Golden Signatures: The History of Signet Rings

May 22, 2019 3 min read

market square jewelers custom engraving signet ring

A beautiful custom signet ring engraved by our master engraver.


Long before photo IDs or fingerprint scanning, a person's identity was worn on his finger.  For many centuries, signet rings were used to establish who you were and what your social standing was.  Remarkably, the design of signet rings has changed very little over the course of thousands of years.  Whether worn for practical reasons or sartorial ones, signet rings have had a long and fascinating journey.  


What Is A Signet Ring?

“Signet ring” is a term that is used to describe a wide range of personalized rings, including monograms, family crests, fraternity and sorority symbols, and class rings. Signet rings can be made entirely from metal, or be set with a carved stone. When the engraving or carving is deep enough, the ring can be used to leave an impression in melted wax. This carving technique is called intaglio, and has been practiced since the earliest Mesopotamian civilizations.  Intaglio is sometimes confused with cameo because they both involve carving, however, they are technically opposites.  Intaglio is carved into the medium, leaving an impression, while cameo is carved out of the medium, creating a raised design. Because intaglio is concave, it will leave an inverse raised design when stamped in wax. 


The History of Signet Rings

Signet rings are extraordinary in that they have persisted in popularity since antiquity. Their earliest use was as a kind of seal or signature, a unique mark that established the wearer’s identity or position. Although the Mesopotamians used carved seals as far back as 3500 BCE, it was the Ancient Egyptians that incorporated the seal into a ring, a design that is very similar to the signet rings of today. One of their signet ring designs was a carved scarab beetle strung onto a wire band and inscribed with symbols underneath. The scarab could be spun to face up or down, creating a reversible design. The symbols carved into these signet rings were highly meaningful, and were believed to be a kind of talisman or amulet. 


Signet rings from Ancient Egypt


Signet rings continued in popularity among the affluent and influential, worn by the Ancient Greeks, Romans, and Etruscans. The Ancient Romans used intaglio carved sardonyx and garnet rings to create unique seals. Signet rings would also later find popularity among Christians, who wore them inscribed with symbols, and like the Ancient Egyptians, believed they acted as a kind of amulet for protection. 

Signet rings really took off in popularity through the development of heraldry in the Middle Ages, when crests and symbols were used to identify those of a certain status. In addition to flags and shields, the crest was engraved onto rings and could be used to seal documents and letters to ensure authenticity. These rings would be ornately decorated, and depicted coat of arms, family crests, mottos, and castles. Those of lower status who were not entitled to a crest wore much simpler signet rings, often engraved with their initials. 


masonic signet ring

A classic Masonic signet ring design.


This transformation of the signet ring from symbolic to personal remained through the coming years. Today, people wear signet rings to show their affiliation with a fraternal organization like the Freemasons, or the university where they studied. They wear signet rings inscribed with their initials, or the initials of a loved one. Others wear signet rings simply for their beauty, for antique signet rings are often exquisitely engraved with ornate letters or unique crests. Though styles have changed, signet rings are still worn by the modern gentleman, and project an air of class and timelessness. Women love them too, and wear lighter versions stacked with other rings. 


styling antique signet rings


Starting Your Signet Ring Collection

Signet rings make wonderful gifts, as they come in a wide range of styles and can be personalized for the recipient. At Market Square Jewelers, we love giving signet rings for Father’s Day, graduation, and milestone birthday gifts. We have a wide selection of antique and vintage signet rings and work with a master engraver to bring your design to life. Browse our selection of signet rings, chose your favorite, then contact us to start the customization process! In addition to ready-to-engrave pieces, we also have many signet rings with their original engraving, including ornate pieces from the Victorian Era. Whether you like them for their beauty or their symbolism, signet rings will never go out of style.

Also in MSJ Handbook

Chrysoprase pendant history and characteristics
Chrysoprase: The Golden Green Gem

September 17, 2021 2 min read

This rare variety of chalcedony has been beloved for centuries.
Read More
Art Nouveau era moonstone necklace
The History & Style of Art Nouveau Jewelry

July 26, 2021 4 min read

Learn about the styles and artistry that defined this era.
Read More
types of chains
The Big Guide to Chain Types

June 29, 2021 9 min read

Find your perfect chain with this encyclopedia.
Read More