The signet ring is an early but long-lasting form of jewelery used to seal letters and other important documents. Its evolution as a media artifact is long, but important in showing the way that security and identification must grow together in order to have any function. The ring also brings up several important questions about the way in which media becomes part of ourselves.
The custom of wearing these seal-rings, or signet rings as they are known today, was "transmitted to the Greek world and also to the Etruscans, from whom the usage was derived by the Romans" (Kunz 1). As the technology to work with metals and stone advanced, the form of the signet ring evolved. By 600 BCE the Greeks made fixed-metal signet rings, the stones of which were engraved with motifs of nature and considered to be miniature versions of Greek sculpture and painting masterpieces. During the Hellenistic period (beginning with the conquering of Alexander the Great in 331 BCE and ending with the establishment of the Roman Empire by Augustus in 27 BCE) all-metal rings emerged, but signet rings with bezels, typically depicting motifs of gods, recreational activities and love, carved in harder precious stones were more desirable and characteristic of this period.
As evidenced by a shift in the style and purpose of the signet ring with the rise of Christianity, the evolution of the ring was influenced just as much by cultural preference as by the available materials and technologies. During this period, "as early as the 3rd century AD, St. Clement of Alexandria, who disapproved of luxury and immorality, declared that the only ring acceptable to Christians was the signet. This was for practical purposes: women, being the housekeepers, needed gold rings for 'sealing [i.e. locking] things that have to be kept safe in the house.' Men should only wear the signet on the little finger, at the root....'being guarded by the large knot of the joint.' The devices should express love, peace and sober living. Instead of pagan gods, drinking cups, nude women and victorious soldiers, signets would bear the Christian symbols of the fish, anchor, ship and fisherman" (Scarisbrick 23). Here we see a new emphasis on the practical and religious functions of the signet ring, extending the use to women and dictating the finger placement for men. The encoding on the ring, rather than being a relatively arbitrary image associated with the wearer, was to be strictly Christian symbols. Similarly, the practical and religious come into contention in the Mishna (book of Jewish Law) which prohibits the wearing of signet rings on the Shabaat because they are a tool, prohibited on the day of rest.
In Byzantium, signet rings were made entirely of metal, marking a transition from figures to words and letters which are easier to engrave. Signet rings rapidly increased in popularity during this time, becoming a common mundane object employed by a range of people. To meet the demand, standard designs (commonly a monogram of letters arranged around a cross) were stocked by goldsmiths. This shift marks the transition of the technical image of the signet ring, moving away from the face image of the artistic image conception of the ring of the ancient Greeks, to a more text image conception, where we see and emphasis on digital placement, monograms and mass production.
The use of heraldry as a theme on signet rings emerged during the Middle Ages. It was also during this time that a revolutionary innovation emerged, the foiled crystal intaglio signet ring. These rings featured the "owner's coat of arms painted in brilliant colors beneath the crystal intaglio. In this way, an impression could be made on the hot wax without causing the colors to fade" (ibid). This innovation is an interesting embodiment of Plato's metaphor using the signet ring to explain vision and knowing (see below). "Those not entitled to bear arms sealed with other devices. From the 14th to the 17th century merchants used signets engraved with the emblem by which they marked their goods so as to be easily recognized by those who could not read or write, made by a few strokes of the brush" (Scarisbrick 31). In the 15th century the most common signet was bronze, usually gilt, with initial letters on the bezel, representing the Christian name of the owner, either crowned or flanked by palm branches (ibid).
Impressions in Wax and Clay
Both Aristotle and Plato use the signet ring and wax in their theories of sensation and vision to make the "the point that it is the form and not the matter, that is impressed upon the mind," (Seidel 77). For Plato, "vision has what it sees, and yet does not have it all: 'echei ho eide kai au ouk echei.' There is both possession and non-possession. The gold of the seal is not found in the imprinted sealing wax" (Ibid). Aristotle also uses the signet ring and wax as a sexual metaphor. In his conceptualization, activity (the act of sealing) is associated with the male and passivity (the wax receiving the ring) with the female. "According to Aristotle's biology, its is the male that provides the form for the offspring (the soul), the female providing the matter or material...the image of a piece of warm wax passively receiving the impression of the signet ring" (Seidel 65).
