The Signet Ring:   Mark of a Gentleman

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.


About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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52 Responses to The Signet Ring:   Mark of a Gentleman

  1. …As was made clear by Georgette Heyer in ‘The Talisman Ring’ and by Carola Dunn in ‘The Tudor signet’ [published in America as ‘The Tudor Secret’ for some unfathomable reason]. I have to say I was thinking of how universal and long lived was this custom, as I picked up at a jumble sale a book about Minoan intaglio seals and rings. I suppose the custom finally died out with virtually universal literacy meaning that everyone could recognise a signature rather than having to recognise a symbol.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I think you are right about more universal literacy reducing the need for signets. But, there is also the fact that as the population increased, there would be fewer and fewer people who were in the “signet in-club,” for lack of a better term. Fewer people with family crests and coats-of-arms, and fewer still who understood the once-powerful meaning of those symbols.

      Yet again, the Regency was the end of yet another tradition which had dated back for centuries, but slipped away as the world became more democratic and literate in the “modern” period. Oh, sigh! (The changes are certainly good for everyday life, but do take a bit of the romance out of things.) 😉



  2. Great post, Kathryn! The last paragraph is a goldmine of information for Regency writers.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am glad you found the information useful. That is the main reason I publish the Redingote. There are others who also post good information on the Regency online and I would like to contribute to that effort, so that authors of my favorite genre have an ever-broadening palette of interesting details with which to embellish their stories.

      Thank you for stopping by, and for your kind words.



  3. Very interesting article, thanks, Kathryn.

  4. Pingback: Sealing … Wax? | The Regency Redingote

  5. Page Davis says:

    This is perhaps off the point, but I am curious if you have ever seen a picture of Lord Byron’s notorious carnelian heart ring, which was a gift from a young friend and cracked while he was travelling abroad; when he returned home he discovered his friend had died, and he wrote two poems collected in Childe Harold’s Pilgramage on this subject (although he did not reveal the young friend was male). The ring supposedly still exists, and is in the John Murray Collection. It has been mentioned in at least two Byron biographies from this century, as if the authors have seen it themselves; however, they provide no photographs. I thought you could find an image of anything on the Internet, sooner or later; I’ve now been looking for over ten years! The John Murray Collection always answers queries with excuses about how the Byron part of their collection is being “organized” and therefore “temporarily unavailable”. When I was far more flush with money than I am now, I volunteered to pay them for an image, and promised I would not publish it for financial gain. They never answered me. I’ve pretty much given up on them; and yet there is still a reference in Wikipedia, among other places, to an extensive history regarding this ring! What ails these people?,,

    To further confuse the issue, some gay site has got the whole thing mixed up, and goes on and on about a carnelian brooch which they claim is in pictures of Byron – the pictures quite clearly show him wearing an oval brooch. Their focus is so fixed on Byron’s attachment to his young friend, their research is just plain sloppy. If they want to make their case, they’d better get their facts straight – no pun intended!

    At any rate, I just want to see the damn thing! What did Byron’s friend pick out for his gift, and how did Byron feel when he looked at it on his hand? How badly is it damaged? The poems connected to this ring are outstanding. I think we deserve to get a look at the source of all the fuss!

    Hoping this finds you still answering – and I am using a borrowed computer myself. But I will check back if I can get this message to post. (It will be a lot easier for me to find your reply here than at the e-mail address I will have to give.) Thank you for your consideration.

    Page Davis

    • How interesting! I hope you can find an image of the ring – are there any portraits of Byron wearing it that could be digitally enhanced to see it better? Where is the John Murray collection kept? is there anyone reading this that has a hope of going to see it and asking in a more personal way perhaps?

      • Page Davis says:

        Dear Sarah,

        After ten years of looking, I have been totally frustrated in getting answers to any of the questions you ask. I asked them myself! I’ve noticed the conventions of eighteenth-nineteenth century portraiture almost never show rings on anyone’s hands – not even wedding rings – unless they are of the Prince Regent, whose jewelry was most likely official. (Also, painters were free to take more artistic liberties with their subject matter than photographers; and I bet it cost extra to have personal jewelry painted in.)

