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Signet ring

  • Place of origin:

    England (made)

  • Date:

    1500-1600 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • Materials and Techniques:

    Engraved gold

  • Credit Line:

    Given by Dame Joan Evans

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Jewellery, Rooms 91, The William and Judith Bollinger Gallery, case 9, shelf A, box 12

A seal or signet ring was used to apply the wearer's personal mark to the sealing wax on a document. The seal then demonstrated the legality of the document and the identification of the issuing authority or individual. Signet rings could be engraved with a coat of arms or crest, an initial, a merchant's mark (a geometric symbol used to mark goods or personal belongings), or a personal symbol. Sixteenth and seventeenth century portraits show signet rings worn on the forefinger or thumb, presumably to make it easy to apply the ring to the wax by turning the hand. They were items of jewellery with a practical function but the use of precious metals and engraved hardstones indicates that they were also signs of status.

The ship sailing across the bezel of this ring may refer to the personal emblem of the owner, be a reference to a family name or perhaps suggest a professional link with trade or shipping. Other sixteenth and early seventeenth century rings engraved with ships, now in the British Museum and the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford suggest that the device was not unusual. They may also fit within the pattern of ship imagery and graffitti found in medieval churches, created from the early middle ages and continuing long after the Reformation. The quantity of ships represented suggests that the ship was a potent image, either reflecting the importance of ships in a maritime, trading nation or perhaps referring to the imagery of the Christian church as a ship.

Physical description

Gold signet ring, the octagonal bezel engraved with a ship in full sail, with the pricked initials behind T. / I.R. and struck with an indecipherable mark

Place of Origin

England (made)


1500-1600 (made)



Materials and Techniques

Engraved gold

Marks and inscriptions

engraved with a ship in full sail

pricked initials T. / I.R.



Height: 2.2 cm, Width: 2.2 cm, Depth: 1.7 cm

Object history note

Other signet rings with ships can be found in the British Museum. BM 1928,0507.1 dates from the early 17th century and is engraved with a ship in full sail under the initials RH. The ship on the BM ring is more detailed and finely worked than the V&A example. An earlier iconographic ring from the late 15th century is also engraved with a ship within and cable border (Dalton catalogue of the rings in the British Museum, cat. 545). A ring in the Ashmolean museum (WA1897.CDEF.F603) is engraved with a fully rigged ship and the date 1620.

Descriptive line

Gold signet ring, the octagonal bezel engraved with a ship in full sail, with the initials T. / I.R., England, 1500-1600.



Subjects depicted

Ships; Sails


Jewellery; Metalwork; Europeana Fashion Project


Metalwork Collection

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