Form Meets Function
The material form of the signet ring--an inscribed metal (and stone) hoop attached directly to the finger, to be merely displayed or pressed into a malleable substance to leave an imprint--is, in the McLuhan sense of the word, a prosthetic, an "extension of ourselves." It is both an augmentation of the body and a barrier between the sealer and the sealed. When a person in a place of power, such as a King or a Pharaoh, seals a document a transfer of power occurs between the authority of the physical presence of the King and his mark of authorization, mediated by the signet ring--which, though acting as a prosthetic, directly extending the body and connecting it with the wax. This transferrence of authority from a human into a material good can also be understood using Marx's theory of material relations between commodities. The seal, like Marx's commodities, appears to be independent of the people that produce them,having intrinsic power abstracted from the producer. The social relations between people no longer take place face to face, rather the goods (in this case the seal) stand in for them, conducting business among themselves (Marx, Capital: A critique of Political Economy).
The signet ring has both catoptric and dioptric qualities. The act of sealing is catoptric; an obfuscation of information, concealing the content by reflecting the authority of the sealer. However, the signet ring itself is dioptric, a window into the wear's identity; the symbolism conveyed by the intaglio (be it a family crest, initials, or Greek god) illuminates information about the status, history or interests of the wearer.
Signet Ring as AuthorityThe relationship between the wearer and the signet ring can be seen as a complex tension of authority.
One the other hand, wearer can gain legitimation through the ring, without it he is unable to exert his own authority, depending on the symbol of the ring as legitimation. As demonstrated in the "Dream Book" of Artemidorus published in 709, he refers to an unsettling dream in which "his signet ring had dropped from his finger, and that the engraved stone set therein had broken into many fragments, the result of this being that he could transact no business for forty-five days, presumably until he could have a new signet engraved. For the impression of the individual signet was indispensable to give validity to any order or agreement" (Kunz 131). This dependency on the signet ring for agency and authority reveals it's nature to be one of a mediation between the authority giving power of the wearer and the authority giving power of the ring itself. Artemidorus's ring both reflects and grants his authority by acting as an necessary technology for the authentication of self. Without his ring he is incapable of bringing his authority to action.
Inherent in the signet ring's ability to transfer authority is the question of externalization. There are two levels of externalization: from the owner to the ring and from the ring to the wax. The interaction between the ring and the wax creates a petrified seal of authority which contains the benefits of mobility and efficiency, characteristics which make the signet ring a useful medium in the first place. However, the authenticity of this interaction depends on a situation in which the wearer of the ring is also the owner and the source of the authority. Herein lies the risk, while imbuing a signet with royal authority gives that authority a new character of mobility and convenience, it also creates the possibility for forgery and misuse by creating a medium which is able to 'speak' in the voice of the owner even when apart from the owner, essentially creating a self outside one's self. The physical form of the rings suggests this risks, by remediating the ancient Babylonian seal into a ring that can be kept on one's person at all times, it suggests the serious consequences of it's loss. A person with the signet ring of the king can, in fact, act in the name of the king. In this way, by externalizing authority into the ring as a prosthesis, some measure of authority is effectively removed from the ring owner and placed irretrievably into the artifact.
The signet ring has been closely associated with identity throughout history by virtue of the seal as a dioptric lens revealing the identity of the owner, as well as its power to perform authoritative action in its owner's name. The signet ring was both necessary and also cherished as an important symbol of self. Faced with poverty "as a general rule a signet ring was one of the last objects of value that an owner would part with" (Kunz 158). Often times the seal was a family crest, reflecting the heradic identity of the wearer and creating a strong link between the ring and the owner. Together the ring and the wearer comprise a complete entity, both the origin of authority and the medium through which authority is enacted. The form of the ring, worn close to the body on the hand, reflects not only the need for security but also the close relation the signet ring holds the identity and agency of the wearer.
