Signets: Sealed with a Ring

Antique amethyst signet ring in yellow gold, circa 1890.
Ref: 12260

Sunday 10th January 2010

A signet or seal ring is one that features a central incised decoration, either engraved directly into bezel of the ring or into a flat gemstone. The signet ring is one of the earliest forms of jewellery, originally a utilitarian object used to authenticate documents by impressing the seal into wax or clay, thus transferring the owner’s name or symbol. 

Some of the earliest known signet rings were made by the Minoans in the sixteenth century BCE, though cylindrical signets set as pendants were used by the Sumerians as early as 5000 BCE. The ancient Egyptians wore signets rings with raised engraved metal bezels as well as rings set with hardstone scarabs which rotate to reveal a signet on the bottom of the stone. The ancient Greeks also embraced the practice of wearing signet rings, most commonly set with gems carved with gods and goddesses, though they are thought to have become primarily decorative in purpose. The ancient Romans, reinstated signets for sealing purposes. The use of seal rings continued throughout the Byzantine Empire, though they were made primarily in metal as knowledge of gem carving had been largely lost, and Christian symbolism replaced the Greco-Roman deities.

During the medieval era heraldic rings, or rings carved with crests or coats of arms, first came into use, the earliest examples of which are Italian in origin. They often became family heirlooms, passed down through generations, bloodstone being the stone of choice in these cases for its evident symbolic suitability. By the eighteenth century functional seal rings became increasingly obsolete due to the spread of literacy. Though decreasing practical in purpose, signet rings were by this time an established accessory, the subject of the carving often relating to the wearer’s personal interests. The mid-century discovery of the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum inspired a renewed interest in Classical objects, including carved gems, further encouraging the fashion, and new schools of gem carvers arose to provide for the demand.  At this time women were known to have worn signets as well as men. While her husband collected antique specimen, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806), wore various hardstone signet rings commissioned from contemporary Italian carvers.

The persisting taste for Classicism as well as a revival of all things Medieval continued to promote the fashion for signet rings throughout the nineteenth century.  Today both Greco-Roman signets and heraldic rings remain popular, no doubt due to their longstanding role as a discrete display of the erudition and prestige of the wearer. 


Diana Scarisbrick, Rings:  Jewelry of Power, Love and Loyalty, Thames and Hudson, 2007.

Hugh Tait, 7000 Years of Jewellery, The British Museum Press, 2006.

Antique signet ring in yellow gold, French circa 1900.
Ref: 14492
Ancient Roman jasper signet ring engraved with a grillos, 1st to 2nd century AD.
Ref: 15056
Bloodstone signet ring in 15ct yellow gold, English circa 1859.
Ref: 14512
Ancient Roman signet ring with engraving of a soldier, 1st to 2nd century AD.
Ref: 15176
18ct yellow gold signet ring.
Ref: 8984
Ancient Roman seal ring engraved with a profile bust, 1st to 2nd century AD.
Ref: 15422
15ct gold signet ring, English circa 1922.
Ref: 14384
Antique bloodstone signet ring in 15ct yellow gold, circa 1872.
Ref: 14519
Antique lapis signet ring, circa 1890.
Ref: 11867
Ancient Roman signet ring engraved with Victoria (Victory), 2nd century AD.
Ref: 15059
Ancient Roman cornelian intaglio, circa 200 AD, in a yellow gold setting, French, circa 1890.
Ref: 12308
Antique yellow gold signet ring, French circa 1900.
Ref: 14491
Ancient Roman cornelian signet ring, 2nd to 3rd century AD.
Ref: 14509
Sardonyx signet ring, circa 1919.
Ref: 11495

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