Considering a signet ring instead of a wedding band or as a standalone piece of jewelry?
An emblem of authenticity in an age when ever-changing trends are like moving targets, signet rings leave a lasting impression. The notion of a men’s wedding band is a relatively new one, given the long and storied history of signet rings, so a signet is a natural choice for your wedding band. Once synonymous with royalty, the one-of-a-kind quality of a signet ring means each one is a future heirloom that will be appreciated for generations.
We offer a full line of heirloom-quality signet rings at Honey, so we know a thing or two. That's why we created this guide to cover everything from signet shapes and styles to history and symbolism.
Signet Ring History
Long before public notaries (or driver's licenses) existed, signet rings acted like a signature, verifying a document’s legitimacy, and confirming the identity of the wearer. The name signet derives from the Latin word signetum meaning “sign” and the French word signét, for “small seal.”
Since the earliest human civilizations, signet rings have proven ownership and confirmed authority. In the Old Testament book of Haggai, God says to Zerubbabel: “I will make you like a signet ring.” By this, it is understood that Zerubbabel would become God’s proxy and, like a signet ring, an invaluable and inseparable possession.
The invention of signet rings emerged from the practice of intaglio— the Italian word for carving. In the process of intaglio, an image is engraved into a hard surface, so that when it’s pressed against hot wax or soft clay, it will leave a raised impression. The use of intaglio seals for official communication dates back to at least 3500 BC, in the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia. It was the Egyptians who later had the idea of wearing that stamp as a ring— a ring, because it would always be readily available to its rightful owner.
Throughout history, signet rings have been carried from one civilization to the next, the commonality being a flat bezel at the ring’s head bearing a sign to identify the wearer. In their earliest form, signet rings were typically crafted from a single metal, and the identifying emblem was carved straight into the metal’s surface. The use of carved stones in signet rings became popular during Roman rule. Lapis, bloodstone, and carnelian were all used. The stones were set at the head of the ring and carved with the same magnificent detail. Today, both versions are common.
In Rome, not only was it a status symbol to wear a signet ring, but there was a sophisticated hierarchy to the materials used in the rings, and who could wear each one. Senators wore rings made of iron, whereas gold rings were reserved for ambassadors. Emancipated slaves were relegated to the use of silver for rings, which immediately identified their ghastly past despite their free status. In what could be history’s first known knockoff, some would wear blackened gold, as a sign of rebellion without conspicuously infringing on the rigid sartorial laws.
Traditionally, the rings were carved in reverse so that their imprint didn’t appear backwards. Now that their original purpose is obsolete, signet rings are most commonly impressed with the emblem facing the correct direction, so that we’re admiring the design on the ring’s surface, not as a seal in wax.
Signets as a Status Symbol
What began as an integral tool later became a firm seal of power. Due to the rise of the bourgeoisie in the 11th century, society had more motivation than ever to prove their status. A signet ring was a way to establish one’s class; the middle class wouldn’t have a coat of arms to display, so the upper class distinguished themselves by wearing theirs on a ring. During the Middle Ages, some four-thousand years following their advent, signet rings became further legitimized when King Edward II decreed that all official documents must be signed with the king’s signet.
Just as technology has evolved, so has the identity of a signet ring. In antiquity, signet rings were always discarded upon the owner's death. (Still today, each Pope wears a signet ring that is ceremoniously destroyed after his passing.) In the 1800s, the perception of signet rings shifted from practical to sentimental (likely with the invention of the typewriter) and they became important heirlooms that were bequeathed after death.
Today, signet rings can be worn to identify oneself, or to establish allegiance to a family, an organization... or even a romantic partner. In the 14th century, signets were first used for betrothal rings. Often they were inscribed with the initials of the engaged, and two clasped hands to signify the union of the couple.
Given their rich tradition, signet rings feel like a proverbial no-brainer for a wedding band. Modern men’s bands are notoriously anonymous, but nothing is more individual than a signet ring bearing your initial or, better yet, a custom design. In a digital age in which trends are constantly shifting and most objects are mass-produced, it feels substantial to wear a poignant, unique talisman— especially something meant to represent your endless love for another.
Just take your cues from modern royalty, Prince Charles. The icon of dapper style wears his signet ring and a smaller band stacked together, to signify his union with wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. His ring is over 175 years old, and is the original property of King Edward VIII. When Lady Diana was married to Prince Charles, she was also a fan, donning a gold signet ring with the coat of arms of the Prince of Wales.
Both President Roosevelts — Franklin Delano and Teddy — famously wore signet rings. FDR inherited his from his father. The ring features a bloodstone engraved with the Roosevelt family crest and 1853, the year that Roosevelt’s father married his first wife. We love the idea of commemorating a special year or date on a signet ring.
Experts agree that a signet ring can be worn on any finger. In the Bible, there are multiple references to the signet ring being worn on one’s right hand, but since the Middle Ages, signet rings have been worn predominantly on the nondominant hand (just like a wedding band), the idea being that this hand would be less occupied and readily available to imprint in wax to make a seal.
It’s worth noting that both Roosevelts and Prince Charles preferred their signet rings stacked on the left pinky, instead of the ring finger. Let this serve as inspiration to bend the rules a bit when it comes to your band.
Signet Ring Shapes & Styles
A second (arguably more traditional) choice of shape is the oval signet. In choosing your shape, consider what might best complement the design you have in mind. From scarabs to Roman gods, Wimbledon trophies to university seals, signet rings have depicted a variety of insignia throughout history. The Pope’s official regalia, for example, includes a signet ring exhibiting St. Peter in a fishing boat. While our most popular option is to display the wearer’s initial, another romantic choice is to inscribe the ring with the initial of your partner.
Still more unexpected: a custom crest. We encourage our clients to inquire about bespoke engraving, for a ring that’s meaningful to you and your partner. Mind you, there is some discord as to whether signet rings should be worn with their insignia facing towards the wearer, or away. History suggests best practice is to wear it facing in, because when knights went to battle, they didn’t want to bear arms — as in, reveal their coat of arms — to the enemy. Others argue it’s proper to wear the ring facing outward, as it’s a public display of identity.
Our signet rings are available in 14-karat white, yellow, or rose gold; 14-karat gold is ideal for a signet ring, as it’s less soft than higher-karat gold and will prevent the ring’s details from wearing down over time. The beauty of a signet ring is that it looks just as natural with swim trunks as it does with a tuxedo; it adds a quality of casual sophistication to everything it touches.
One of our favorite visions of a signet ring and a suit is James Bond in the original movies— never mind that his ring came equipped with a hidden spy camera! Brad Pitt is repeatedly seen wearing his bee-emblazoned signet ring on and off the red carpet.
From James Bond to the Pope, gentlemen have been gravitating towards this accessory for thousands of years. A small piece of metal can speak volumes, and carry an abundance of significance. Why not choose a signet ring to represent your everlasting love?
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