If you know the story of Daniel and the Lion’s Den, you’ll know the king sealed the stone over the exit of the lion’s lair with his signet ring so he’d know if anyone let Daniel out for a break from the prowling man-eaters. In fact, the wearing of signet rings goes all the way back to ancient Egypt in the time of the pharaohs. Here we take a look at this traditional men’s accessory, and explain how and when should you wear yours.
The mark of the aristocracy
During the middle ages, so few could write that not even kings were always capable of scrawling a sentence. Instead, the clergy controlled the written word, scratching away at parchments with goose feather pens and proffering their squid ink missives for the monarch to “sign” with his ring.
Even today, old money clings to the tradition. Prince Charles wears a 175-year-old ring featuring the Prince of Wales’ crest, which he places on the traditional finger – the left pinkie. This enables the wearer to easily rotate his wrist and so press the ring firmly into the molten wax seal.
You’ll notice that, like most engraved signet rings, Charles’ ring, bears the design cut into the face, and the inscription is carved backwards. That’s so the resulting seal stands proud of the wax with the motto reading the right way around. It’s traditional to wear your signet ring with the coat of arms or monogram facing you – apparently, the knights of old did not “bear arms” towards their enemies.
Top churchmen are also notable wearers of signet rings, and although it’s now discouraged, it used to be protocol to kiss the the bishop’s ring. The bishop of Rome – the pope – is notable for wearing a gold fisherman’s ring which bears an engraving of St Peter, the “rock” upon which Christ built his church. Pope Francis only wears his on special occasions, mainly preferring to sport a more frugal silver number.
Why are signet rings still popular?
The practice of wearing a signet ring gradually spread from the aristocracy to the burgeoning middle classes, and then to the rest of us. Families on the up and up may not have had their own coat of arms, but a monogram carved into metal or semi-precious stone was almost as good. It became popular for a father to keep a treasured ring in the family by passing it onto his eldest son.
Perhaps it’s the family origin of this most ancient of accessories that gives it its enduring popularity. Added to which is the fact that along with a wrist watch and a pair of cufflinks it’s pretty much the only jewellery apart from a wedding ring that your average gent will wear on display to the office.
What kinds of signet ring are there?
Being made from gold or silver, original Roman or medieval signet rings are still easy to acquire provided you have around £3,000 to splash. Otherwise, you’ll be looking for a new or used ring of more contemporary origins.
According to signet ring experts, Rebus, there are three basic shapes to look for:
- Oxford oval – round or slightly oval shape – the most popular
- Cushion – soft, square shape – preferred shape of the Victorian era
- Marquese – a diamond shape
If you choose to go for a signet ring with a stone set into it, this should always be flat, never domed. Common stones are jet black agate; vivid blue lapis lazuli; black onyx (sometimes with white bands); sardonyx (onyx with bands of reddish sard); bloodstone (green jasper with flecks of red hematite); and red cornelian. Of course there are many, many stones from which to choose – or go with none at all – a plain flat or engraved bezel is a subtle way to dress up your suit or blazer.
How to wear a signet ring
If you’re wearing an heirloom ring, you can wear it with anything and look the part – the authenticity of a family piece, together with the patina of generations of wear makes it blend with any outfit in a way that never looks over the top. You might choose to put it on your pinkie, or like some, “stack” it over your wedding ring.
Wearing a signet ring as part of an ensemble? The ring you go with depends on your vibe – a slick, sophisticated look requires a plain or engraved signet ring in pale gold or platinum. If you’re adding a splash of colour to a sober suit, go for a contrasting colour – a red stone goes well with a navy blue jacket, especially if you match your ring with your pocket square and tie.
Wearing velvet, or attending a black or white tie evening? You can afford to up the ante – bold reds, vibrant blue lapis lazuli, stunning jades are your go-to stones.
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