This folk tail demonstrates the auratic power of the signet ring, containing the human presence of the owner and thus fracturing the Solomon's identity between person and ring. In the story Solomon was only identifiable as the king while in possession of his ring and unrecognizable without it. The loss of the ring constituted the loss of self. This connection between the signet ring and personal identity is also demonstrated through it's relation to death. "In the middle ages an instance of the ring dropping from one's finger was seen as an omen of death" (Kunz 133). Additionally, "The Romans not only took off the rings from the fingers of the dead . . . for fear the Pollinctores, or they who prepared the body for the funeral, should take them for themselves, because when the dead body was laid on the pile they put the rings on the fingers again, and burnt them with the corpse. (Jones 45)
Signet Ring As Security
Moving beyond just the need to extend power over space and time, the signet ring is probably best recognized as a way to secure messages and various other enclosures.
Seal as EnclosureThe seal of the signet ring is a signifier for security, secrecy, and protection in addition to power and authority. The seal has a double function encoded in its title as “seal” to secure and enclose privileged information or access.
The seal is not meant to be permanent as can be gathered from the materials of wax and clay, and therefore only offers temporary protection and security until the rightful person is meant to break the seal. The function of a seal then is very similar to that of a lock, or a skeuomorph, remaining unread or unopened, until the person with the key or matching document is able to open it. The seal was developed as a way to ensure the authenticity of what was sealed. If a seal was broken before arriving at its destination it meant a breech in security, and therefore the erasure of the document’s validity and authority. In this case the power of the sealer is not transferred and possibly comes into question. “The bearer of such a letter fully realized his responsibility for its delivery with unbroken seal, and generally took pains to have this duly recognized by the person to whom it was addressed" (Kunz 83).
The physical structure of a ring, as well the definition of the word “ring” refer to an enclosure. A ring has no opening in its structure, except for its hollow center to fit around a finger. The band of the ring is continuous and unbroken, which lends to its significance in becoming a symbol of marriage, referring to the ultimate seal of commitment.
The hand itself is also invested with the symbolic act of sealing as with the sealing of US presidency by swearing with the hand on the Bible. The placement of the hand acts as a seal and signature. The authenticity of Barack Obama's presidency was undermined because his hand was not placed on the Bible, and therefore it was perceived that he did not in fact seal the presidency. This inauguration had to be repeated in order to become solidified. This shows that the hand as signifier of power and sealing continues to be true, and also lends to the significance of the seal being worn on the hand rather than than anywhere else.
Seal as Signature
The application of the seal onto a document or letter meant the signature of the individual as well as a last word and the closing or ending of the document. The seal authenticates the document as a signature and a signing off by an individual. In the seal as signature, the individual authors himself, and imprints himself into the document as part of that archive. This is also a sealing of the self into a document or agreement/contract. The self is sealed onto the document, adhering to it and providing a promise or guarantee of the author’s word. The seal offers a double archive as it already exists as a symbol of an individual in a physical object, and also attaches that individual to a surface. The seal, then repeats the individual as self and as word or promise. In cases of contracts by merchants or legal agreements, the seal as signature binds the signer or signers if there are more than one seals fixed to a given document to the agreement stated in the text. Merchants also used seals to verify and prove that they sold a certain object. This has evolved today into the trademark, pin numbers, bar codes, and other identifying data.
Seal as Protection
The seal also has a history of protection in its common display of a coat of arms. “In Elizabeth’s reign and in those of her immediate successors, it is believed that scarcely a gentleman was to be found who did not own and wear a signet ring on which appeared his coat-of-arms. Those not fortunate enough to have the right to display armorial bearings, sometimes sought to make their signets individual using as designs rebuses expressing more or less well the pronunciation of their names" (Kunz 140). This alignment of a knightly coat of arms and the signet ring endow it with a very literal expression of protection. The ring becomes armor which is fastened to the body for protection. The seal as armor provides protection for the wearer as well as protection of anything signed with it while simultaneously indicating a relationship to battle and to an enemy threat. The seal is threatened by the possibility of it being broken by the wrong person and intercepted. The ring in this case becomes a kind of media skin, or second layer of consciousness to the body which armors it. The body that wears the signet ring wears another layer of signification and protection.