        As for seeing the Byron memorabilia in the John Murray collection – oh, man! First, the collection seems to have wandered the length of Great Britain during the last decade, from London to Scotland, and is therefore always being “set up” or “catalogued” – euphemisms for “unavailable”. When I directly e-mailed the folks who used to have the collection back in 2005, I received a reply from a curator that contained the address of an elderly descendent of John Murray, with a recommendation that I write her a personal letter requesting to see the ring. Since I had already told these people I had no way to get across the Atlantic, this was tantamount to an insult. I had no intention of badgering an old lady for a personal favor of such relative triviality, and I felt as if the curators were trying to set me up. After that, I never tried to deal directly with them again.

        As to why the mystery, I can only think of how zealously some of Byron’s “friends” burned his memoirs after his death. I doubt anything in them would shock us today; and yet even now people who have even a little interest in Lord Byron can become quite obsessive and proprietarial over him. Just look at me, for example!

        Page Davis

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Apparently, we are both in the same boat in never having seen any photos of the ring! 😦

      So far as I know, there are no pix of it on the net, at least none that I could find. I did search, as I ran across a couple of references to it during my research on Regency jewelry. But those references were in older books, published in the last century or before. And all of those seem to simply repeat one another, citing no source.

      There are several books on English jewelry, a couple specifically on rings, which have been published much more recently, and they did not refer to the ring at all. Maybe because the authors also could not get access to the Murray collection, or perhaps they discount its continuing existence as a myth. However, the top authority on English jewelry is Diana Scarisbrick, and I was not able to get my hands on all of her books while I was doing my research. If you are based in the UK, you might have better luck in getting copies of some of her books on British jewelry, specifically her books on rings. She is a very diligent scholar and researcher, so she might have more information, or even a photo in one of those books.

      If those managing the Murray collection are so cagey about sharing information, it may be because they have lost the ring and do not wish to admit that. Or, it could be they never had it at all, that the reports that it went to Murray after Byron’s death may not be accurate.

      I wish I could offer you more concrete information, but that is all I know about Byron’s “lost” ring.

      Thanks for stopping by.



      • Page Davis says:

        Dear Kat,

        Perhaps all of this might have been better placed in the section of Regency Love and/or Friendship Jewelry, which I just stumbled across. But since I began this conversation here, I’d better post what answers I have in the same place.

        I went through a godawful ten years during which time I lost my inheritance, my home of thirty-one years, and most of my personal papers and research notes; so a lot of this is reconstructed from memory. I also went and did a little fact-checking of my own on the Internet before answering your post.

        There are three books which mention Byron’s ring in great detail: “Byron and Greek Love” by Louis Crompton (1998); “Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame” by Benita Eisler (2000); “Byron: Life and Legend” by Fiona McCarthy (2002). I used to own all of these books, as well as Byron’s Collected Works and Letters. One thing I had forgotten was that both “Cornelian” poems (note variant spelling) were removed from the first editions of “Hours of Idleness” and “Childe Harold’s Pilgramage” before they were published. I am pretty sure they were included in later editions, and Byron’s friends certainly knew from his letters about this ring. He gave it to a young lady named Elizabeth Pigot for safekeeping for a while, then wrote asking if she could return it after his friend’s death, and promised to replace it with something she would find more pleasing – after all, according to the second of Byron’s poems, the stone in the ring was already damaged.

        The one biographer who seems to have laid eyes on the ring is Benita Eisler, who describes it in detail: small, pale and “poingnant” in appearance, I believe she said. Since Fiona McCarthy’s description also mentioned the word “poingnant”, I have to wonder if she merely copied what she read in Eisler’s book. Louis Crompton is totally reliable in his research into Byron’s letters and the social scene of the time; but he is less concerned with the appearance or fate of the ring, and more concerned with the fate of poor John Edlestone, Byron’s friend, who died so young; and I would never fault him for that. Edlestone is most likely “Thryzia” in the Childe Harold poems – Lord, I hope I’m spelling that right! – thus the endless fuss about anything concerned with him or his gift to Byron.

        Finally, Eisler does include a lot of photographs in her book, including a gimmel ring given by Byron to his half-sister Augusta: a triple-banded device which allows two clasped hands to open up and reveal a hidden heart underneath. Since she is so careful to include what she can in this visual section, it’s odd that she did not add a photograph of the carnelian ring she goes to such trouble describing. Perhaps she was not allowed to do so. (By the way, the gimmel ring is really cool! I really should have got that one into the section on romance jewelry.) Of course, the more dead ends I run into, the more I have to think this whole deal is just plain weird.

