The terms "coat of arms" and "crest" are often used interchangeably, but there are differences between the two. Although the differences are minor and technical, they should still be noted in serious studies of genealogy. Families passionate about their history and ancestors will also want to note the differences between the two heraldic emblems.
Definition of a Coat of Arms
A coat of arms is the heraldic tradition of a surname's markings; anyone with a particular surname has a right to a coat of arms. The coat of arms consists of the entire ensemble of shield, crest, helmet, mantling and supporters. This is considered the full "achievement" for a family. Almost every surname in Great Britain is accompanied by its own coat of arms, and many American surnames also have a coat of arms attached.
Definition of a Crest
A crest simply refers to the symbol that rests atop of the person's helmet. This small image is only one part of the entire coat of arms ensemble; however, it is often used synonymously with a coat of arms. If a person bears the same surname as that of a crest, that person is allowed to use the crest in any circumstance.
Legalities of Usage
Another difference between a Crest and coat of arms is that a person can use their surname's crest in any circumstance, as long as they have the same surname of that crest; however, to bear an entire coat of arms is a different matter. In Great Britain, a person must prove direct ancestry to a person with that surname before they can bear the coat of arms. In the United States, however, there is no legal requirement to bear a coat of arms.
Each crest and coat of arms has a variety of different colors and symbols that make up its image. Colors on a crest and colors on a coat of arms have symbolic meanings; for instance, orange means worth or ambition, while green can mean hope or joy. Other symbols included on crests and coats of arms can include heraldic lines, fur, animals or even inanimate objects such as a ring or an apple.