Whether seal engraved or worn with an ironic twist, signets are back.
Once the reserve of a well bred lady or gent, signet rings are once again pushing into wider markets as interest in genealogy increases and the value of gold makes a heritage heavyweight ring more appealing, not less, as Rachael Taylor discovers.
The signet ring has enjoyed a long-standing place in British history, dating back to the Middle Ages, when it was a vital communication tool, through to recent times as a signal of heraldry and class, and now it is increasingly finding its place in the fashion-led jewellery market.
Whether designed for the upper classes as an essential piece of family jewellery, or the Topshop generation who want to tap into the vogue for heritage fashion, signet rings are enjoying a purple patch.
James Pritchard-Barrett of online business Signets and Cyphers, which has specialised in signet rings for the past 20 years after starting out as a mail order company, believes that the signet ring is enjoying a resurgence. His clientele range from minor royalty to what he terms the “aspirational crowd looking for status and heritage”, creating a wealth of designs from simple initials to full crests and coats of arms, and says that both ends of the market are booming, with rising gold prices helping not hindering sales.
“In the last two or three years there has been a real resurgence,” he says. “There was a huge amount of media coverage on the price of gold and personal jewellery and it made people think about wearing gold, and signet rings benefitted from that. We thought it would have had the reverse effect, but it keeps on going up and people keep on ordering. We deal with the top end of the market, which is recession proof, really. It’s all about the quality and the service; the price is almost irrelevant.”
Jewellery manufacturer Charles Green also deals with the higher end of the market, and design manager Pip Beale says that, like Signets and Cyphers, its range did not suffer a decline in sales as the price of gold escalated; if anything signet rings are enjoying a new zenith of popularity thanks to the popularity of research into family trees.
“Where other gold pieces have dropped because of the price of gold, signet rings have not been affected as much,” says Beale. “The family tree thing has been big over the past few years and people base them on that.”
Charles Green offers a variety of signet rings from simple rings engraved with initials or set with stones such as onyx, which can also be engraved upon, right through to seal engraving.
Seal engraving can add £100 to £200 to the final price of the ring, depending on the detail of the seal required, and the work is outsourced to a specialist in Scotland. For every one of these rings sold, Charles Green packages it in a display box containing the ring along with the seal imprint and the seal wax; the owner can use this to seal letters, or keep it as a display.
Due to the weight of signet rings, it can be a major investment for a retailer to buy into, which is why Charles Green is running a new promotion that allows jewellers to buy a box of 12 rings in plated silver for £350, presented in a handmade wooden box, to use as a sales tool. “We recommend buying one or two rings in live metals so customers can get a feel for the weight, but we have created this [solution] because we realise that they are heavyweight pieces and they are a lot of investment,” says Beale.
Back at Signets and Cyphers, Pritchard-Barrett says that he has noticed a rise in commissions for university-aged people. While some of these customers are the usual landed gentry with inherited titles and coats of arms registered with the College of Arms, he says an increasing number are those who wish to aspire to that sort of social circle.
“We seem to do a lot for university ages,” he says. “It has always been there [sales to that age group] but there has been much more of the aspirational set for who it is a case of personal jewellery, keeping up with the Joneses, an attempt to be smart.”
As heritage fashion trends and brands have dominated the world of fashion for the past year, it would seem that signet rings fit nicely into that trend. Faye Lovenbury at Signet Group says that while signet rings have long been a core product at its H Samuel stores, the rings are proving increasingly popular with the fashion press and the retailer has been sending its signet rings out to fashion shoots for glossy magazines.
“We have seen a revival in this trend over the last few months, both in terms of fashion and in terms of men’s interest,” says Lovenbury. “Fashion magazines started to request gold men’s rings for female model shoots.”
The most popular styles with stylists are plain rings for female shoots, and for men Lovenbury says rings with design flourishes are popular, such as its 9ct gold men’s ring with diamond accents or a more unusual 9ct ring with ridge-effect shoulders and an oval sapphire as the central stone.