        Maybe something will come of the fuss getting out on a chat board – it won’t be the first time!

        Page Davis

  6. Page, if it’s not too far from me – I’m in Suffolk and prefer not to go as far as Wales or the North as I don’t like leaving my frail mum too long – if you ever manage to open any more negotiations I’d happily be your proxy to view and photograph the ring [if anyone ever manages to produce it]. However I suspect that the reason you’ve been stalled is that some ass of a junior curator has, at some point, lost it…. whether by misfiling or actually lost!

  7. Page Davis says:

    Dear Sarah,

    First, I want to thank you with all my heart (no pun intended) for volunteering. If the ring has not fallen victim to official incompetence (or unofficial greed), I’m afraid the thing is in Scotland now, because the John Murray Collection is now listed as being in the University of Edinburgh – which I suspect I’ve just misspelled, but can’t check up on right this minute. I’m logged on a borrowed computer; but I’ll be back. This site is something I wish I’d known about a long time ago!

    Page Davis

    • That’s a bit out of my stomping ground – on the other hand if you DO find anything out, I have half a dozen friends who live between Edinburgh and Dundee who might be prepared to look for you. Possibly in return for a small donation to the cat charity we’re all engaged in setting up. Kat has my email which I prefer not to post openly for fear of spam… I’m also on FaceBook [my icon is the 6 kittens]

    • NB says:

      I was wondering if you know how I could get in contact with whomever’s in charge of the John Murray Collection at present. If so, thank you very much. If not, it was worth the effort to ask, so my gratitude either way, I suppose.

      • Kathryn Kane says:

        Unfortunately, based on the experiences Page has shared, that seems to be something of a challenge. I have do a bit of research on my own, which leads me to believe that at least part of that collection is now in the US. According to a web page for the Rare Book Collection of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: “In 1986, the RBC acquired a collection of the imprints of the English publishing firm of John Murray and his successors. … ”

        You can find the page at:

        However, my reading of that page is that they only acquired books, which means the ring which has been under discussion here may still be in the Murray Collection in the UK.

        If you are seeking books, then it is certainly worth your while to contact the Rare Book Collection at UNC. If you are seeking the ring, it still might be worth contacting the UNC Library in case they might be able to provide any further details about anything else they acquired in that purchase. Since the acquisition took place more than twenty-five years ago, it seems unlikely they might have current contact information for the person responsible for the Murray Collection. And even if they do, it is highly unlikely they would be willing or able to provide that information. However, they might be willing to send a request for communication for you to their Murray Collection contact.

        I wish you luck.



      • Ok, the best I can do right off is this: which gives you a number of options to contact the National Library of Scotland, if you need anyone to phone them after you’ve made initial enquiries, I can phone any British number free for up to an hour. I would personally be inclined in your shoes to write a snail mail letter to them because that can get passed from hand to hand physically [ok it’s as easy to lose as an electronic mail but I’ve noticed museum type people take physical letters more seriously]

  8. Page Davis says:

    Dear Sarah,

    At the moment, I’m stuck – unfortunately, I’m also pretty much broke. I must be the only human on the planet who isn’t on Facebook! I really like the idea of the cat charity, though. My friend in this country who fact-checks the Internet for a living has a nonprofit that takes care of needy rabbits; at this time of year they’ve always got their hands full, cracking down on folks selling five-week bunny kits out of a paper sack in a parking lot, and then the other folks who throw the ten-week bunnies out in the woods after Easter because it turns out rabbits don’t like children all that much! (Maybe these folks should’ve paid more attention to “Alice in Wonderland” – but that implies these folks can read.) She searched the Internet earlier this year for me; and what I’ve posted here was all we could come up with. Right now I wouldn’t ask her to search again; but I’ve circled around this topic before and come back to make yet another run at it – hopefully, with more cash in hand.

    Browsing though other topics on the site, I was interested to find the links to Lord Byron’s maiden speech in the Lords, and to be reminded that we’ve just passed the anniversary to the publication of “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”. I must be some sort of idiot savant, or else the dates are still present in the back of my mind, even if my source materials are gone?

    Page Davis

    • Page, if your friend wants to interface with me, though we work mostly with cats, we can happily network needy bunnies too. I have a friend whose daughter has a 9-year-old bunny who is a real character!
      Meanwhile if there’s anything specific you’d like me to search for on the internet if you don’t mind me doing it between other things I’m happy to do searches in which case I’ll have to post up my email and maybe ask Kat to delete it after you’ve seen it.

