Signet Ring thumbnail 1
Image of Gallery in South Kensington
On display at V&A South Kensington
Jewellery, Rooms 91, The William and Judith Bollinger Gallery

Signet Ring

1500-1600 (made)
Artist/Maker
Place of origin

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.


Object details
Categories
Object type
Materials and techniques
Engraved gold
Brief description
Gold signet ring, the octagonal bezel engraved with a ship in full sail, with the initials T. / I.R., England, 1500-1600.
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
Dimensions
  • Height: 2.2cm
  • Width: 2.2cm
  • Depth: 1.7cm
Marks and inscriptions
  • engraved with a ship in full sail
  • pricked initials T. / I.R. (behind)
  • mark (indecipherable)
Credit line
Given by Dame Joan Evans
Object history
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.
Subjects depicted
Summary
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.
Collection
Accession number
M.226-1975

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Record createdNovember 25, 2005
Record URL
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