From huge West London townhouses to vintage car collections, there are certain objects, trinkets and belongings that we see as the reserve of the upper classes. Black labradors, to name another. Tweed jackets, for a fourth. And, of course, the king of jewellery, the signet ring.
But the signet ring might not be on that list for long. Recently, sales of this particular piece of male jewellery have spiked, suggesting that they might soon break into mainstream fashion.
Here at Gentleman’s Journal, we couldn’t be happier. But why do signet rings still seem limited to the wealthy few? Perhaps it’s because they’re often cast in solid gold. Perhaps it’s the fact that they are often adorned with that most aristocratic of emblems, the family crest. Or, perhaps it’s because we only tend to see them on the little fingers of the moneyed and the monarchy.
Whatever the reason, signet ring craftsmen Rebus have seen demand rise. So, love them or loathe them, the signet ring is about to make it from the little finger to the big time. Here’s everything you need to know about these golden curios.
"But why do signet rings still seem limited to the wealthy few?"
Originally, signet rings were created to affix seals to official documents. Melted wax was poured on, and the knuckle pressed into it to create an indentation of a family crest of other emblem.
But, although this practice has been around since 3500 B.C, the signet ring as we know it today was popularised by the Pharaohs of Egypt, whose rings bore hieroglyphics. It’s clearly an enduring design and, as we know, fashion works in cycles. So, if it was good enough for the Pharaohs, we’re hardly surprised that these rings are on the rise once more.
In Britain, it was King Edward II we have to thank for bringing the signet ring into fashion. He decreed that all official documents must be signed and stamped with his own signet ring, there is even a seal on the Magna Carta. And, even though most documents today are authenticated with the click of a mouse rather than the stamp of a signet ring, there’s still room for this tradition in the modern world.
Of course, we don’t expect everyone to start signing their car insurance forms and chequebooks with a wax signet ring seal. We know that their element of practicality has been lost — in fact, that’s why family crests tend to no longer be engraved backwards into signet rings any more — but there is still a certain charm, not to mention cache, about this particular piece of jewellery.
So why buy a signet ring? That’s simple: It’s all about pride. Your family might not have a ring, handed down through generations. You might not even have a crest or a seal. But there’s something about displaying your lineage with pride that appeals to the British gentleman, and there’s no better way to do that than on your little finger.
"So why buy a signet ring? That’s simple: It’s all about pride..."
The pride also extends to the quality. To cast your crest in solid gold says something about the esteem in which you hold your family and identity, and Rebus Signet Rings on Leather Lane in Hatton Garden is the place to make that statement.
Rebus Director Emmet Smith has been engraving for years and, while he now hires some of the best engravers in London rather than slipping on the loupe himself, the craftsman-come-businessman is still the cornerstone of the company. Head down to Hatton Garden, as we did, and Smith with sketch out designs for your ring during your initial consultation.
We spent hours poring over centuries-old books containing ream upon ream of family crests to decide on a design for ourselves. Smith helped and, after inspiration struck and a design was finalised, we moved onto the design of the ring itself.
Traditionalists, Smith tells us, will insist on an ‘Oxford Oval’, but there are plenty more designs to choose from if that doesn’t fit your finger or float your boat. From ‘Marquees’ to the ‘Landscape Oval’, or even a stone-set ring, the signet is more varied and bespoke than you may know.
We, however, bowed to tradition and stuck with the Oxford Oval in a hardy 9-carat yellow gold. We are sure that Prince Charles would approve.
Once the design is finalised, the ring is forged and hallmarked to ensure the quality of the gold. The rough cut is delivered to Rebus, and the engravers set to work.
The engraving techniques at Rebus haven’t changed for centuries. All work is done by hand, and from perfect letter curls to placing pearls on a crown, it takes much patience, steadiness and skill to complete the design.
"The engraving techniques at Rebus haven’t changed for centuries..."
Firstly, the engraver hand draws your crest or emblem onto the surface of the ring. Then, with a different tool for each type of line, mark or letter, he gets to work. The gold is etched away, the ring is rotated as he goes, and the design takes shape.
It occurs to us, as the engraver creates the piece in front of us, that there is one more reason the signet ring should not be allowed to die, or be confined to the knick-knack draws of antique shops: It is an art.
The skills have been kept alive through tradition and culture, and it would be a crying shame if they died out on our watch.
Of course, even if you don’t get a new signet ring made, it should be your duty to carry on the family tradition of wearing an existing one. Emmett Smith tells us that he prefers the look of a gold signet ring when it has been worn, with scratches and nicks that tell stories and give it true character.
It’s all about identity, at the end of the day. Your signet ring shows people what stands you apart from others, who your family is and what your values are. And, more than that, it tells people that you are proud of who you are. There’s also a certain thrill when people point at the emblem on your ring — even if you just cooked it up at Rebus mere months ago — and ask “what’s that?”
“That’s my family crest,” you’ll answer. Now hasn’t that got a nice ring to it?
Learn more about Rebus here. For more master craftsmanship, check out what Parmigiani Fleurier are up to here…