  9. Page Davis says:

    Dear Kat and Sarah,

    This is my second attempt to leave a comment today – I seem to be hexed, in more ways than one.

    To reconstruct what I was going to say, after reading all of the above: I am stunned by what you have found out. I lived for thirty-five years in Chapel Hill, during which time I attended UNC, worked on campus, and spent hours in their library system – which happens to be a unique primary source for research into late eighteenth to early nineteenth century Anglo-American books, since the University was founded in 1793, and such books form the backbone of their collection. I tore through all sorts of three-volume novels from the period, once popular because of their depictions of Regency characters thinly disguised, which no one remembers now. (FYI: Bulwer’s “Pelham” is bearable; Thackery’s “Pendennis” is hysterical; Lady Caroline Lamb’s “Glenarvon” is indigestible!)

    I roamed the stacks as if I owned them, which I actually did, as a taxpaying citizen in the library of a public university – the very first public university ever chartered, I do believe. And yet, in all that time, I was never informed we had one sheet of paper from the John Murray Collection in our possession! This I simply cannot take in. I was in and out of the Rare Book Collection as well as the Hanes Art Library, asking for advice about this very subject; all of those red-herring leads came from those sources! I know the library has suffered from legislative budget cuts, but really…!

    This is not going to be the greatest time for me to head back over there. As a matter of fact, this past week marks the anniversary of my financial ruin and eviction from my home of thirty-one of those thirty-five years. (It sure kicked all the joy out of Saint Patrick’s Day for me – as if some malevolent entity decided to use me as a cautionary tale, “Dancing to Disaster”, a set of etchings depicting the bad little girl’s dire end when you let her get some book learning and an inheritance – except that I never got to have any fun before the fall, damn it all, no matter what my envious relatives think I was doing up here! All I was doing was paying the rent, reading, and admittedly going out to a lot of nightclubs.) I feel that I have perhaps violated the rules of the chatboard by talking about my situation too much; and so I’ll stop it right now; but I had to say something, so you would understand why all of this is so bizarre and even upsetting to me, especially right now.

    I am simply going to close out this post, and hope it goes through and makes sense. When I am more coherent, I can try to get back over to the UNC RBC personally, and figure out what on earth is really going on over there. Thank you for searching this out!

    Feeling very much like a fool,

    Page Davis

    • Anniversaries of dire things hurt. Sometimes you need to let the hurt out. Best of luck! stay in touch!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      From what I read on the UNC – RBC page, it looked like they may have only purchased books from the Murray Collection. Of course, it is always possible they also acquired ephemera and other items, but do not mention them as they are more focused on the books in the collection. With regard to their not mentioning the Murray Collection, many libraries do not maintain such private collections intact when they purchase them, so that may not have been their focus. They may well have simple considered it the “Byron Collection” or just a lot of new books added to their main collection.

      I hope that with your connections with the RBC that you might be able to pursue your search to find a Murray Collection contact and learn more about Byron’s carnelian ring.

      I wish you much luck!



      • Susan Page Davis says:

        Dear Kat,

        Hopefully I have not been blackballed, or something like that, for being too controversial. I am having trouble getting anything to post, perhaps because my posts have offended? Events over here have been so brutal, any sort of joke turns sour; and especially disturbing to me is a certain resemblance between our current trigger-happy United States, and the real Regency England, under the veneer of impeccable manners displayed by the upper classes. Perhaps we are two hundred years behind you in that respect, as ancient Rome was to Greece. (Surely, I’m not the first person to make that observation! I remember that in 1966, John Lennon remarked, “Americans seem to think of guns as extensions of their arms.” But in 1816, the same thing could have been said of Englishmen.)

        I have got as far as I can go with the Rare Book Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill. I have called and followed up; apparently, my request to see even a picture of the Byron ring is now in something called “the queue”. I haven’t heard from them for the past week. If anything does come of my query, I’ll post it here. In the meantime, thanks to everyone for finding out that a part of Byron’s writings, and possibly possessions, are sitting in my own backyard!

