Misconceptions about Signet Rings


A lot can be said about signet rings and every expert seems to "know better" than the rest. Often differences in views on using a signet ring are simply caused by differences in traditions that apply within a family but there are three common misconceptions I hear regularly in my conversations with customers that I feel I must set straight.
by Guido van der Eerden

"When talking to customers, I sometimes hear exceptional views about signet rings."

In my conversations with customers, some misconceptions about signet rings regularly emerge. I will discuss the three most common here. These are the misconceptions:

  1. A signet ring is only for noble families;
  2. A signet ring is outdated;
  3. A signet ring is worn with the engraving facing outwards, since this makes it easier when sealing.

Misconception 1: A signet ring is exclusively for noble families

One misconception that I often hear when talking about signet rings, is that many people think that a signet ring is reserved for noble families. The origin of this misconception is the (incorrect) idea that only noble families carry a coat of arms. Nothing is less true.

Family crests or signet rings are not reserved for nobility.
For many countries, such as the Netherlands, this is not the case. As early as the 13th century, not only noblemen used a coat of arms, but cities, guilds and even some important citizens (not within nobility) used them as well. In the centuries after, this increased, because seals and signet rings were often practically used for sealing letters and documents. Not only noble families but also civil servants, businessmen and traders began to use signet rings. In many cases, these seals carried the family crest. Families that did not yet have a family crest, made one, not only because they thought it was beautiful, but also because it was simply a practical solution for sealing documents that needed to be personalized.

Nowadays, a lot of families without crests choose to design one, not for practical reasons, like personalizing documents, as was needed in the past, but because a family crest shows a link between family members, ancestors and descendants. Every family crest was once new, so a new family crest is no less than an older family crest.

Another piece of this “nobility” misconception I’ve heard before is that a blue layered agate would be reserved for noble families. The blue layered agate would stand for “blue blood” only. Although an interesting idea, this is also a misconception. Blue layered agates have been used for signet rings for centuries – for many different families. The reason for this is the beautiful contrast between the lower layer (black) and top layer (blue), so that the engraving is nicely visible. It has nothing to do with whether or not the wearer belongs to nobility.

Misconception 2: A signet ring is outdated

Sometimes, I hear the notion that a signet ring is an “old-fashioned” or “out of date” style but, when you start paying closer attention, you will notice that a lot of people – including young people – wear a signet ring. One important reason for this is that a tradition exists, in various groups and families, to give children a signet ring as a gift (often for the 18th or 21st birthday).

Many families give children a signet ring when they turn 18 or 21

Moreover, more and more people seem to be aware of their surroundings and history, and delve into the lives of their ancestors. The popularity of TV shows like "Who Do You Think You Are?" and "Finding Your Roots" (and in the Netherlands: Verborgen Verleden), which shows the research for ancestors of famous Dutch people, adds to the growing interest about where we come from. All of this research often leads to a discovery of a lost family coat of arms (or the want to design a new coat of arms) and the desire to show it off in various ways, like wearing signet rings.

Finally, important events, such as a birth or death in the family, are a reason for many people to consider what is important in life and want to find ways to remind them of those things. Family is usually at the top of the list and a signet ring is a great reminder of one’s family and history.

Misconception 3: Use determines manner of wear

A common argument is that one must wear a signet ring with the engraving facing away from himself for practical considerations so that, when the fist with the ring on is put down on the wax, the engraving comes in contact with the wax ‘the right way’. However, the signet ring is not, in fact, used when still worn. Hot wax is much too hot for this, and you would burn your own hands.

The seal ring is simply removed when being used and then pressed into the hot wax. Therefore, the use does not explain why many signet ring bearers wear the signet ring facing outward. A (suspected) reason for this is ‘courtesy’. The seal is worn so that others (the viewers) can see the coat of arms, just like in handing someone a picture, where the picture is provided in a way that the receiver can see it correctly. Incidentally, we sometimes see people wearing the signet ring facing toward them – it’s totally a matter of personal taste (and perhaps family tradition).

Other misconceptions or notions?

The three misconceptions reviewed above are just a small selection of ideas that I, myself, have encountered. Have you ever heard a particular conception of signet rings, or related subjects such as family crests, precious metals or seal stones? If you aren’t sure about the truthfulness of it, explain what you have heard to me. I would love to help you ascertain what is true of it. Please let me know!

Article by Guido van der Eerden
is heraldic jeweler and partner at Signet Ring BV (Zegelring BV). Together with his colleagues, Guido helps customers with perfectly handmade custom signet rings. Carefully selecting the most beautiful signet rings and the best heraldic craftsmen from around Europe - and delivering signet rings worldwide, Marlies guarantees high-quality signet rings that you will treasure forever. Every signet ring is created by a partnership between heraldic jeweler, goldsmith, engraver and heraldic experts. "A signet ring really is a personal piece of art - handmade to the millimeter."


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