Signet rings are no longer restricted to those with noble family or a coat of arms; anyone can wear a signet ring if they want. However, there are still various rules of etiquette than can be observed, such as which finger to wear the ring upon or what to display upon your ring. Signet rings still have a significance and symbolism today.
Signet rings were once used as a sign of personal identity. The ring would bear a family crest or coat of arms, and the bearer could stamp the ring upon hot wax to sign a document or seal a letter – producing a "signature." Today, signet rings are no longer used for this purpose, but they can still convey identity. Often bearing a coat of arms or the crest of a clan, signet rings are a sign of family history and tradition.
Signet rings originated in ancient Rome. The etiquette governing these rings used to dictate that finger rings could be worn only by those of a certain rank, and a signet ring must be removed from the wearer’s finger upon his death. It was considered bad taste to wear more than one ring. Signet rings could depict an individual’s personality rather than their family. For example, Emperor Pompey wore a ring that displayed a lion carrying a sword.
The etiquette of wearing signet rings varies around the world. In Belgium, men and women both wear signet rings upon the little finger of their left hand; however, in England and Ireland, it is only men who do so. In Switzerland, men wear signet rings upon the ring finger of their right hand, while in France, men use the ring finger of their left hand, and women use the little finger of their left hand.
Whether or not a signet ring conveys nobility, or even royalty, it can still have significance today. Etiquette governing signet rings in the United States is far from strict–it is usual for the ring to be worn on the little finger of whichever hand is used least, for both men and women–but a ring can still be sign of family, nobility and loyalty. It is even possible to revert to the customs of Ancient Rome and use the ring to display not a family crest but an individual’s personality.
In certain situations, it is important to know the correct etiquette concerning signet rings. For example, when meeting the pope, it is polite to kiss his signet ring (known as the papal ring, or the Ring of the Fisherman). Not to do so, unless the pope initiates a handshake, is a sign of grave disrespect. Strict etiquette also suggests that it is necessary to kiss the signet rings of certain members of European nobility on being introduced, but this has largely fallen out of practice.
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Emma Murray has worked as a writer for the past four years, and is published in student, local, and national publications, including "The Isis Magazine," "The Evening Chronicle" and "The Sunday Times" Culture Section. She is a first class graduate in English language and literature from the University of Oxford.