        Tout a vous,

        Page Davis

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          No, you have not been black-balled, though I did delete your comment regarding Margaret Thatcher’s funeral. I considered it inappropriate for a number of reasons. Most importantly, this blog is dedicated to the history of Regency England, only. I do not care to turn this blog into a forum for contemporary political discussion of any kind, nor do I wish to have comments posted here which speak ill of those who have passed away, regardless of anyone’s opinion of those people.

          Since I live in Boston, I am very well aware of the hell of this past week. The building in which I work is less than a block from the site of the first blast at the Boston Marathon. It is within the zone of the crime scene, for which reason I have had to try my best to work from home this week, as the building is closed. Perhaps as difficult for me, the main branch of the Boston Public Library was directly across the street from the first blast and has been closed ever since, thus prohibiting my ability to pursue my research on a number of upcoming Redingote articles. In addition, on Friday, I was unable even to leave my home due to the lockdown of the city while the manhunt for the suspect was in progress. All of which is nothing compared to the horror that so many people near the blast sites have endured and will continue to endure for the rest of their lives.

          With regard to the situation at UNC, it would be my guess that their slow response to your request to see a picture of Byron’s ring may very well be tied to financial constraints. Most institutions of higher learning lost funding during the economic downturn and many have been slow to re-staff positions which do not serve high-volume needs. It is quite possible that you have been the only person to request that picture in many years. Please be patient with them as they process your request, which may well be one of many being handled by a short-staffed library.



  10. Susan Page Davis says:

    Dear Kat,

    The embarrassing thing for me was that I actually had no intention of speaking ill of the dead; I was baffled by the apparent ignorance of those current Tories who were referring to Mrs. Thatcher’s funeral as “Operation True Blue”, which does refer back to the period we are discussing. Hasn’t the Whig/Liberal slogan always been “True Blue”? I apologize for the joke, which was awful; but I had just seen multiple clips of her, leaving 10 Downing Street on her last day in office, looking ashen but wearing a red dress – her colors still flying. I didn’t know how nasty some of the stuff going on across the Atlantic became during the week after her death, as we were otherwise occupied. Hopefully this will make sense, and I’ll not mention it again – except for the details about the political parties and their colors, which I am curious about.

    And I hope curiosity won’t… uh… better not go there!

    Page Davis

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  12. ki pha says:

    Reblogged this on doingsomereading and commented:
    Great info on signet rings

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thank you very much! I am glad you found the information useful. When I wrote this article, I did so mostly for my own reference, to gather together as much information as I could find in one place. I have been quite surprised since to discover how much interest there is in the origins of signet rings since I posted it.



  13. Pingback: Popinjay Palaces:   Bird Cages in the Regency | The Regency Redingote

  14. Abbo says:

    Sorry to say there are many inaccuracies in this article. It begins with one glaring error by stating “only gentlemen were entitled to wear signet rings”. That is incorrect. In fact signet rings were used and worn by all social classes in many different civilisations around the world since ancient times: Egypt, Greece, Rome, Babylon, Sumeria, India, etc. In medieval Britain, the signet ring started to be used with coats of arms by those people who were entitled to bear arms. Others used whatever designs they liked on signet rings (often monograms), in an unbroken tradition of personal signet rings worn by all and sundry that went all the way back to Roman Britain. Signet rings are not and were not protected/restricted items. Coats of arms (only in their whole, not as crests) are. An important difference.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Clearly, your sources differ from mine. You are welcome to post them.



      • I’ve always understood that the right to armorial bearings, ie, the social rank of esquire and above, were the only people entitled to a SIGNET ring. Because signet does what it says on the label; it signs, and it signs by defining who you are with your own escutcheon. Any other ring with a fancy pattern isn’t actually a signet ring. It’s a ring with a fancy pattern or monogram. And as such it might ape the use of a signet in being used with sealing wax, but it is surely, essentially, meaningless.
        The earliest signets known are from Knossos and appear to be high status items [believe it or not there’s a whole book about them, but I can’t be bothered to go dig it out unless anyone is totally interested]. Roman signet rings were generally only worn by Patrician and Equine classes at first; but in any long-lasting Empire there is always social shift with regards to customs and leading Plebians were often more influential than many members of the other classes by the time the Empire had broken into the Eastern and Western empires. Indeed, it was moving towards that by the time of the year of four emperors. Again, however, I think any symbols used were not recognised officially. The right to bear arms or familial symbology on a signet is what separates a signet from a fancy ring.

