How The Signet Ring Became The Men’s Jewellery Trend Of 2020
My friend Jack wears a signet ring. He doesn’t, however, seem like a signet-ring-wearing kind of man. Rich? Nope. Posh? Not a whit. Flashy? He’s strictly a T-shirt-and-sweatpants type of gent. If he’d hailed from rah stock, I would probably have mocked him for wearing such an ostentatious marker of his own pedigree. But, out of an abundance of politeness, I left well alone. Until, prompted by the increasing number of signet rings available on MR PORTER, I decided to dig into the history of said accessory and ask my friend about his chosen adornment. His reason was what one might expect of a young man wearing jewellery: personal. It had belonged to his late father, and before him his grandfather who had served in WWII. The ring was a reminder of family lost, and family tradition.
My biased assumption that signet rings act primarily as signifiers of status, and not sentimental objects, is – while perhaps a bit more revealing of myself than of others – based in historical fact. The earliest signet rings were descendants of seals, which were used to indicate ownership of goods or authentication of documents. According to Ms Rachel Church, curator in the Sculpture, Metalwork, Ceramics and Glass department at the V&A in London, “the signet ring comes out of taking miniaturised versions of the cylindrical seal and putting them on a wire that you then wear around your finger, making it portable. And if it’s on your finger, then you know where it is. Nobody else is misusing it.”
By the time the Romans conquered Europe, they were already common on the continent. “What the signet ring allows you to do is have your own personal design set into it. And then to press that design into a soft surface like wax or clay,” says Ms Eleni Bide of The Goldmiths’ Company, which supports the precious metal and jewellery crafts. The result is “a symbol that everyone could recognise, [signifying that something has been] authenticated by you or marked as belonging to you. In a preliterate age, this is incredibly useful and practical.”
Back then, ownership of a signet ring typically suggested that you also owned property and, by extension, held a degree of power. “You’re not going to need one unless you’re important enough to be writing documents that need to be authenticated or own property that you need to mark,” Ms Bide explains, adding that their function was both pragmatic and symbolic. “They become associated with status and, to a large extent, people want to wear them to show off.”
Signet rings were not limited to the extremely rich, however, especially moving into the medieval and early modern ages. “It’s worth remembering that property owners don’t necessarily have to be wealthy,” Ms Bide says. “The ‘middle classes’ – if you like – clearly have access to them and wear them as well.” Ms Church agrees and argues that jewellery itself has always been, to a certain extent, democratic. “If you’re rich you have gold and gemstones and if you’re poorer you have base metals or carved wood or shells. I think there’s always that desire to adorn yourself. It’s pretty universal,” she says. “Even if you weren’t a property owner, you would still have letters that you’d want to write and seal,” she explains. “I think signet rings are important because they’re giving you a sign of legitimacy, but also the other really important factor is that they are giving you privacy.”
Later, in the 18th and 19th centuries, when men’s fashions became simpler and more staid, signet rings were one of the only types of jewellery that a man could reasonably get away with, but still, it’s important to keep in mind that, much like today’s trends, the fashions of the past were rarely one-size-fits-all. “There’s nuances of different classes and different cultures,” Ms Bide says. “The type of thing a young man living in London, the equivalent of a mod in the 1880s, is going to feel comfortable wearing – quite flamboyant, showy – compared to what an older man who has a good job as an engineer in a mill town in the north might feel comfortable wearing, is significantly different.”
Signet rings are important because they’re giving you a sign of legitimacy, but also they are giving you privacy
The signet ring is also wrapped up in ideas of identity. In many ways it became an extension of yourself. “There’s this feeling that [signet rings] are very business-like,” Ms Bide says. But, she adds, they were also used to define relationships, both formal fraternities – such as the freemasons – and in more informal situations. Fathers would pass their signet rings to sons, wives would give them to husbands and vice versa, but men also used them as a kind of “friendship” ring. “You have men exchanging signet rings as a sort of marker of their esteem in the 19th century, but before that as well,” Ms Bide says. “This is quite a significant thing, because the signet ring is so personal. Whatever the design – whether it’s a coat of arms or your initials or a symbol that is pertinent to you – giving your signet ring to a friend is an important act.”
An example that sticks out is Mr John Everett Millais urging fellow artist Mr William Holman Hunt to purchase a signet ring with their initials intertwined before he set off for a long stint in Syria. “In truth I don’t think I should have the strength to say goodbye… I cry like an infant over the thought that I may not see you again – I wish I had something to remember you by, and I desire that you should go [and] get yourself a signet ring which you must always wear…” he penned to his friend at the time.
Which brings me back to Jack, who tells me I’m not the first person to ask, however reluctantly, why he wears a signet ring. We’ve been taught that obvious displays of affection between men are inappropriate; that men should stifle their emotions and to prompt them to do otherwise is bound to make everyone feel a little uncomfortable. But those assumptions are fading fast; as our definition of what it means to be a man changes, menswear’s rules and restrictions are slackening, too.
Is it a leap to say that our evolving and expanding definition of masculinity is responsible for the recent rise of signet rings? Probably. But while the cause might be hard to pin down, it’s hard to deny the correlation. For Mr Andrew Bunney though, a jewellery designer whose MR PORTER-stocked collection includes an array of signet rings, it’s more straightforward. “It is a timeless article,” he says. “As a style, it is easy to wear and a good mix between casual and formal. It’s nice to have something permanent and long-lasting.”
How to wear a signet ring
Thinking of investing in a signet ring? Our Style Director, Mr Olie Arnold, has some words of wisdom to keep in mind
01. Stick to one
“Less is definitely more when it comes to choosing pieces to wear alongside or with a signet ring (unless you’re a blingy kind of guy)”
02. Match your metals
03. Size matters
“The size of the signet should also be in proportion with your hands. If you have slim hands, opt for something smaller and vice versa. Larger hands suit squared-off or oval shapes, whereas smaller ones will be able to carry off round bezels.”
04. Nail it
“Finally, keep your nails in check. There’s nothing worse than someone showing off a new purchase and their nails are chewed to bits.”