The word “signet” is derived from the Latin word “signum,” meaning “sign.” Since the beginning of writing, personal seals, or signs, have been placed on documents to identify the writer and assure authenticity. Worn by nobility, a signet ring was carved into a semiprecious stone such as agate, or engraved into metal using the intaglio method to create a reverse image of the desired picture. Some signet rings were cast in metal, but they were inferior and not as detailed.
The noble would press his ring into a drop of wax to seal shut a document, or even press his ring into the paper to create embossing, like a notary public does today. Generally, the image on the ring was a coat of arms, a zodiac sign, or an image to match the personality of the wearer, like a lion.
In Europe the rings were commissioned by nobility and created by artists. Therefore, they were works of art, often made of gold and very much valued for their beauty as well as for their material value. Sometimes they were even embellished with designs and calligraphy on the side to add to the appearance. The rings were guarded and treasured by the owner, and passed on to successive generations in much the same way that a crown would be passed on to a prince or princess. They were a symbol of authority and power, indicating that the owner had the right to bear arms (the crest or shield) in medieval Europe. The Pope’s ring was kissed to honor the supreme authority of the position, and when a Pope died, his ring was destroyed to symbolize the clearing of the way for a new Pope.
Even today, much tradition surrounds the signet ring. Depending on the country, the ring is worn as a symbolic gesture by nobles on a certain finger and a certain hand. French, German, and some Spanish nobles wear it on the ring finger of their left hands. The Swiss wear signets on the right hand, and nobles of the United Kingdom wear them on the little finger of the left hand. Of course, it is worn with the impressing outward to enable the wearer to turn his hand over and press it into the wax.
In olden times, a signet ring was a way of doing daily business, and was necessary to authenticate and protect documents when the only way of transferring them was through couriers. Although many noble European families still have rings, they are not used much today except for very formal traditional occasions.
Signet rings have led to the tradition of school rings, often with the symbols or crest of the school placed on top of a stone set in a gold ring. The year of graduation is often incorporated into side decoration, and although not used as a sealing device, it indicates a membership in the school or as a souvenir.
Signet or class rings continue to be a popular item to commemorate graduation from high school. Each fall when the ring vendor appears at school to take orders, there is much excitement among the students as they choose their customized piece of jewelry to keep memories of this important time of their lives.