The Timeless Symbolism of Signet Rings: From Royalty to Pop Culture

What do Prince Charles of England, Rosalía, and the Sopranos have in common? At first glance, not much. However, if we were to draw a connection between them, it would take the shape of a thick, flat ring, probably worn on the pinky finger, perhaps adorned with a ruby or a family crest. This symbol of significance transcends mere carats of gold—it’s a signet ring, a piece of jewelry that today knows no gender boundaries and has been interpreted throughout history by cultures as diverse as royalty, mafia bosses in the 1950s, 1980s hip-hop culture, late-century club-goers, Communion girls, and the family sagas that inspire lives like those depicted in the movie Saltburn.

Interestingly, the signet ring has never needed to be the most valuable or spectacular jewel in a collection to possess its greatest symbolism. Traditionally, it speaks of lineage, history, power, and inheritance—a visual reminder of the privilege of some families, important ancestors, and the desire to demonstrate a certain status. Its origins date back to Mesopotamia, and even Pliny the Elder reflected on its uses in his masterpiece, Natural History. Today, once again, it experiences a new era and significance, reimagined as a fashion piece by brands like Miu Miu, Margiela, and Bottega Veneta, endorsed by ambassadors like Rosalía, and reclaimed by Generation Z as a modern symbol of self-expression. With the signet ring, something similar is happening to what occurred with white pearls: you don’t need to be Coco Chanel to wear them. Nor do you need to be the great-grandson of a lord to wear a pinky ring.

A History of Signatures

The origins of signet rings trace back to Mesopotamia, and from ancient Egypt, they were used by religious and royal elites as a signature to validate documents. “The signet ring’s form changed very little since then,” explains Roger Bastida, an art historian specializing in 19th and 20th-century lifestyles, as it maintained its political significance over the centuries.

“It is one of the few male jewels that survived the French Revolution. In the bourgeois world of the 19th century, the idea and form of masculinity changed,” comments Bastida, noting that the signet ring with the noble coat of arms remained one of the few jewels in men’s attire, alongside tie pins, pocket watch chains, and wedding rings. “Being one of the few male jewels that survived the transition from the 18th to the 19th century, many subcultures adopted it. The elegant or dandies, later the dandies. Also, those nostalgic for a previous regime or social climbers who want to be perceived in a certain way or dress with a certain elegance. But also sexual minorities,” he adds. Oscar Wilde, back in 1889, wore a thick signet ring on his pinky finger.

If we were to place the signet ring in any historical context, it would be England: King John sealed the Magna Carta in 1215 with his, Edward II mandated that all official documents should be signed with the king’s seal, and during the Victorian era, pinky rings became fashionable among the British nobility thanks to Queen Victoria’s children, who, as Town & Country magazine recalled, followed the example of the Germans and began stacking their wedding and signet rings on their left pinky, initiating a long-standing royal tradition that continues to this day. King Charles has worn his since the 1970s: he wore it during his engagement to Princess Diana in 1981, he wore it at his wedding to Queen Camilla in 2005, and he hasn’t taken it off since. This family heirloom is engraved with the official Prince of Wales crest, is over 175 years old, and previously belonged to his uncle, the Duke of Windsor. Princes William and Harry, and even Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle, have inherited this penchant for gold signet rings.

At the same time, the Fisherman’s Ring is a seal that distinguishes the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) as the visible head of the Catholic Church. This ring, which is an important part of the papal enthronement, bears the image of Saint Peter fishing in a boat, surrounded by the name of the pope occupying the seat at that time in Latin. Each pontiff wears a ring made with the remains of the one used by the previous pope and engraves his own seal on the new one: the earliest citation of this ring dates back to 1265.

With the arrival of the 20th century, the signet ring underwent a transformation: it became a piece of jewelry. The designers who would revolutionize women’s fashion adopted it: Jean Cocteau, Schiaparelli, and Coco Chanel wore signet rings on their pinky fingers, and the renowned jeweler Suzanne Belperron sported one adorned with crystals and diamonds. Consequently, brands like Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels began designing them not just as a family legacy but as another piece of jewelry.

From Royalty to Pop Culture

Simultaneously, the trend of wearing signet rings on the pinky finger crossed the Atlantic with the 32nd US President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and was embraced by 20th-century stars: in music, Frank Sinatra, Elvis, and James Brown. It was the actresses of the time who gave it the final approval for women’s attire: Louise Brooks, Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman, and Mae West wore these rings, as did the celebrated columnist and editor Diana Vreeland.

The allure of the pinky ring continued throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Hollywood used its magnetism to portray characters who were not necessarily glamorous. Mobsters and bosses wore white tank tops and made their decisions with a signet ring that identified them with their cause: Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone in The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972) wore one, as did the characters played by Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro in The Irishman (Martin Scorsese, 2019). James Gandolfini also wore one, with a ruby, as Tony Soprano in The Sopranos (the television series that premiered in 1999). In fact, the signet ring has portrayed many villains, sleazebags, and anti-heroes of fiction: Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems (Benny Safdie and Joshua Safdie, 2019), Bob Odenk

irk as Saul Goodman in Better Call Saul (the Breaking Bad spin-off, 2015).

“A jump can be in one direction or the other: in the 2000s, gold was either for older ladies or for a certain cultural reality associated with the neighborhood,” recalls Roger Bastida. Thus, the signet ring passed to a new tribe, that of the regulars on the Bakalao Route, and with them, to the rave scene at the turn of the century. “Fortunately, yellow gold is now normalized. And what used to be neighborhood, like hoops, like eye-lining, is now fashion. Because the image of the posh girl with pearls and a braid is outdated. And you have Rosalía or Bad Gyal, who have consumed that neighborhood culture, that music, those visual references, wearing hoops, signet rings, chains, yellow gold,” comments Bastida. Alongside this redefinition of gold and the signet ring comes an interesting element when turning this ring into a piece of self-expression: “For a few years now, we’ve been witnessing a new construction of masculinity. And we find that a signet ring can be worn by a very old-fashioned gentleman of a certain social background, and by a young guy from a completely different background. There are no longer men’s or women’s jewels, nor men’s or women’s perfumes, as there were not before 1800. Everyone wore violet water, men and women; everyone wore jewels, men and women. A signet ring, with whatever motif, is a magnificent bridge to our most remote dress culture.”

The return of the signet ring to fashion began in 2017, when fashion influencers of the moment (Alexa Chung, Veronika Heilbrunner) began wearing them to distinguish their style. Today, it is Rosalía, a role model for Generation Z, who wears signet rings on her fingers. The definitive endorsement as a fashion piece has been given by the Italian brand Miu Miu, marking its logo on gold and plexiglass pieces, but also brands as diverse as Margiela (enamelled with crystal details) or Suárez Jewelry (with precious stones like lapis lazuli, onyx, or malachite) have created new signet rings this season. Some brands that interest Gen Z also design signet rings, such as Rebus, Dina Kamal, Mejuri, Vrai, or David Yurman.

The costume designer of Saltburn, the black comedy set in mid-2000s England directed by Emerald Fennell in 2023, told British Vogue that she approached the movie as if it were a period drama and that the signet rings worn by her characters represented home and family history, but also the aesthetics of early 21st-century upper-class youth. A symbol of status in constant redefinition.