Signet Rings History
Heraldic engravers of signet rings.
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In earlier times iron rings were regarded as symbols of victory when worn on the hand of a successful general. Romans had the custom from the Etruscans, who probably got it from the Greeks, presumably the warrior Spartans, who in turn were influenced by the fable of Prometheus bound to the rock by an iron ring. The Late Republican Period and the Imperial Age in Rome both saw an enormous variety of rings produced, most of them reflecting Etruscan, Egyptian, Greek and Oriental influences.
Ring wearing gained popularity in Rome during the Augustan period. Rings were given such a place of honour in Roman households that special caskets were crafted to hold them. Also, a great many and new decorative motifs were introduced with rings. A trend during the Imperial Period had Roman women wearing rings that bore the images of animals worshipped by the Egyptians.
Embodying the Roman taste for pomp and opulence, the size of certain rings could be quite massive. In fact, the very weight of some made them difficult to maintain on the finger, especially during the heavy Roman heat. Then, by contrast, there is the famous anecdote of the Roman Emperor, Maximinus, who was himself so large of frame that he could wear his wife’s diminutive bracelet as a thumb ring.
A ring distinguished an individual in a way that other forms of jewellery did not. Finger rings represented the language of social code, and connoted one’s social standing. Under the Empire, the finger ring was still considered a privilege, conferred for military distinction. As time wore on and attitudes changed, the ring was more freely bestowed. Even so, the ring retained its position as a mark of dignity, as a rich ornament, as an important seal, and as a token of betrothal.
Rings were considered so symbolic that it was the Roman custom to have a ring removed from the finger of a dying person. In some cases the custom backfired. Believing the Emperor Tiberius to have expired, his attendants slipped his signet ring from his hand. When the distempered Emperor woke from his coma he demanded it back. If a ring slipped from one’s finger-- especially if it had engraved on it the effigy of its owner -- it boded ill tidings for the owner. And if a Roman citizen dreamed of such an event happening to him or to her, it was most definitely not a happy portent."
In the first century B.C. a man never wore more than one ring. But as gem collecting caught on, the alteration of custom proved inevitable and provoked much debate. It is recorded that Crassus, the powerful Roman politician and member of the First Triumvirate with Julius Caesar and Pompey, wore two rings. Horace, the famous Roman lyric poet and satirist, considered three rings worn at the same time as excessive. However, the Roman-Spanish lyric poet, Martial, speaks of one man he once observed whose habit was to wear six rings on each finger. He goes on to imply that some catty Romans speculated that this dandy wore all his rings simply because he hadn’t the money to purchase a proper casket to hold them.
The shape and size of rings could vary. For instance, they could display finesse, such as one with a thin hoop and a circular bezel done in the Hellenistic style. The most emblematic Roman ring had a simple engraved shank with a representative gem set flush to the flat bezel. Simple gold rings with a plain shank and shoulders might end in a bezel that had been etched or engraved with the images of birds, flowers, plants, leaves, or temples. One bold ring style had strong projecting shoulders and an eye-shaped bezel. Double and triple rings were produced, possibly for funerary use.
Ornamental designs in a variety of precious metals produced rings that were raised, ridged or cusped. Filigree and granulation were often used in the more elaborate versions, and fretwork found its own vogue in ring design. Circular rings were made with patterns of pierced metal; octagonal rings were done either in inscribed solid metal, or as a hoop with pierced openwork decoration and an engraved stone on its face.
Roman goldsmiths would sometimes employ precious and semi-precious stones set all around the shank of a ring, working most commonly with sapphires, emeralds, garnets or carnelians. Some outstanding ornamental rings were produced in both fragile and powerful forms. There are those set with sapphires, amethysts, and uncut diamonds; or, in an especially beautiful version, a cabochon aquamarine with a niello inscription.
When gems were used, they were employed as the highlighted centrepiece for a simple and economical mount. These rings wisely used gems as the focus for the eye. Tiny images of deities were often carved on stones for religious significance, and were coveted by many who believed the stones to have magical properties because of these divine images. And some gems were, in and of themselves, considered to have mystical influences. Those rings etched with special intaglios made a significant part of Roman jewellery, while other rings might hold an inscribed motto dear to the wearer’s heart.
The mid-first century B.C. to the mid-first century A.D. was perhaps the greatest period in Roman gem cutting, and a time when masters signed their own works. Round and oval cuts appeared, along with cabochon cuts, and also what now might be considered modified cushion cuts. While glass could be molded in imitation of engraved gems, gems themselves celebrated greater popularity. And, though small diamonds did find their way into certain rings, the use of milky agates, carved carnelians, dark garnets, grape-hued amethysts and delicate pearls was far more common. The sardonyx was such a favourite gem for a ring that only ivory caskets were thought to be fit receptacles for it.
Roman rings, from those examples that have survived, prove to be a trove of imagination and variation. A simple but interesting form popular in the third and fourth century was the keeled ring, with either a broad or a narrow body that possessed a sharp keel or carination to it.
The key ring was rather an elegant and simple idea. It was also the expedient solution to a problem. Since the Romans had no pockets in their togas, key rings served a dual purpose—not only decorative, but also practical, especially if the wearer was in charge of a storehouse, a treasure room, a casket of valuables, or a strongbox. Key rings were usually fashioned from bronze or iron.
Coin-set rings were not so common as other ring formats, but they did exist. When the Emperor Claudius gave permission for the people to wear his image engraved on a ring, gold coins or medallions with the Imperial portrait became a prestige item.
One of the most popular styles was the Snake Ring. In modern terms these would be considered by-pass rings, their finials either two snakeheads or a snakehead and a tail, similar to those penannular rings with animal heads at each terminal. These could be simply done, with a stylized snakehead stamped in low relief on the terminals; or, they could be fashioned in elaborately sinuous and tapering sculptured versions with scales and gem-set eyes. There was nothing whatsoever morbid about the snake symbol in Roman mythology. The Roman snake was not the venomous and powerful Egyptian cobra, but the Asclepian snake. Asclepius was the Roman god of healing; the snake symbolic of him represented the underworld, with its departed souls and ancestral spirits, while at the same time symbolizing healing, rebirth and regeneration.
The Signet, or Seal Ring, was of utmost importance in Roman society, as it was used in validating serious legal documents by its owner. Intaglios, and engraved or intaglio-cut gems could serve as seals, even while appearing decorative. Cicero mentions them, and Pliny cites that the fashion of wearing signet rings eventually shifted to the little finger.
A Signet Ring was highly representative of the individual who wore it. It was, in effect, his or her signature. Pompey’s displayed a lion bearing a sword. Julius Caesar had an armed Venus. Augustus had first a sphinx, then the head of Alexander the Great, and finally his own image. Nero, so vain of his own strident warbling that he had other singers whipped, wore a signet ring representing the flaying of Marsyas by Apollo. Obviously, poor Marsyas thought he was in better voice than the young God and his lyre.
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