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Signet ring

  • Place of origin:

    England (made)

  • Date:

    1600-50 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • Materials and Techniques:

    Engraved gold set with bone

  • 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 13

This ring would have been used as a signet, pressed into hot wax to seal a letter or packet. Personal seals (secreta) provided an essential legal safeguard and were used to witness documents such as wills, deeds of gift, loans and commercial documents, personal letters and land indentures.

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 skull on this ring and the piece of bone set in the back of the bezel so that it would touch the skin of the wearer were potent symbols of mortality. 'Memento mori' or 'remember that you must die' imagery was found in poetry, paintings and jewellery, a reminder to the Christian of the need to keep their soul in good order for the final judgment. The name 'Edward Cope' engraved in reverse around the skull shows that it was used as a signet ring.

Physical description

Gold signet ring, with a circular bezel engraved with a skull surrounded by the name 'EDWARDxCOPE', with behind a fragment of bone, presumably a talisman or relic.

Place of Origin

England (made)


1600-50 (made)



Materials and Techniques

Engraved gold set with bone

Marks and inscriptions

engraved with a skull surrounded by the name 'EDWARDxCOPE'


Height: 2.6 cm, Width: 2.5 cm, Depth: 1.6 cm

Object history note

ex Henry Willett Collection- sold at Christies 7 April, 1905.

Historical context note

Designed as a signet ring, with letters in reverse, the ring clearly relates to memento mori (keep death in your thoughts) in the form of a ring embellished with skulls, but it also functioned as a talisman.

Descriptive line

Gold signet ring, with a circular bezel engraved with a skull surrounded by the name 'EDWARD x COPE', with behind a fragment of bone, presumably a talisman or relic, England, early 1600-50.

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Bury, Shirley, Introduction to Rings, London, 1984, p.14
Oman, Charles, British Rings:800-1914, London, 1974, p.120
Church, Rachel, Rings, London, V&A Publishing, 2011, fig 52, p. 45


Gold; Bone

Subjects depicted

Death; Memento Mori; Skull (skeleton component)


Jewellery; Metalwork; Europeana Fashion Project


Metalwork Collection

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