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  1. Luxury
April 11, 2023updated 12 Apr 2023 11:45am

The enduring power of the signet ring

After thousands of years, the signet ring still sends a strong message

By Fiona Matthias

It is the embodiment of power, and little can rival its ubiquity in the pantheon of jewellery design. Once a Renaissance staple, it is having a 21st-century renaissance. But what is it? The signet ring – totally on trend for 2023 and totally gender-free.

There are few, if any, ring styles that have a history as long as the signet ring: Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Christian, and so on through the ages. According to Diana Scarisbrick in her 2007 volume Rings: Jewelry of Power, Love and Loyalty, ‘As early as the 3rd century AD St Clement of Alexandria, who disapproved of luxury and immorality, had declared that the only ring acceptable to Christians was the signet ring.’

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It had purpose, and today that purpose binds the motifs and manners of centuries in contemporary form and function.

Pick a finger, any finger, and a signet ring works, whether it’s a David Yurman in rose gold and diamonds or an understated brass Alice Made This signet with its cool clarity in base metal.

The signet, however, is often interchangeable with the pinky, as even the chunkiest of signets on the little finger won’t get in the way.

Monete Ring by Bulgari
Monete Ring by Bulgari: An 18k rose gold ring with antique coin available in bronze or silver Price on request bulgari.com

‘Pinky rings, signet or other, are a little nod to your character, a bold or dainty piece of jewellery that truly completes your look,’ says contemporary designer Lily Gabriella.

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‘I think pinky rings appeal to me because they have this sort of vintage elegance. Originally designed to symbolise power and heritage, they were worn by aristocratic men and royalty.

Women later adopted them as a romantic symbol, a “pinky promise” ring. I think the Sixties and Seventies popularised them as the trend geared towards more of a boho-chic style.’ (Her Modern Talisman rings start at £2,450 through to her collectors’ edition Berry ring at £14,500.)

Amethyst Berry Ring Lily Gabriella An 18k rose gold signet ring with amethyst and pink sapphire
An 18k rose gold signet ring with amethyst and pink sapphire by Lily Gabriella

Lizzie Mandler is based in Los Angeles, which bears little influence from the European aristocracies that used the signet ring as a status symbol – but she still recognises the allure of such pieces. It is ‘a personal favourite of mine’, says the jewellery designer, whose clients include Rihanna, Madonna, Beyoncé and Victoria Beckham.

‘I think whether or not they are engraved with a family crest, they are a strong way to express personal style with a bolder ring. To me, they carry a sense of empowerment.’ Her large round diamond knife-edge signet (£27,600, also available in emerald) confidently plays with the language of power.

More: Are diamonds still forever? The new world of luxury diamond engagement rings

Large Round Diamond Knife Edge by Lizzie Mandler: An 18k gold signet ring with a large round white diamond (also available in emerald) £27,300 lizziemandler.com

Many traditional jewellery maisons have signet rings (or echoes of their style) in their collections: Bulgari’s Monete, Cartier’s Les Berlingots de Cartier, Tiffany’s oval signet, Chanel’s Lion Médaille. And younger brands, such as Missoma, whose signet rings were thrust into the limelight by Meghan Markle in 2018.

Ilaria Icardi, who launched her eponymous brand in 2020, has her Lapis Lazuli signet ring or her ‘Oversized’ signet inspired by one of her father’s designs. (Her father was the renowned goldsmith Umberto Icardi.)

Les Berlingots de Cartier Ring by Cartier: Yellow gold set with 12 brilliant-cut diamonds. Carat weight varies depending on order £5,100 cartier.com

Every signet ring has its story, perfectly summed up by Alice Walsh of Alice Made This, whose minimalist signets achieve their signature matte and blasted finishes thanks to techniques from vintage automobile restoration.

‘The history of a signet was essentially a tool to indicate status, and for the authentication of legal documents, which were sealed with wax,’ she says. ‘Fast forward to today and I feel that this now translates as a tool to express your identity.

‘When I see someone wearing a signet ring, I find myself wanting to know more about what it means to the wearer… I feel like there is always a form of legacy attached to it.’

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