Signet rings are such a personal thing. When engraved with a cipher, a crest or any device personal to the wearer it becomes unique. The ring featured in this item evolved from an idea from a customer. She wanted to buy her daughter a ring for a birthday present but wanted something different. It had to have personal significance and it had to be very wearable. We discussed alternatives but the conversation kept coming back to the idea of a signet ring.
Our customer’s daughter is studying to become a clock maker and she wanted to have the ring engraved with a pair of dividers; these are a vital tool in clockmaking as they help to precisely space the teeth when cutting wheels so their meaning had a particular resonance for her. Initially we discussed engraving this design in to a plain gold ring which would have worked out fine but we wanted something more durable – something that would stand the test of time. We keep a sample signet ring set with blue/black onyx as it demonstrates the art of seal engraving perfectly and also shows the contrast that can be achieved. Blue with black was not going to work in this case but a more traditional sardonyx (red and white) would complement the rose gold colour of the ring perfectly and, when seal engraved, would reveal the red on a background of white. The finished article looks amazing and our customer and her daughter were both delighted.
The art of engraving a personal cipher to a ring is thousands of years old. In the ancient world documents were sealed with wax and a ring or hand held seal was pressed into the wax to apply a personal mark. Personal seals were highly valued and were the property of people of status. The application of a seal to wax helped prevent forgery and was the method by which documents were ‘signed’ at a time when a hand written signature was not in use.
The technique of engraving or carving gems was prevalent in ancient civilisations in Mesopatamia and Assyria and later in ancient Greece from about 700BC. The Romans too were great gem carvers and often carved the figures of Gods or Caesars into hard stones. For seals the type of stone used was usually semi-precious and varieties of onyx (a variety chalcedony) were especially favoured.
Arguably the most well-known sardonyx is the stone engraved with a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I. Set in to a ring and given as a memento to the Earl of Essex, it is said that The Queen vowed to come to his aid if ever he requested it. Later the Earl was imprisoned in the Tower of London for treason; he tried to send the Queen the ring but it was intercepted by Lady Nottingham whose husband was an enemy of Essex. Thinking that the Earl was too proud to plead for mercy, The Queen allowed his execution to take place and it was not until the deathbed confession of Lady Nottingham that Elizabeth learned the truth. It left her heartbroken.
Onyx is found in various regions of the world including Argentina, China, Brazil, India, the USA and the UK and it is formed in the vesicles of lava. Typically onyx is formed of parallel bands of chalcedony in alternating colours consisting of fine intergrowths of the silica minerals quartz and morganite. Varieties include black and white and black and blue; Sardonyx is a variant in which the coloured bands are Sard (shades of red) alternating with white. It is very durable and as such, is perfect for seal engraving – a crest or cipher cut in any form of cryptocrystalline quartz such as sardonyx or bloodstone will remain clean and crisp in definition for ever.