De-signifying the Signet Ring
While the signet ring quickly lost its use as a means of secure and authentic communication with the advent of things like the adhesive envelope and the fob stamp, the ring still retained much of its status as a means of indicating certain social status and prestige. Eventually, much of this faded away as many rings became simply jewelry, but we can still see many places within our culture today where the signet ring’s use as a status indicator is still powerful.
Social Status and RespectThe signet ring performs a passive yet vital function in face-to-face interactions.
The custom of ring wearing served a twofold purpose: ornamental as well as useful. In this early history of the ring, simply by glancing down at the hands of those within a room it becomes easy to identify social status based on the quality of their sphragi, or the gem on which intaglio is inscribed (Jones 18). Because the signet ring then was such a powerful social signal of status, respect and authority, many desired to create rings that simply for a display of high status. This leads to the creation of ornate styles of rings whose jewels were not longer used in the act of sealing and instead created primarily to indicate wealth and status (Oman 23).
Today signet rings have lost a portion of their authority, in part due to the general disenchantment of rings in modern culture. The signet ring is so common that it is ignored in most cases. Because class rings are mass produced and sold to graduates at every level of education by companies like Jostens they give very little if any status to their wearers. Likewise many jewelers sell signet rings with the initials of the owner carved into them which is more novelty tradition than utility of identification. Some of these rings can be meaningful and communicate basic meanings, such a school or fraternity, but are rarely a useful form of communication any more.
Authenticity of Identity Today
While the practicality of the signet ring was originally to extend the hand of authority through time and space, today this function has been remediated through various media. Listed are several items of importance today that can be traced back to the signet ring.
- Hand Signature - In business transaction, a signet ring was needed to authenticate and sign documents. Without a signet ring, transactions must use a hand signature (Bouvier 3071). With the rise of literacy, limited the use of someone just making a mark, the signature reduces the need for the signet ring as a tool in business and trade. The individual’s signature became a powerful shift in locating the individual’s authority and validity within an economic market.
- Trademark - As the need for a signet ring by merchants atrophied, the trademark grew increasingly important. The trademark bears stronger legal binding than the signet ring, and is therefore more ensuring to merchants.
- Fingerprint - This is mostly related to forensic identification, the fingerprint creates individual authenticity. While we often need another medium to read fingerprints (such as powder and a magnifying lens), they have drastically changed the idea of what it means to produce authenticity. Now our hands leave a bit of our aura in everything we do. The fingerprint is not yet a common form of deliberate authenticity.
Arts and Crafts
Today signet rings and other forms of seals are still easily found and used by many in non-legal contexts. These uses no longer serve any practical security or authoritative purpose. Often they are used to connote a feeling of formality or specialness in correspondence, such as wedding invitations.
Fictional Signet Rings in Popular Culture
- Green Lantern - Each Green Lantern officer gets a power ring which is used both as a badge and weapon for the individual.
- Captain Planet - In order to summon Captain Planet each of his "planeteers" was required to call on their rings' power.
- Ring Pop - While primarily a sweet treat, when considered in the context of the ring as identity we must begin to consider the empty consumption as a kind of auto-vampirism.
- Bouvier, John and Francis Rawle. Bouvier's Law Dictionary and Concise Encyclopedia, Volume 3. William s Hein & Co, 1914.
- Butler, Judith and Catherine Malabou. You Be My Body For Me. New York University, March 4, 2010.
- Gleeson, Colin. "Bishop: I was uneasy about having to kiss the papal ring." Irish Independent. March 5, 2010. 
- Jones, William. Finger-Ring Lore. Singing Tree Press, 1890.
- Kunz, George Frederick. Rings for the Finger. J. B. Lippincott company, 1917.
- McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Gingko Press, 2003.
- Oman, Charles. British Rings 800-1914. The Anchor Press Ltd, Essex. 1974.
- Plato, Plato and Benjamin Jowett. Phaedrus. City: Forgotten Books, 2008.
- Scarisbrick, Diana. Rings: Jewlery of Power, Love and Loyalty. 2007.
- Seidel, George. Knowledge as Sexual Metaphor. Associated University Presses, 2000.