Signed, Sealed, Delivered: A History of Signet Rings

Close-up of a signet ring
Image credit: Pixabay

These days, signet rings have a curious significance. On one hand, you’ll spot them on the digits of elites. Some of their most famous wearers include Prince Charles, Winston Churchill, and the Pope, for goodness’ sake. On the other hand, they’ve long been stereotyped as being a touch tawdry, worn by unseemly sorts who might well nick the rings of your fingers. Heck, they might take the finger too. For reference, see the costuming choices of any gangster film.

Young Prince Charles wearing a suit and signet ring
HRH Prince Charles and his famous signet ring
Image credit: Allan Warren / CC BY-SA 3.0

Luckily, the menswear world is pushing back against both extremes, with rings of all kinds becoming ever more popular with some of the best-dressed men around. To cite just a few examples, check out guys like, @allenpp0819, or @mastershopkins on Instagram.

If you consider any given detail on a piece of clothing, you’ll find that while it may be pretty, its origins are typically practical. The same can be true of jewellery and signet rings are a prime example. 

Gold, silver, or carved stone rings have been both aesthetic and serviceable decorations from as far back as Ancient Egypt, although they became especially widespread in Medieval Europe. At a time when few people could write, the engraved surface of a signet ring (also known as an intaglio) was a valuable device. It allowed a wearer to sign and seal a document by stamping into hot wax an insignia depicting a family crest or coat of arms. At a time when men more readily wore jewellery, especially given the effort and expense that went into making them, these rings would often be passed down through generations. 

Ancient gold signet ring
Image credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art / Public domain

By the early nineteenth century, however, writing had become more widespread and fashions had changed. In lieu of a ring, a man of means would have his seal affixed to his pocket watch as an ornamental fob. But the signet ring stuck around to fit a new purpose as a marker of rank. A gentleman from a ‘good’ family would wear an heirloom ring, while a newly titled gent could have one made to show off his decorated initials. 

As rings lost their practical use and took on a purely symbolic one, they gradually shrank in size while amping up on decoration. Some wearers went in for Renaissance motifs; others for symbols that reflected their military, artistic, or scientific pursuits. Since the details were now purely decorative, precious stones like ruby, amethyst or lapis lazuli became popular, alongside more elaborate visuals like cameos and relief carvings.

Even when jewellery for men had completely fallen out of fashion around 1850, the signet ring survived, continuing as an essential touch for a properly dressed gentleman. So essential, in fact, that the hoi polloi began wearing them in imitation of the moneyed classes. It’s here that the tide of perception started turning and pinky rings increasingly became the purview of drunk uncles at weddings. 

Luckily, throughout the twentieth century, there’s been a long line of stylish men who have staved off signet ring stigma. Among them are self-made, dapper dressers like Steve McQueen, Michael Caine, and Frank Sinatra. The latter even refused a gift bracelet once, saying he only wore his family-crested ring.

Frank Sinatra wearing a signet ring circa 1940s
Frank Sinatra
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

As far as conventions are concerned, signet rings can be worn on either hand depending on local custom and, while the pinky was historically favoured, Churchill long ago bucked the trend by opting instead for the ring finger. All of which is to say, like the act of donning a signet ring in the more democratic air of the twenty-first century, you get to choose.

Winston Churchill sitting at a desk wearing a signet ring
Winston Churchill
Image credit: Levan Ramishvili / Public domain

* In writing this article, I am particularly indebted to Josh Sims’ excellent entry on the signet ring in The Details: Iconic Men’s Accessories

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