Handmade: Modern-day signet rings by Hancocks

Words by
Sphere Life

24th March 2020

Once the seal of nobility, signet rings are enjoying a surge in popularity, with the jeweller using traditional techniques to produce contemporary styles

Used by Mesopotamians and ancient Egyptians, signet rings are some of the world’s earliest adornments. The introduction of sealing wax in the Middle Ages saw the rings transformed from a raised relief to sunken (intaglio), which left a better impression when dipped in wax and used as a way of authenticating documents. By the late 19th century, they were used extensively, with those bearing the family crest passed down through generations of noble families. 

Today, signet rings are enjoying something of a renaissance. Jeweller Hancocks, which has been producing them since 1849, goes so far as to report a roaring trade. Although the focus is still very much on traditional crests, it has also seen a boom in more esoteric commissions. “Some clients opt for their business logo or their favourite pastimes, such as football or even weightlifting,” explains director Guy Burton. “Others might request a mini portrait of a loved one or a Masonic symbol.” 

The family-run jewellers produce around 40 signet rings a month, carefully created by its team of master craftspeople in its three UK workshops. The process begins at its Burlington Arcade shop. Here, clients select their family crest — Hancocks has digitally logged 45,000 names and 25,000 crests — or they will request their own design. There are three different head shapes to choose from: cushion (the largest), stone set — with onyx and cornelian the most popular  — and oval, the most commonly used style. 

The design is drawn on to the signet ring and “seal engraved”, which is a very specific style of engraving whereby the image and lettering is carved very deeply and in reverse. This hand-chiselling process might take a single craftsperson up to two days to make, depending on the complexity. A full coat of arms, however, can be much more time consuming, requiring more than a week of focused craftsmanship. Stones are also much harder to master, their fragility leaving very little margin for error and the risk of cracking high. The intricacy of the stone pieces means that there is a wait of eight weeks before they are ready. 

“All our signet rings are supplied with a boxed wax impression for our clients to keep, which shows the mirror image of the signet ring engraving,” says Burton.

With the pieces polished and ready to go, they are delivered back to the shop, ready to be given to the client and treasured for generations to come.