Often considered the “gentleman’s ring,” the signet ring has been around since the days of the Old Testament, when it was used as a personal signature or symbol of family heritage. Typically it bore a family crest or another symbol representing an individual on its distinguishable flat bezel. A design was usually engraved (often in reverse) either directly into the metal of the ring or an inset gem, and then pressed into wax or clay to create the personal seal, or signature.
“Signet rings have been around since people wore jewelry,” says Beatrice Behlen, senior curator of fashion and decorative arts at the Museum of London. “They seem to always have been popular, but I believe they became more popular with the rise of the bourgeoisie. Members of the middle class would not have a coat of arms, so having a signet ring would be a prominent sign to show that you are of a higher class.”
Despite the fact that the primary purpose is lost (how many times do you sign forms through your computer these days?), the style is still popular and worn by men, and women, all around the world—just in a more modern way. According to Mark Ruff of Ruffs—a fifth-generation family-owned jeweler in Southhampton, England—there has been an upturn in signet ring sales in the last three to four years. Beyond the price of gold coming down and society's obsession with royal or heraldic traditions, he says that it's a cyclical generational thing. "We are presently experiencing a lot of sales to the offspring of previous customers as their children come of age and want to invest in something traditional to represent their family ties," said Ruff.
Today’s jewelry designers create signet rings with no initials or design that are still meant to be a discreet display of prestige or pride by the wearer.