One of my favorite subjects of jewelry, the signet or intaglio ring can act like a time-capsule of personal identity. They were once so common they are like the signatures of ghosts left to sprinkle ancient dwelling houses. Like a stone fingerprint, or the 3-digit security code on the back of your cards, they were used to seal documents or sign them by pressing their mark into a patch of wax. Their designs were usually carved intaglio into a gemstone, so their impressions left a raised relief design. Later, as they fell into disuse, their metal would be melted down or reused, the carved stones tossed aside having little practical value, to be discovered in abundance by archaeologists or traded endlessly as pocket curios of the Classical world. Throughout the later middle ages they became prized treasures of nobility, reset and collected, maintaining a reputation with their lost languages and mysterious figures to be magical.
These seals were often worn as rings, in order to conduct routine business, and are remembered today as the signet ring. The contemporary signet frequently bears an inscription or a seal of some significance – though rarely in modern times are they a reverse imprint designed for wax, and if so purely nostalgic. Signet rings still retain the suggestion of a claim to some kind of authority (if only the spectre of masculine authority), whether a masonic ring, a class ring or a family crest, or at its most minimal, a heavy ring with a large flat and undecorated stone.
The origins of signature seals are very ancient, dating back thousand of years.
In Mohenjo Daro, the neatly planned city on the Indus River sophisticated clay seals with writing have been found dating back nearly 5,000 years. Ancient Mesopotamians sometimes preferred a cylinder seal that pressed or unrolled a small vignette onto wax and clay plates. Ancient historians describe a Babylon where not a person was without a seal hanging around their neck.
In ancient Egypt, a glittering example of their characteristic design sense, scarabs served the same purpose. The scarab, a symbol of the heart and the sun, served as one face, while the other served for carved intaglio writing and was typically flat. Perhaps this served some religious significance – there was a strong belief that one’s name, ren, was a sacred thing to be protected – the rotating scarab-heart might have served to ‘cover’ the name. The hole drilled for the purpose of making these rotatable led to a popularity, and continued production today, of using them as beads. These are so abundant, typically in the sky blue faience color with crude approximations of hieroglyphs stamped on the back, that each of us has likely seen at least one in gift shops around the world. The ancient form are so common that a person can find the real thing in virtually any art history museum’s collections.
The scaraboid gem form of a ring seal was spread throughout the Mediterranean world by the long trade rule of the Phoenicians, and became the business standard. For non-Egyptians the rotating stone had no significance, and we find the seals mounted in fixed settings that did not move. Signet rings became widespread among many cultures surrounding the Mediterranean, and deep into Central Asia, while seals in general are found in use throughout the world.
Their function in business affairs created specialty shops in every trading port and city, the gem carver being a discussed occupation in the literary Classics. A skilled carver’s quality and style enhanced security by being easier to authenticate visually, much the way engravers were physically responsible for the level of security in printed banknotes in more recent times. The best seals were elaborate works of art usually cut in fine grained, quartz based gemstones, such as agates and jaspers, more inexpensive ones cut into softer scratch-able stones like hematite or calcite. Many were also cut into glass. Roman glassmaking was at one time traded throughout the known world, including seals, introducing waves of generic signs and intaglio stones that were purely decorative for trade. Some gems served as signatory objects in a different way, as devotional objects, inscribed with a donor’s name, with the purpose of leaving one’s name at temples and shrines, others were bought pre-made with the temple’s image, to take away as a commemorative souvenir and a source of income.
Signet rings can give a more personal glimpse of economic activity than coins can provide. They show that during periods of heightened trade where they will appear in greater number, the variety of similar amulet stones also increases, and this is where the story grows interesting. During the particularly syncretic time period (300 BC-300 CE) of Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt, centered around Alexandria, many cultures lived side by side, where familiar cultural motifs of writing and themes of religion and myth began to merge and also form new colloquial, magical and cult themes. We see fine examples of inventive figures alongside numerous rough replicas of them, peak examples of the gem carver’s craft alongside soft stones that are crudely cut with incantations, psuedo-writing, magic diagrams, incantations and palindromes. There were symbols of newly forming religions, hybrids of converging cultures, including Christianity. It is as though the intaglio signet had for many become a kind of personalized charm or amulet, an emblem of relocated authority, or a statement of membership in a group, perhaps a kind of continuation of the Egyptian culture’s reverence over the wearing and display of one’s identity.
One of the greatest mysteries of antiquity is the multitude of Alexandrian signet stones that bear the unusual word ‘Abrasax’. The meaning of the name remains unclear, though the letters add up to 365 (they did not have numbers yet) and it may simply mean ‘everything’. These gems frequently depict an array of unusual characters that do not directly tie to any established religious context. These appear with a variety of different figures that have in common only an appearance of being invented, or combined, as though the results of an effort to form a sort of catch-all multicultural figure of devotion. The frequent inscription may be the reason the word ‘Abracadabra’ still lingers today, carrying with it the magical connotation of these gems. The Abraxas stones are uncanny and unique, and mixed in with their contemporaries comprise such a magical pile of jewels they have attracted ages of mystique and curiosity for the time they were created.
Signet stones continued to be in use for a few centuries after the decline of Rome. At the end of the Sassanid empire, the rule of Islam produced its own abundance of carved rings using Arabic script, which is well suited to ornamental gemstone carving. Among these stones carnelian was especially favored from North Africa to Mughal India. The Mughals took gemstone carving like all arts quite seriously, most famously with the enormous 5×4 cm ‘Moghul Emerald’.