Man From U.N.C.L.E. a reminder of signet ring's enduring cachet

Like a chop, the signet ring was historically used as a personal signature on letters; today they are worn, often without symbol or design, as a discreet sign of prestige. Bespoke rings have added allure

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 August, 2015, 8:52pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 August, 2015, 8:52pm

If you’re one of the millions of people who have seen  Guy Ritchie’s new spy thriller The Man from U.N.C.L.E., you know about the stylish, mod world that he and costume designer Joanna Johnston created for the screen.

You probably liked the bespoke suits, or the  Thierry Lasry sunglasses and the miniskirts (especially the miniskirts). But if you were paying closer attention to the finer sartorial details of the film (along with the  plot’s twists and turns), you may have noticed a chunk of gold on the left pinkie  of Napoleon Solo, the American spy played by  Henry Cavill.

 That notable bit of bling was a signet ring. You may not know the term, but you might recognise the style – perhaps your dad, or your dad’s dad, had one.

 According to Johnston, the custom-made signet ring worn by Cavill’s character was the actor’s suggestion, as he’s known to favour the style in real life.

 “Henry came to me with the thought that his character Napoleon – a former antiques dealer whose father was a janitor – would have enjoyed the irony of having the image of Janus [the two-faced Roman god from whose name the word “janitor” is derived] on his finger in solid gold,” says Johnston.

 Often considered the “gentleman’s ring”, the signet ring has been  used since the days of  letter writing as a personal signature or symbol of family heritage. Typically it bore a family crest or another symbol representing an individual on its  flat  surface. A design was usually engraved (often in reverse) either directly into the metal of the ring or an inset gem, and then pressed into wax or clay to create the personal seal or signature.

“Signet rings have been around since people wore jewellery,” says  Beatrice Behlen,  senior curator of fashion and decorative arts at the Museum of London. “They seem to always have been popular, but I believe they became more popular with the rise of the bourgeoisie. Members of the middle class would not have a coat of arms, so having a signet ring would be a prominent sign to show that you are of a higher class.”

 Despite the fact that the primary purpose is lost (how many times do you sign forms through your computer these days?), the style is still popular and worn by men, and women, all around the world – just in a more modern way. According to Mark Ruff of  Ruffs – a fifth-generation family-owned jeweller in  Southampton, England – there has been an upturn in signet ring sales in the last three to four years. Beyond the price of gold coming down and society’s obsession with royal or heraldic traditions, he says that it’s a cyclical, generational thing. “We are presently experiencing a lot of sales to the offspring of previous customers as their children come of age and want to invest in something traditional to represent their family ties,”  says Ruff.

Members of the middle class would not have a coat of arms, so having a signet ring would be a prominent sign to show that you are of a higher class
Beatrice Behlen on the history of the signet ring

 Today’s jewellery designers, like David Yurman, create signet rings with no initials or design that are still meant to be a discreet display of prestige or pride by the wearer.

 But if you’re looking for a custom jeweller to create something more traditional for you, there  is a plethora of true craftsmen of  the genre, such as Ruffs or Dexter in Kent (which also makes school rings). Or if you’re looking for a specialist in central London, try Rebus – it has a pretty informative website that makes it easy to create your custom design. And  as with anything else custom-made, don’t count out Etsy as a resource to scout for  smaller, potentially more affordable jewellery designers.

  When you’re ready to commit to a designer, simply present them with the  symbol you’d like engraved, and they will  help you  determine whether you want an oval, round, cushion, or squared (Oxford) face. You’ll also decide if you want  any  lettering to be reversed – just in case you do need to seal a missive with wax – and what metal you’d like to use. (Remember, gold can be quite soft and smooth itself out over time.)

 According to most experts, the most popular finger to wear the signet ring on is the smallest one, the pinkie. And often, depending on the region, on the non-dominant hand. This tradition also traces back to the Middle Ages, when the idea was to have it be the most accessible for the wearer to spread his seal as needed. But today, where and how you wear the ring is a matter of personal preference. Steve McQueen wore his ever-present square gold one on his left fourth finger. Prince Charles stacks his with his wedding ring. Cavill, like his character, wears his on his left pinkie.

 Despite always being available to – and worn by – women, the trend seems to have spread deeper with them than ever before. “The more recent fashion for women wearing them is a post- millennium thing,” says Behlen, who credits the rings’ popularity with men to their historical association with power. But women now have more feminised options. To go along with his popular, masculine styles, Yurman has just launched the Bubblegum Pinky Ring collection for her – five limited-edition pieces in 18-carat gold  set with coloured gems.

 “For women, we have noticed an inclination towards unengraved stone-set rings,” says Ruff. “Here the interest is on the beauty of the natural stone as opposed to the engraving thereon.” Ruff also notes the trend of customers getting more and more comfortable creating their own design.

  Behlen adds: “Today, signet rings are not necessarily the prerogative of the aristocracy or men, which I quite like. Anyone can wear them, and if someone wants to make up their own crest, why not?”