British jeweller Lewis Williams, founder of jewellery brand Lewis Henry Nicholas, who is now based in New York, has been designing signet rings for some time now and says that it is fashion’s leaning towards heritage brands that has sparked the sudden interest in signet rings. “They are a classic piece of jewellery, which is timeless and as heritage fashion is in vogue right now so is that style of jewellery,” he explains.
Williams says that he is working on new designs that tie into historical elements further, referencing mourning jewellery worn in the Victorian era. “I have always been influenced by antiquity when designing,” he says. “I often use Roman and Egyptian elements in my work and therefore embrace a classic sensibility of jewellery, which I believe is a quality patrons of my work admire. I am currently designing some new signet rings which will incorporate mourning aesthetics with gemstones and possible enamel work.”
Last month emerging jewellery designer Will Floyd Maclean won a design competition run by ethical jeweller Cred with a range of signet rings called Sodalitas, the Latin word for companionship, that feature nautical engravings made in 100% recycled silver.
For Maclean the relevance of signet rings is less about family ties, but any bond between two people. “With inspiration taken from sailor tattoo imagery, my Sodalitas collection focuses on the sharing of two pieces between two people, whether companions or spouses, together or apart,” he says.
While it might be tattoos and seadogs that have inspired his latest work, it was family that got Maclean interested in signet rings in the first place. “I guess I’ve always been interested in signet rings as my dad and I used to play with wax seals when I was younger, sealing letters with stamps and wax,” he says. “I’d always wanted to experiment with how I could use the seals in jewellery. The appeal for me was the part where the stamping experience was shared between two people and the romanticism of shared jewellery.”
Maclean says that he would love to continue down the signet ring design route in future, but says that he is conscious of keeping prices in reach of his customers, who are certainly not the landed gentry but fashion-conscious jewellery lovers.
“In the new year I will design a new collection using signet rings but I will have to be careful to keep innovating with the designs,” he says. “I’m already having a lot of interest from my target customers and while I’d love to work in gold I think I will have a go at making some matt gold-plated rings. I get a lot of requests for bespoke pieces but a lot of people find their whole budget – about £200 – goes in the seal engraving alone. I work with hand engravers and though everyone told me to go down the route of detailed engraving by machine, hand engraving is so beautiful that there was no other reason for me to want to look elsewhere.”
Shona Guthrie is another emerging designer who has chosen to work with signet rings in a modern way for the fashion-conscious jewellery market. Guthrie, who is currently a jewellery technician at Glasgow School of Art, is in the process of setting up her brand Ruby Edwards, named after her grandmother, and signet rings play a key role.
While signet rings have always had a market with both men and women, Guthrie says that unlike Maclean’s collection, hers, which will be realised in mainly silver with some 18ct gold, is targeted at females. “I see it primarily as a hard-hitting women’s collection,” she says, “The androgyny was part of the appeal. I was using really strong geometric shapes and I knew I could get lapis lazuli, tiger eye and bloodstone discs to work with. The structure is like a traditional signet ring but I have an overlay over the rings.”
The fashion industry’s decision to embrace signet rings might well be about the revival of all things British, the popularity of heritage brands and styles or the interest in family trees, but Guthrie says it might equally be down to the joy of an ironic buy; as well as serious heritage jewellery for the privileged, signet rings have also been popular since the 1970s in the children’s market. “There have been a lot of ironic buys recently, like Argos jewellery and the old Irish jewellery,” she says. “Plus, girls have always liked stealing their boyfriend’s jewellery and this fits in with that trend.”
Whether in the upper echelons of high society or on the high street at H Samuel, signet rings are proving popular with the gentry and the fashion pack alike. Gold prices have served to benefit signet rings, as has a boom in genealogy and a vogue for traditional styles and manufacturing techniques, and so it seems that a product that was first developed in the 1300s as a communication tool is having another high moment.
This feature was taken from the November issue of Professional Jeweller. To read the digital version, click here.