And yes—the lower classes were required to kiss the signet rings of certain popes and kings.
People of high public eye flaunted their custom signet rings. Of course, the fingers of royal and noble families all flashed their family crests on their signet rings. The king himself had an official signet ring that was worn at all times.
Interestingly enough, during the reign of King Edward II, any signing of an official document required the signature of the King himself, even if he didn’t physically stamp it. Each king was awarded his own individual signet ring upon taking the throne as a way of differentiating between his predecessor.
In a way, this ensured no fraudulent signatures could be devised, but there was surely an air of regality to the tradition, as well.
The Greeks also took up the tradition of signet rings by transforming ivory stones into rings that eventually became family heirlooms. While the Egyptians solely wore signet rings as a symbol of status, the Greeks used them more practically: to identify people.
Quickly, the trend of wearing signet rings spread throughout Europe and nearly every notable family member wore one. Just as quickly as the accessory rose to the spotlight, it disappeared. Hard to believe right? Well, the Middle Ages (also called the Dark Ages) killed anything that even remotely emulated extravagance or frivolity — it was strictly religion and no room for personal decoration or indulgences.
Fortunately, lighter times were ahead and by the 18th-century signet rings gained their popularity again. Over the next two hundred years, signet rings became more elaborate in their designs. Gemstones and ornate details, carvings, and metalwork sparkled from the previously simplistic signet seal.
From that point on, signet rings became an object of beauty rather than family tradition or symbolism, which leads us to today!
When the signet ring first appeared, only men wore them, as women had not yet entered the workforce or positions of power. It would be centuries until women became prominent figures with voting rights and a working wage. As such, women were not granted the authority to sign off on documentation, so they were unable to wear signet rings.
Women weren’t the only ones cut out of the early tradition; common people outside of nobility weren’t able to wear signet rings either. Thankfully, times have drastically changed, and now, anyone can wear a signet ring! So, if we no longer use them for signatures, how can you wear a signet ring?
As you can gather from the extensive history, signet rings are a highly individualized accessory. In general, all variations feature a customized seal, monogram, or signature. Of course, they aren’t as steely and heavy in style but simplistic, metallic, and elegant.
There are five popular signet ring shapes:
Octagon has (as you guessed) eight sides, giving it a unique geometric style.
Oxford signet rings have rounded corners and a square bevel that looks like a cushion.
Bulbous oval is a large, traditionally styled signet ring.
Round signet rings are understated and look beautiful with monogrammed initials engraved onto the face of the ring.
Straight oval shaped signet rings are extremely popular because they are most close to the original shape.
Whichever signet ring style you choose, there’s no disputing that it’ll be a personalized accessory reflective of your unique taste! An added benefit? No one will ever confuse you again because you’ll have identification right there on your finger!
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