Why signet rings get our seal of approval

By Livia Primo Lack

3 minute read

Fashion trends may come and go, but since the dawn of civilization, jewellery has been part of our daily attire.

From the Neanderthals, who wore jewels as trophies to attract the opposite sex, to its use as a status symbol within social classes, jewellery has always been present. It’s as much a decorative element as it is a key to human history.

One such piece is the signet. First identified as early as 3500 BC among the population of Mesopotamia (now Iraq, Kuwait, Turkey and Syria), the original iteration came in the form of a clay necklace. This signet was purely functional, used as a personalised seal to authorise important documents, and allowing illiterate members of society to recognise officials. 

Following on, the Egyptians improved this system by turning the seals into rings, for safekeeping and easy access. Useful rather than adornment, signet rings became an essential part of the everyday. And today, those relics help us to decode what life entailed in ancient times.

It was not until the Middle Ages that the techniques in silversmithing and stone carving allowed for the design of more intricate and luxurious signets. From that point, and throughout the 19th century, society’s elite influencers wore signet rings set with precious stones or engraved with their family crest as a sign of wealth, status and heritage.

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Top: Leonardo DiCaprio providing signet ring style inspiration in 'The Great Gatsby'; photography All Star Picture Library/Alamy. Above: Castro Smith, Gold and Ceramic 'Heart' Ring

Fast forward 200 years or so, and the world has changed. We’ve modernised, revolutionised and relaxed the constraints of social class to allow individuality to speak louder than wealth (when it comes to jewellery, at least). And what has been a steadfast presence throughout? The signet ring! 

With status no longer the focus, today’s signet ring captures an emotional value beyond that of its predecessors – whether a family heirloom, a crest of one’s own creation or just a simple gold ring, worn on the daily. 

The signet rings to know now

Cue Lymited’s latest selection of signet rings. As Josephine Odet, expert gemologist and Head of Jewellery at Lymited says: “We don’t want to scream power and money, we want to scream personal choices, individuality and character.” The standout pieces? Modern signet rings designed by jeweller and engraver Castro Smith; juxtaposed in aesthetic with rings from the collection of Max Michelson, a rare objects specialist who works with unique historic creations. 

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Medieval 'Pelican in her Piety' Signet Ring, from the collection of Max Michelson

The king of contemporary, Castro Smith has elevated the signet ring into a piece of wearable art. Having studied with master craftsmen in Japan, Smith uses ancient Japanese engraving techniques to hand-chisel texture into the metals he works with. This method ensures each ring is truly irreplicable, incorporating intricate detail and minutiae movements for pieces that appear beautifully flawed. Elegant and easily worn regardless of gender, his rings speak inclusively to those who appreciate jewellery. 

In contrast, Max Michelson’s collection taps into the historic depth of signet rings: a 1980s Bulgari piece displays ancient jasper and carnelian intaglios, which are over 2,000 years old; while a Medieval signet ring dates back more than 600 years. Although their specific provenance is mostly unknown, the time periods of both rings speak volumes about their origins. The 14th century ring’s engravings depict a bleeding pelican, representing Christ’s sacrifice for the Christian faith. Made from solid gold, the original owner would most likely have been an affluent Christian man. On the other hand, Bulgari is famed for having revived consumer desire for intaglios and ancient coins in the 1980s. 

Whether centuries old or fresh off the bench, these signet rings share a common thread: a rich history that will continue to resurface and evolve with each wearer, for generations to come.

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