One of my favorite subjects of jewelry, the signet or intaglio ring can act like a time-capsule of personal identity. They were once so common they are like the signatures of ghosts left to sprinkle ancient dwelling houses. Like a stone fingerprint, like the 3-digit security code on the back of your cards, these rings were used to seal documents or sign them by pressing their mark into a patch of wax. Their designs were usually carved intaglio into the ring’s stone, so their impressions left a raised relief design. Later, as they fell into disuse, their metal would be melted down or reused, the little carved stones tossed aside having little value, to be discovered in abundance by archaeologists or traded endlessly as pocket curios of the Classical world.
These seals were often worn as rings, in order to conduct routine business, and are remembered today as the signet ring. The contemporary signet frequently bears an inscription or a seal of some significance – though rarely in modern times are they a reverse imprint designed for wax, and if so purely nostalgic. Signet rings still retain the suggestion of authority, whether a masonic ring, a class ring or a family crest, or at its most minimal describes a heavy ring with a large flat stone.
The origins of the signature seal are very ancient, many thousands of years. Ancient Mesopotamia preferred a cylinder seal that pressed or unrolled a small vignette onto wax and clay plates. Historians describe an ancient Babylon where not a person was without a cylinder seal on a ring or hanging around their neck.
In ancient Egypt, a glittering example of their characteristic design sense, scarabs served the same purpose. A scarab, a symbol of the heart and the sun, served as one face, the other served for carved intaglio writing and was typically flat. Perhaps this served some religious significance – there was a strong belief that one’s name, ren, was a sacred thing to be protected – maybe the rotating scarab-heart served to ‘cover’ the name. They are so abundant each of has likely seen one. A person can find these small signatory scarabs in any history museum, while little cast replicas in colored glass and simulated blue faience are easily found in bead shops all over the world.
The signature stones were widespread among many cultures, from Persia to Phoenicia, Greece to Egypt, while seals in general were in use throughout the world. Their function in business affairs create specialty shops, with gem carver being an encountered occupation in the Classics A skilled carver’s quality and style enhances the security by being easier to authenticate visually. The best seals were elaborate works of art, but many were cut in glass. Roman glassmaking was at one time traded throughout the known world, including seals, introducing waves of generic counterfeits and intaglio stones that were purely decorative for trade.
Signet rings then can provide a more personal glimpse of economic activity that coins alone can provide. They show that during the same period of heightened trade, a variety of amulet stones also appear, and this is where the story grows interesting. During the syncretic time period of Alexandrian Egypt, where many cultures lived side by side, familiar cultural motifs of writing and themes of religion and myth began to take on colloquial, magical and cult themes. We see numerous soft stones that are crudely cut with incantations, symbols that display chimeras and magic diagrams, incantations and palindromes. There were also symbols of newly forming religions, and hybrids of converging cultures, including Christianity. It is as though the intaglio signet had for many become a kind of personalized charm or amulet, while also serving as a statement of membership to a group. Or it may simply be the continuation of an Egyptian customary identity.
One of the greatest mysteries of antiquity is the multitude of Alexandrian signet stones that bear the unusual word ‘abrasax’, sometimes ‘abraxas’. Its origin remains unclear, and frequently it depicts an array of unusual characters that do not directly tie to any modern religious context. From the inscription the word ‘Abracadabra’ still lingers, and the large numbers of these mysterious stones were scattered across the world, and into the ring fittings and curio cabinets of many fascinated admirers who had heard the legend that they bestowed supernatural powers. Stones with this word have some of decorative art’s most mysterious characters engraved on them: a rooster headed figure with a flail and snakes for legs, or the lion or Apollo headed snake (‘the good spirit’), or Harpocrates, the child-god of silence and secrecy, later confused with and immortalized as the common garden cherub. Scholars group these together as Gnostic gems after a religious movement that has largely vanished from historic record. Perhaps they relate to the legendary libraries and schools, the orpheums and museums, which were destroyed repeatedly. The Abraxas stones are uncanny and unique, and mixed in with their contemporaries comprise such a magical pile of jewels they have attracted ages of mystique and curiosity for the time they were created.
The signet stones continued to be in use for centuries longer. At the end of the Sassanid empire, the rule of Islam produced its own abundance of carved rings using Arabic script, which is well suited to ornamental gemstone carving. Among these stones carnelian was especially favored from Mughal India to North Africa. The Mughals took gemstone carving seriously, most famously with the enormous 5×4 cm ‘Moghul Emerald’.
Through the middle ages elaborate seals continued to be used in by nobles and clergy but generally declined in regular trade use in the form of signet rings. Beginning in the renaissance ancient intaglios, which were widely collected as curiosities, became an enduring fad in jewelry, strung together in necklaces, remounted in rings, and put together as ‘charm’ bracelets. Collectors also traded plaster imprints of the stones from their elaborate cabinets.
Even as professional habits and modes of expression changed, the signet ring’s mystique, suggestion of antiquity, and air of importance has retained a certain validity in use. It lives on as the well known style of ring with its broad flat face, often still serving as a stock engraving blank or bearing a suggestive yet anonymous seal design, or a trophy of membership.
The popular black onyx blank slate has its own curious place in the story, apparently inspired in some way by Victorian mourning jewelry. It is a multi-cultural survivor carrying on a 4,000 year place among ornaments.
When an insignia is used today, etching directly into the metal is the preferred signet, leaving the lost ancient trade of cutting intaglio gemstones to be practiced strictly as a preservationist art.