        • Abbo says:

          Your comment about rings from Knossos is a red herring if ever there was one. First, we are talking about Regency England, not Ancient Greece. Second, you mention flippantly that the Knossos rings “appear to be high status items”, but apparently have only one source for this, which you don’t supply. In the Harappan civilisation, they were not high status items but mostly used by traders (a pattern also found in the ancient Middle East). Third, you erroneously declare that the earliest signet rings are from Knossos, another contentious tangential diversion that ignores the Near East, the Middle East and Ancient Egypt, all of which used signet rings at an earlier period. Regarding Roman signet rings, the vast majority of the thousands of signet rings recovered to date have been the more perishable rings of bronze and iron that the plebs were allowed to wear. Rome placed no restriction on signet rings – only on the use of gold to make them (which was reserved for the patricians and knights).
          The gist of the rest of what you’re saying is that without armorial bearings, the historical widespread use of non-armorial signet rings such as monograms was a pointless mistake. That’s absurd. Why would anyone have used them as seals in the Middle Ages if they were a pointless mistake – just ‘fancy rings’? When we filter out all your deprecation of the plebs of yore, we don’t find any fact, only your own snobbishness. If you stop and think about it, if you were living in those times and had any kind of engraved ring made, it would be made by hand. The impression it left on wax would never be the same as anyone else’s, even with the same signature, unless you were trying to forge someone else’s seal. The same act as forging a signature today. Your signature isn’t restricted, but until someone tries to copy it nefariously, it still WORKS to authenticate documents. Think.

      • Abbo says:

        The onus is in fact on you to prove your statement “only gentlemen were entitled to wear signet rings”, since you’re the one putting that case forward. From what I can see, you apparently don’t have any sources to back up your unfounded assertion, based on your personal belief, that signet rings were restricted to “gentlemen” during the Regency period. If you had looked at any of the compendia written by scholars on this subject, you would know that signet rings *for sealing documents* weren’t restricted at all. At various times, precious metals (such as gold) were restricted, but that was much earlier in history (Roman empire). From the Middle Ages and to this day, armorial bearings were restricted to those entitled to use them. This restriction was enforced by law although, contrary to your implication and imagination, it was not motivated by sumptuary considerations. However the majority of signets *used for sealing* in fact had monograms throughout the Middle Ages and the early modern period. Everyone from William Shakespeare and Baruch Spinoza used monograms not coats of arms or crests (look them up). Would you consider them not gentlemen? I guess if you have no sources the answer is yes.
        If you want hundreds of examples of real signet rings designed for sealing an impress into wax, you should at the very least read “Rings for the Finger” by Kunz and “Finger-Ring Lore” by William before writing an article on the subject. These books are freely available at, and I encourage anyone reading this page to have a look at them.


  16. Anna Strengberg says:

    Dear Kathryn,
    I’ve been searching for a long time on the internet trying to find out the origin of a mystery signet ring that is in my family and this is how I stumbled upon your article.
    It was only last autumn after my grandfathers death that I realised that the odd ring with the green stone he’d worn as long as I can remember actually was a signet ring. He never knew anything about it himself, it was a gift to him from his mother. They were a poor family in Stockholm, Sweden and my guess is that he got the ring around 1930-40. We used to play with the ring as kids, never being able to figure out what it was or what it said (none of us spoke english then).

    The ring is a square bloodstone set in 14 K gold cabled border, possibly 19th century, possibly made in Denmark (if I understood the hallmarks correctly). The intaglio is an oak tree growing up from a coronet, through a saw. On top of the crest is a motto “through” written in reverse. I checked this with the Court of the Lord Lyon and got the answer “The ring shows the coat of Arms of the surname Hamilton. The motto ‘Through’ is used exclusively by the Hamilton family.”

    I’m baffled. How did this ring end up in Sweden, with my great grandmother? Who did it really belong to? The Hamilton family is big, could anyone by the surname Hamilton wear a ring like that?
    I’m very sorry if this is not the right place to ask these questions but somehow I’m convinced there is a story behind this and I would love to know it. Perhaps you would know where I could turn for more information?

