Tag Archives: ring

The Signet

Seal of Roman Emperor Augustus (the Imperial “Whelping Sphinx”)

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.

Minoan Signet Ring

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.

Assortment of early seals.

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.  

Egyptian Scarab Rings

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.

Assorted Roman gold signet rings.

 

Silver Roman signet ring

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.

Typical Greek-Egyptian fusion, here of Anubis and Hermes with incantations.

Early Christian Intaglio

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.

An anguipede, unique  to its specific region and time.

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’.  

 

The Moghul Emerald

The Moghul Emerald

 

Solomon Iran XV Glory to He who does not die

Through the middle ages elaborate seals continued to be used in by nobles and clergy but the use of gemstones in regular trade use, and signet rings in general declined.  Beginning in the Renaissance ancient intaglios, widely collected as curiosities, resurged as an enduring fad in jewelry, strung together in necklaces, remounted in rings, and put together as ‘charm’ bracelets.  Collectors also traded plaster imprints of the stones from their elaborate cabinets to expand their collections.

Intaglio collection remounted

Even as professional habits and modes of expression have changed, the signet ring’s mystique, suggestion of antiquity, or pedigree, and air of importance has retained a certain validity in use.  It lives on as the well known style of ring with its broad flat face, often still serving as a stock engraving blank or bearing a suggestive yet anonymous seal design, or a trophy of membership.

Contemporary Onyx Signet by Stephen Einhorn

The popular black onyx blank slate has its own curious place in the story, apparently inspired in some way by Victorian mourning jewelry, today the black stone is the most typical for a modern signet ring, though in history not much evidence of its use appears before this time.

All in all, the signet is a multi-cultural survivor carrying on a 4,000 year sense of meaning as its place among ornament endures.  When an actual insignia is used today, etching directly into the metal is the preferred signet, leaving the lost ancient trade of cutting intaglio gemstones to be practiced strictly as a preservationist art.

Adone T Pozzobon hand engraved masonic caduceus ring

Victoire de Castellane’s Dead Royal

With a touch that is either sarcastic or ironic, the live created by de Castellane for her Dior line ‘Reines et Rois’ in 2010 made a curious statement.  The ‘Kings’ are skull pendants elaborately festooned with diamonds, while the ‘Queens’ are similar rings.   Presumably, the King is to be worn like a badge on one’s chest, while Queen is wrappedThe skulls are carved of semiprecious stones, with names matching the stones, such as Reine d’ Opalie, Reine de Chrysoprasie, or Roi de Jaspe.  While ex-votos are not a new phenomenon in jewelry, these pieces are clearly for the amusement of the wearer, and perhaps in the vein of artist Damien Hirst, who produced a diamond-encrusted platinum skull at a cost of nearly £10 million, this is the designer’s way of  producing objects that mock death as a way of coming to terms with it.

Reines et Roi 1

 

 

One reviewer caught on to the curiosity of the line… in plastic or even silver these rings would be ordinary street kitsch, but the elaboration makes a statement about what we might regard as ‘elevated taste’, which is to observe that there seems to be no distinction within the classes between kitsch and ‘luxury’ at this point.  The unfortunately anonymous reviewer (perhaps a marketer of the design house) was poignant to note that ‘the line’s success indicates a strong morbid desire that has developed today, one that makes people clearly prefer skulls over hearts or symbols of love’.  Indeed mystery reviewer, the movement away from symbols of love and sentiment is a phenomenon across the arts and culture in general that arrived with modernism, and historically can be traced back to the onset of the crazy wars that shattered in the ‘New Arts’ ascendancy in the early 20th century.  It would appear that the door to morbidity is the only symbolic door that seems to have been left open in this post-modern, sentiment cleansed world.  That this is deeply embedded in our culture is well illustrated by luxury goods that bear no real distinction from the playthings of adolescents save their price.

Reines et Roi 3

At the same time, perhaps these might be regarded as simply high-end kitsch, and not an indicator of elite tastes.  The pavé diamonds are not terribly costly, and the skulls require so much material it is not a surprise that they are low quality and muddy in color.  It may be better to view this line as kitsch with a nice label, as most of luxury goods have become.  With the material factor out of the way, we can look with fresh eyes at the work of the designer, which shines through.  The care and fluidity of her crowns, feathers and collars are clearly graceful, and each is instantly distinguishable from each other.

Here, in a time when we have an essentially inverted culture – when luxury goods are cheap mass-productions and well-crafted artisan goods as valueless without a luxury label, or if you prefer, a time when skulls are preferred love tokens, it is always refreshing to see the touch of an engaged designer, even if they are nearly anonymous within a production house.