What are Signet Rings
The signet ring is defined by the dictionary as a ring with letters or a design carved on it. To completely understand the signet ring we have to understand what a seal is. Popular dictionaries describe seal as a figure impressed in wax, clay, or some other medium, or embossed on paper, with the purpose of authenticating a document. The word signet has its origins in latin word signum meaning sign. The system of wearing rings and using them as a seal has come primarily from Europe where these are made either in gems or in metal. Typically these were in gem stones.
The wearing of these rings has been among the aristocracy and with the decrease in aristocracy the number of people wearing signet rings too has declined drastically. This has happened because the ring is primarily worn to show the person’s authority and to certain extent his power. Most monarchies or institutions which have leaders in them still use the signet ring. The church uses the ring and as such when a pope dies the signet ring of the pope is destroyed clearing way for new pope with a new ring. When people do not have such noble descent in such cases the rings sometimes have the initials of the wearer on them. Various kinds of codes have been used for the signet rings over the period of time for eg: an oval signet ring is used for married ladies and a diamond-shaped shield is a symbol of a young lady. This distinction is still used today. The design of the rings were unique to the owners and in case two people had similar designs then in such cases the one who had first got the design became the owner of the design and other had to change the design.
The question that would arise is why were these used in place of signature which is more prevalent today. The answer lies in the fact that the level of literacy was very poor in the olden times and such to be aware of the authenticity of any information some recognizable picture or design was needed. Pictures are most easy forms to be recognized and hence the royalty used them as a signature lending authenticity to the documents. Typically shields and flags were used in the signet rings as markings. Over a period of time more ornate things were added to the simple designs to bring about distinction in the various authorities as governance became more distributed.