    Yours Sincerely
    Anna Strengberg

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Your ring sounds fascinating, and something of a mystery. Though I am not a jewelry expert, there are a few things I can suggest to you for research. You might consider taking it to a dealer in antique jewelry. They could probably help you to date it and to determine where, or even by whom, it was made. However, most dealers will charge for such information. If you have a large museum near you, particularly one which has a collection of antique jewelry, one of their curators might be able to help you date it, identify where, and possibly, by whom it was made. If you live too far from a large museum, you can always call or email one with a large jewelry collection. They might be willing to try to date it and identify the maker based on photos, if you have a way to take very detailed close-up photos, ideally with a macro lens.

      Once you have a date and a maker, or location of manufacture, you can try to figure out if there were any people named Hamilton who might have lived in the area and commissioned the ring. The thing is, if it is only 14 karat gold, it is probably very late nineteenth century or early twentieth. Most rings, in fact, most jewelry made before that time was usually made of gold with a much higher karat weight.

      Anyone with the surname of Hamilton might have had such a ring made, there was no law prohibiting the use of a family crest or coat of arms. The aristocracy would never use a crest unless they were entitled to it, even as late as the Regency. However, by the later nineteenth century, lots of people were wearing signet rings, often with a crest for their family name, even if they were not part of that branch of the family which was entitled to bear arms.

      There is another scenario which might have resulted in this ring turning up in Sweden in the first half of the 20th century. It could have been made as one of a number of copies of an older, antique ring which was sold as costume jewelry when signet rings were in fashion. It might not have actually been made for someone named Hamilton at all. It might have been reproduced by someone who liked the design of the crest and just copied it.

      Regardless of whether or not you find out any more about this ring, it is now a treasured family heirloom, having been passed down the generations in your family. That alone should give it great value in your eyes and heart.

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your story.



      • The cheaper alternative to the macro lens is the set of tubes if your camera is an SLR [single lens reflex with interchangeable lens] or the close-up filter set, which are about six quid and can be made to work with compact cameras.
        Camera geek.
        Fascinating story though.

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          If it is of any help, particularly when photographing metal objects with a high polish finish, there is a way to avoid a glare spot from the light, or the reflection of the camera. I learned it from a photographer at the museum where I was working at the time. He did it whenever he was shooting our silver or other precious metal objects. Put the object inside a “tent” of white cloth to diffuse the light, with an opening just large enough for the camera lens. You can buy equipment for this purpose, but for years, I used the tripod for my camera with a length of white paper towels around it. Cheap and got the job done.



          • And works just as well as a diffusion box on expensive lights. I’ve made one using a sturdy cardboard box well cut about and greaseproof paper for cooking, with the back as an arc. That works fine too. You can also use a sheet of white card for fill-in reflection which works with a lot of objects.
            Between us we should write ‘the geek’s guide to photographing bijouterie’

            • Kathryn Kane says:

              Your box would be much easier to use, but not so easy to transport. When I was photographing objects years ago, I was traveling around to different museums and historic houses, so using the tripod and the paper towels was much easier to carry along with my other gear. Of course, in those days I was using a real SLR with real film. I do miss those days!


  17. sandrosirait says:

    thank you Kathryn Kane for writing this great article!
    I was browsing about signet ring and I found what I need to know here.


    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am very glad you found what you were seeking. One of the reasons I wrote this article was that I found bits and pieces of information on signet rings scattered here and there, and I wanted to bring them all together.

      Thanks for stopping by.



  18. Harry Hui says:

    Edleston was Byron’s first true love, and they met at school. Byron told Edleston that he had first fallen in love with Edleston’s voice, since Byron heard him at choir, then later fell in love with the rest of him. If memory serves, Moore’s bio states that Byron either received the ring as a gift from Edleston, or had it made–or something like that. In any case it represented Edleston’s heart being given to Byron–and I suspect it is a carnelian-set Claddagh, since that was a popular Regency style for such friendship/betrothal rings. Bear in mind also that a Claddagh ring is English in origin, not Irish, and has been worn since the 16th century.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thank you for the information. I knew that carnelians were popular during the Regency, but not that they were ever set in Claddagh rings. I was also not aware the Claddagh had English rather than Irish origins.



  19. Harry Hui says:

    Sorry to intrude again–in case your other commenter ever returns ref the Hamilton ring: that sounds to me like an early nineteenth century signet ring. Very likely a Hamilton settled in Scandinavia and had it made. The bloodstone and backward motto are the giveaways…the ring reminds me of FDR’s bloodstone signet, from roughly the same date as I have suggested.

  20. Pingback: Of Ciphers and Monograms | The Regency Redingote

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