By the end of the nineteenth century, men of all classes had begun to wear signet rings. But during the Regency, as had been the case for many centuries, only gentlemen were entitled to wear signet rings. And each of those rings bore some symbol which was unique to the gentleman who wore it. Originally, signet rings had also served as seals, but by the early decades of the nineteenth century, that was not always the case.
A brief history of the signet through the Regency …
First, a brief review of the word itself. Signet is believed to have its origins in Anglo-Norman and Middle French, and dates to at least the second half of the thirteenth century, when its primary meaning was a " … small seal employed for formal or official purpose … " which was a substitute for a signature on official documents at a time when few people could write. Scholars believe that it is related in meaning to the word signal, in the now obsolete sense of that word as " … a badge, an emblem, or a symbol." In England, from the Middle Ages right through the nineteenth century, the official signet of the monarch was designated as either the "Royal" or the "King’s" signet, while the simple term "signet" was sufficient to denote the emblems or symbols used by all other men of power, property and high status.
In concept, if not by name, the signet is almost certainly the first type of ring made for practical purposes, dating as far back as ancient times. Long before the art of writing was widespread, it was still necessary to mark royal proclamations and legal documents, or to authenticate correspondence. Important individuals selected a symbol or badge which identified them to others. These badges would be carved into two-dimensions so that the image could be pressed into the soft clay of a tablet before it dried, or a warm wax sheet before it cooled. In later centuries, they could be inked and pressed onto parchment or still later, paper. Because these emblems were a symbol of the power and authority of their owner, and because they were indispensible to commerce, marking bills of sale and other documents, they were most often made as a ring. In this form, the owner could keep his identifying symbol safely under his control and readily available, on his finger. Signet rings also became the means by which this power and authority was transferred to its owner’s designated heir. Thus, it became the practice to hand the signet ring down from father to son, through the generations. There were also occasions when a signet ring had to be destroyed after the death of its owner, as in the case of the Pope’s ring, to ensure the authority it represented was terminated.
By the Middle Ages, with the invention of sealing wax, signet rings were less often made as cameos, that is with raised or positive designs. Instead, they were increasingly made as intaglios, with a sunken or negative design. These intaglio signets would then leave their image in relief in the warm sealing wax when the signet was pressed in to it, guaranteeing the authenticity of the document. The very wealthy often had their emblem carved into a precious or semi-precious stone, which would be set as the bezel of the ring. But most signet rings were made of gold or silver with the device or symbol cast, instead of carved, into the bezel. Because signet rings were not just ornamental, but served an important purpose, and, because they were seldom, if ever, worn by women, signet rings were typically very heavy, made in a substantial and sturdy form to stand up to the wear and tear of being used regularly to seal documents. These massive rings also had the advantage that they could last through the years, to be worn by several generations in a family.
During the seventeenth century, signet rings were often relegated to the family jewel box, as more men began to prefer to have their seal in an ornamental mount. They then wore these mounted seals on a chain or ribbon, usually as a fob, along with their watch, and stopped wearing their signet rings. This practice continued on through most of the next century. However, in the latter decades of the eighteenth century, the signet ring once again became fashionable for gentlemen. Some men retrieved their grandfather’s or great-grandfather’s signet ring from the family jewel box. Others had new signet rings made, usually based on a traditional family signet design. Those new to the aristocracy, having only recently acquired their title, would have had a signet designed for them. Most titled aristocrats had their family crest or coat-of-arms emblazoned on the bezels of their signet rings. Younger sons and gentlemen of lesser rank typically had their initials placed on the bezels of their signet rings, either as individual, discrete letters or entwined in a monogram or cypher. A few gentlemen devised their own symbols for their signet rings. Such signet emblems were most often inspired by classical or Renaissance designs.
When the signet ring returned to fashion at the end of the eighteenth century, as had been the case in previous centuries, wealthy gentlemen often had their emblem carved or engraved on a precious or semi-precious stone which would be set into the bezel of their ring. The most popular stones for use in signet rings were ruby, amethyst, garnet, chrysoprase, bloodstone, cornelian, chalcedony and lapis lazuli. The most costly and elegant signet rings had the stone set into a swivel bezel so that the design in the stone could be worn facing out, or against the skin. All-metal signet rings were most often made of gold, though there were some made of silver. Platinum was known by the Regency, but was seldom used for signet rings until much later in the nineteenth century. These solid metal signet rings typically had a raised bezel which carried the emblem, often surrounded by a beaded or cable border. The most popular bezel shapes were square, oval or a simplified shield-shape, though there were also some round or rectangular signet bezels. There was also diversity in the style of the designs. Some men preferred to have their signet carved as a cameo, with a raised design, typically because they continued to wear a seal fob, so their signet ring did not serve that purpose. Others had their signet ring engraved with an intaglio, or sunken design, usually because they had left off wearing a seal fob, and did use their signet ring as a seal. Regardless of whether or not a gentleman used his signet ring as a seal, it was a mark of his rank, family heritage and social position.
Most peers wore their full coat-of-arms on their signet rings, in many cases the same ring which their father and even their grandfather had worn, if it was still in the possession of the family. But there were some aristocratic sons who continued to wear their own signet rings after they had succeeded to the title. For example, Hart, the sixth Duke of Devonshire, son of Georgiana, wore his own signet, a light green chrysoprase carved with the Devonshire crest over the initial D and encircled with the garland of the Order of the Garter, even after he was elevated to the dukedom. Aristocratic heirs and younger sons of peers often wore signet rings which included the family crest over their monogram or cipher, while the younger sons of lesser gentry made do with their initials only. Gentlemen who were interested in art, history or science sometimes included symbols of their interests in their signet designs. There were some instances when younger sons who entered the military or the church worked emblems of those commitments into the designs of their signets.
During the early decades of the nineteenth century, right through the Regency, men often wore more multiple rings, just as did many women. But only the signet ring was considered essential to complete the toilet of a well-dressed gentleman. There does not appear to be any particular tradition about which finger would be encircled by a gentleman’s signet ring. Nor even upon which hand it might be worn. A gentleman was free to wear his signet ring on any hand or finger which suited him, or on which it would fit. The only important point was that he wore it. Even if a gentleman did not favor the wearing of multiple rings, he would certainly always wear his signet ring, if he was entitled to do so. By the middle of the nineteenth century, men seldom wore rings, with the exception of a signet or talisman ring. And, as the century progressed, more and more self-made and nouveau riche men began to wear faux signet rings, in an effort to represent themselves as gentlemen. This practice gradually diluted the cachet and importance of the signet ring, but that came long after the Regency had ended. During the Regency, only a gentleman would have worn a signet ring. And that ring was not just an elegant and artistic masculine ornament, it was a significant symbol of that man’s place in the world.
Of course, if a gentleman was employed in espionage for his country, he was not likely to wear his signet ring while engaged in such activity, especially if he was working undercover. A gentleman who had secretly pledged himself to a young lady before going off to war, or engaging in some other dangerous activity, might give his signet to his love before his departure, a tangible symbol of his promise to her. A villain might steal, or attempt to steal, a gentleman’s signet ring for some nefarious purpose, because in so doing he was symbolically stealing that gentleman’s status and power. Dear Regency Authors, a signet ring can be a useful prop in a Regency novel, but if you decide to employ one in your story, please do not trivialize it. Remember that it was an object of considerable consequence to any Regency gentleman who was entitled to wear one. It was, in fact, a powerful mark of his status and gentility.