Signet rings have been in existence since before the Bible. From the queens of Egypt to Shakespeare, the rings were worn by those with social standing and land ownership. Ancient signet rings have been found primarily in the Mediterranean region, stretching as far as Nubia, or what is now Sudan.
They were prevalent enough in human culture that they were mentioned in the Bible, and typically were made entirely of gold or featured carved gemstones, or intaglios.
This ring was excavated from Sudan (what was ancient Nubia) in 1923. It is dated to between 40 B.C. – 40 A.D. and features an engraving of two mummied figures in gold. Image courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Not Just Another Pretty Piece of Jewelry
Signet rings were once used as a signature would be used today, as a way of leaving your mark on a document in wax or clay and as a way of assuring authenticity. The top of the ring was usually set with a hardstone that had been deeply engraved with a symbol or depiction that was meaningful to the wearer such as coats of arms, monograms, family seals or initials.
This Roman ring is dated from 100 – 200 A.D. It’s made of gold with an onyx intaglio depicting an ant, which was the symbol of Roman goddess Ceres. It is thought to have been intended to bring prosperity to its wearer. Similar styles have been found with bear and bee symbols. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Signet rings were used from ancient times through the early 19th century when the rings became more of a status symbol. The tops of the rings had decoration or engraving and often gems. Even as more people became literate and the use of signet rings as document seals declined, the pieces maintained their popularity.
This ring is a prime example of a signet’s reuse. The Roman intaglio, carved in jasper, dates to the third century CE and was reset in this gold ring design in the 13th century. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Contemporary jewelry designers are rediscovering signet rings
Today’s signet rings aren’t dissimilar to ancient styles. Many embrace the personalized aspect of signet rings, engraving them with customers’ monograms or the initials of their loved ones.
Some designers believe that personalization lends an importance to jewelry that goes beyond accessorizing. The rings connect to a person’s individuality and often give the jewelry an automatic heirloom status. The simple and historic beauty and the tangible link to family also appeals to many because it can capture at least a piece of someone’s story and ideally help to inspire their next chapter.
One designer, Alison Chemla of the brand Alison Lou, has playful, emoji-inspired rings in hefty signet styles that feel as luxurious as they do clever. “Playing with classic jewelry norms is something I do often in my designs,” said Chemla. “I love the history behind (signet rings) and the way that they look; however, instead of using my signet rings as a seal of identification, I’ve made them a seal of your personality.”