Collecting vintage signet rings

The signet ring packs a powerful sartorial punch and handsome examples, ancient and modern, are in high demand, says Ming Liu

Aleksandar Cvetkovic’s three signet rings
Aleksandar Cvetkovic’s three signet rings | Image: Scott Chasserot

If jewellery is a form of self-expression, then the ne plus ultra for a man is surely the signet ring. Whereas in antiquity and medieval times these jewels bore the wearer’s personal stamp, today they are worn more decoratively. At her London dealership, Wimpole Antiques at Grays Antique Market, Lynn Lindsay has recently seen a “big turnover” of signet rings and currently has around a dozen designs in stock. “Heavy 18ct gold pieces are the most popular,” she says. But also attracting attention are those with interesting stones, both carved, such as a c1800 ring (£1,250) flaunting a handsome carnelian intaglio, and polished, such as an 18ct gold ring (£1,275) with a mesmerising bloodstone.

From left: c1930s rose gold and sardonyx ring, $3,495 from Foundwell. 1568 gold and foiled crystal ring, sold for £15,600 at Bonhams. c1675 gold and enamel ring, £41,000 from Berganza
From left: c1930s rose gold and sardonyx ring, $3,495 from Foundwell. 1568 gold and foiled crystal ring, sold for £15,600 at Bonhams. c1675 gold and enamel ring, £41,000 from Berganza

Alongside stone and insignia (or lack of), size and form play an important role; older examples tend to be on the larger side, while shapes range from ovals to shields – several of which can be found at Newcastle upon Tyne antique jewellery specialist AC Silver, including one in an Edwardian bloodstone (£1,295). Lindsay says her customers are increasingly buying a range of styles and interchanging them with their outfits. “They’re small, wearable works of art,” says one of her clients, a London businessman. “As well as having the pleasure of wearing them, I enjoy hunting them out and researching the crests.”

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The most collectable examples are those from the 14th to the 16th century, says Jean Ghika, Bonhams’ director of jewellery for the UK and Europe. “It was an era when insignia and coats of arms became personal in the form of rings,” she says. “These were reserved for people of a certain rank.” Although prices for such pieces have been inching up in the past 10 to 15 years, she adds, buyers are still able to pick up fantastic rings in the £2,000 to £8,000 range. One sold by Bonhams in 2011 really stood out for Ghika, a gold oval armorial ring from the second quarter of the 16th century that featured an unusual quartered shield: three quarters referenced the family of a certain William Burley of Wiltshire, while the top right quarter included a separate chevron and cross motif that paid homage to Burley’s maternal great-great-grandfather. It sold for £7,800 against its £4,000-£6,000 estimate, while a rare armorial ring dated 1568 went for £15,600 in 2005.

From left: c1800 gold and carnelian ring, £1,250 from Wimpole Antiques. 400-700 AD gold and garnet ring, $7,500 from Romanov Russia
From left: c1800 gold and carnelian ring, £1,250 from Wimpole Antiques. 400-700 AD gold and garnet ring, $7,500 from Romanov Russia

But signet rings don’t often come up at auction, and a better place to find them is at specialist jewellery dealers, such as Berganza in London’s Hatton Garden, which currently has an intriguing c11th/12th-century carnelian intaglio ring (£9,700) engraved with the image of a lion bearing a crucifix on its back and set inside a frame inscribed with “magical” cross and crescent symbols. Another showstopper (£41,000) in gold and black enamel is bedecked with a striking skull design and engraved on the bezel with the initials FG. The c1675 piece was “reputedly discovered in Chichester and is likely to have been commissioned as a memorial ring commemorating the death of Francis Goater, an important merchant and alderman who served as mayor of Chichester in 1668,” says Berganza director Justin Daughters.

From left: c1900 gold and bloodstone ring, £1,295 from AC Silver. c11th/ 12th-century gold and carnelian ring, £9,700 from Berganza
From left: c1900 gold and bloodstone ring, £1,295 from AC Silver. c11th/ 12th-century gold and carnelian ring, £9,700 from Berganza

Berganza is also a go-to dealer for Ancient Roman signet rings, an area that is catching on with his customers, says Daughters. A 3rd-century gold ring (£15,300), for example, has a rectangular bezel and a hexagonally shaped shank. It is engraved with “Amanti” in reverse, which means “For my beloved” in Latin. “It’s believed these were given to the slaves freed from the Colosseum,” says Daughters. “And when I say ‘freed’, I mean those who literally fought their way out.”

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Someone who appreciates the allure of these ancient artefacts is How To Spend It contributing editor Nick Foulkes, who wears up to six rings, including a Punic-era intaglio in fossilised wood. “I had it set in rose gold,” says Foulkes, who also owns a 17th/18th-century cameo of Medusa.

It’s not only jewels made hundreds of years ago that capture the imagination, however. While a 400-700 AD Byzantine ring ($7,500 from Romanov Russia) with an oval, cabochon-cut garnet is certainly enigmatic, the more modern examples available at Foundwell also intrigue. Its early-20th-century pieces range from a chic c1915 platinum and carnelian design ($3,675), engraved with a Greek goddess, to a c1930s classic engraved crest ($3,495) in eye-catching blue sardonyx set in 18ct rose gold. Depicting a proud game bird alongside the Latin phrase “Victoriam aut mortem” (Victory or death), the latter has a distinctly Talented Mr Ripley feel.

And when it comes to how to wear them, and on which finger, it seems the old rules no longer apply. Aleksandar Cvetkovic, a former editor at men’s magazine The Rake, has three signet rings, two of which he wears daily: an 18ct gold Victorian one with a green-hued, red-flecked bloodstone that he usually wears on his right-hand pinkie, and on the third finger of his right hand a 1944 Harvard University graduation ring found in an Oxford antiques shop. “It has an inscription dedicated to someone with the initials VDS,” he says. “I have no idea who they were, but I just love it.” 

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