By Danielle Olivia Tefft, Jewelry Writer
You probably don't have an ancient Egyptian or Roman signet ring in your jewelry box. But chances are you might have a modern signet ring or two. Signet rings have smooth faces of metal or stone with unique designs engraved on them. The original function of these rings was to create distinctive seals when pressed in wax or clay. Typically, the design is recessed in the face. This is called an intaglio. In contrast, cameos rise above the ring surface.
As I hinted above, humans have been wearing signet rings for thousands of years. Their first recorded use was by the ancient Egyptians over 4000 years ago! Many of these signet rings have been found in the tombs of the Pharaohs and other high ranking officials. It is believed that these rings were used to signify authority and seal business transactions. Even common people could recognize the seals of important officials.
Each signet ring was unique. Their designs consisted of symbols dedicated to nature and ancient Gods. Scarab beetles symbolized the sun. They were often included in ancient Egyptian signet ring designs. The Greeks borrowed the scarab symbol for their signet rings. They also blended the symbolism of their own culture in signet designs. These symbols included animals, mythological characters and gods. In turn, around the 6th century BC, the Etruscans adapted signet rings from the Greeks. They displayed their own symbols of power and prestige on their signet rings like griffins and lions.
When the Romans conquered Greece in 146 BC, Roman signet ring styles then blended with those of the Greeks. Signet rings were very important in Roman culture. They served as symbols of authority bestowed upon warriors and higher officials by Roman emperors. Roman signet rings depicted gods, battle scenes and even the profiles of emperors who bestowed them.
As the Roman Empire grew, the signet ring became popular among the peoples of the farthest expanses of Western Europe including what is now France and the United Kingdom. As with the Romans, high officials and royalty wore signet rings to celebrate their authority and power.
By the 4th century AD, the enormous Roman Empire began to decline in the West. But its eastern territories, known as The Byzantine Empire and heavily influenced by Christianity, were flourishing along the Mediterranean, Adriatic and Black Sea coastlines. The signet rings of the Byzantine Christians blended the pagan Roman symbols with the symbols and teachings of Christianity. It was common for these rings to have both intaglio faces of pagan gods and inscriptions from the bible engraved around the bands. For the first time, women also wore signet rings, primarily because they became the recognized caretakers of family households and possessions.
Finally, the Byzantine Empire falls to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. This turn of events in world history signals the beginning of the Middle Ages. During the Middle Ages, lesser officials and commoners were wearing signet rings. The impressed symbols helped the wide majority who couldn't read recognize the authority and approval of importance.
Throughout the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the 17th and 18th centuries, European men and colonists in the New World continue to wear signet rings to seal important contracts, conduct business and other official purposes. Monograms, family crests and symbols commemorating significant events became common signet ring designs. However, as western civilization became more literate overall, the signet rings' use for sealing important documents was being replaced by written signatures.
By the 19th century, signet rings were still popular symbols of status and authority. But they were no longer the standard for conducting business. To this day, signet rings remain a popular jewelry choice of both men and women.
(While writing this article, I referred often to the spectacular book Rings Jewelry of Power, Love and Loyalty by Diana Scarisbrick (2007 Thames & Hudson Ltd. London). It is a must have for lovers of jewelry history and rings! And no. I was not paid to endorse this book in any way.)
Do you own an antique or vintage signet ring with a unique history? Please tell us about it with in the comments section. Also, if you love jewelry from all eras, don't forget to subscribe to this blog so you won't miss an article!
< a href= "https://plus.google.com/110863166906514645261?rel=author">Danielle Olivia Tefft</a>Danielle Olivia Tefft is a professional writer with a lifelong passion for gems, jewelry and fashion. She is a GIA accredited jewelry professional and the owner of online antique and vintage jewelry shop, Treasure Box Antiques. Current projects include ghostwriting jewelry and fashion blogs for clients worldwide. When she is not writing, she spends time in the garden, spoiling her cats and traveling with her significant other. Would you like to hire her to write for you? Visit her website danielleoliviatefftwrites.com for more information or email her directly: email@example.com.
< a href= "https://plus.google.com/110863166906514645261?rel=author">Danielle Olivia Tefft
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The Found in the Jewelry Box Blog is my attempt to teach others about the wonderful world of gems and jewelry, past and present. Please enjoy!