The Fascinating History Behind the British Royal Family’s Favorite Ring

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Photo credit: Max Mumby/Indigo - Getty Images
Photo credit: Max Mumby/Indigo - Getty Images

Since the mid-1970s, Prince Charles has worn the same gold signet ring on his left pinky finger that bears the crest of the Prince of Wales. The importance of this ring is underscored in The Crown, where his character often appears sheepishly twirling the jewel, perhaps because it signifies the promise that, one day, he will be crowned king. Last worn by his uncle, the Duke of Windsor, who was the Prince of Wales before he ascended the throne, the ring dates back 175 years. It’s Charles’s power piece—and it never comes off.

Photo credit: Tim Graham - Getty Images
Photo credit: Tim Graham - Getty Images

It’s not just Prince Charles who is loyal to the signet ring. While the style is often considered a gentleman’s ring, it’s favored by royal women, too: Princess Diana wore a signet ring given to her by Charles before their wedding, and Meghan Markle and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, both have their own symbolic signet rings.

Naturally it’s a style that’s been prevalent in royal families for centuries, but it’s especially symbolic to Prince Charles, who was given his signet ring by his mother when she gave him the title of Prince of Wales. The jewel is engraved with a crown with feather and the phrase “ich dien,” which translates to “I serve,” a reminder of his service to the country. Since marrying Camilla, he’s worn it stacked with his wedding band just as his wife does with hers.

Even Kate Middleton’s family started wearing signet rings after the Queen bestowed them with an official Coat of Arms before the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were married. It was a sort of ‘welcome to the family’ gesture. The Middletons didn’t waste any time getting their newly appointed crest emblazoned on signet rings that are frequently worn by Kate’s parents and her siblings Pippa and James.

Photo credit: Clive Brunskill - Getty Images
Photo credit: Clive Brunskill - Getty Images

Signet rings date as far back as 3500 B.C. when Mesopotamians wore cylindrical seals that they stamped in clay or wax to approve documents. In the Middle Ages, the rings were also used as a sealed signature which identified a person’s coat of arms and political allegiance. Once a person died, their signet ring was usually destroyed to avoid any forgeries. Through the 19th century, the style was mainly worn by royalty, aristocrats, and government officials whose status and heritage were engraved in a gold or silver ring. But by the 20th century, the ring’s purpose as a source of security was no longer required, and more gentlemen adopted the tradition of wearing signet rings, which are also called ‘gent’s rings.’

You don’t need to be a royal or marry into an aristocratic family to get your own family crest or coat of arms. The Rebus jewelry store in London has stacks of old books with family crests and symbols that anyone can adopt. The Rebus team will even help you track down a similar likeness to your family name or origins and engrave it on gold or silver rings, or they will help you design your own insignia.

The signet ring is a style that has taken off recently as people look for more personalized pieces. Some new styles have a vintage spirit and are engraved with initials, while other contemporary versions are framed in diamonds. Here are some of the best new signet rings that can define your status.

Establish a new family tradition with Rebus’s customizable signet ring, offered in a range of stones and carved with any letter or motif–even a family crest.

Castro Smith’s hand-engraved rings add a pop of artistic color to any wardrobe with bright ceramic images of nature and historical and mythological references.

A timeless accessory, a gold pinky ring is an elegant layering piece.

A playful pinky ring with the Greek designer’s signature evil eye is also a form of symbolic protection.

The chicest monogram is emblazoned in gold and surrounded with a circle of tiny sparkly diamonds.

A playful take on a classic, Alison Lou’s checkered signet rings in bright combinations of red and blue or pink and mint are the perfect summer jewel.

A minimalist gold signet ring is the kind of classic that you can make your style signifier.

It’s Meghan Markle’s go-to pinky ring, and it symbolizes love and friendship

Engraved with a compass, Foundrae’s signet ring is designed to serve as a reminder for its wearers to “keep adjusting course to align better with their purpose and beliefs,” says its designer.

The kissing cheetahs are a symbol of love and are a part of Retrouvai’s Alchemy series, which includes hand-engraved motifs that represent transformation and creation.

A diamond signet ring with sparkling stars delivers a regal image.

Inspired by ancient rings, Elizabeth Locke’s 19-carat gold cushion ring is hand-engraved with a bee.

Sorellina makes it easy to customize signet rings in a range of colors with diamond-studded letters and symbols.

The chunky brushed gold ring appears like a family heirloom with a great history.

David Yurman’s genderless signet rings are engraved with images inspired by ancient artifacts.

A classic gold signet ring engraved with letters and symbols and set with a wearer’s birthstone is an elegant, personalized expression.

The French designer scouts vintage flea markets for ideas for her stylish pieces, like this colorful signet ring.

An instant heirloom, Halili set this rare coin in a weighty gold pinky ring.

Strong and bold, this vintage ring is an empowering talisman with a symbolic lion engraved in stone.

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