Signet Rings: Making your mark.
Updated: Aug 4
Okay, you've decided on a signet ring. You want to make it your own, something personal, something different. Time to think about engraving. Stamping, machine engraving, hand engraving, sight engraving, seal engraving it can all get a little confusing if you don't know the lingo.
Stamping is probably the most simple and least appropriate process. Whether it's initials or design, the process is straight forward. A punch with a design is forced into the metals surface, either with a hammer blow or a press. I have nothing against stamping, I do a few pieces of jewellery with stamped designs myself, but not on signet rings. Rings of this type deserve something a little more special.
Machine Engraving has come a long way in the past 15 years or more. Machine engraving was always performed by Diamond drag or a rotary cutter, but these days there are lasers also. Most jewellery is engraved with the Diamond drag process. This is simply using a Diamond point to draw lettering or a design into the surface. This leaves a burnished "scratch" in the shape of initials, a logo or a picture. The cutter works like a router cutter does in wood. This type is rarely used for jewellery except when the engraving needs to be filled with coloured wax or enamel. Both of these types of engraving used to be carried out on a Panto-graph machine, with a stylus at one end tracing a design and a point or cutter at the other end, transferring the design to the piece. Modern machines are often much more complex and advanced (and the letter spacing is often better), but the basic principal of Diamond drag points or rotary cutters still apply. Laser engraving has improved very much, but I still think of it as a way of marking machine components. Although in all fairness, I have seen some pretty impressive designs on lighters and other steel items that would be pretty difficult to do any other way.
Hand Engraving is exactly that,engraving by hand. The basic method (although there is nothing basic about hand engraving) uses various pointed tools, called gravers, to carve out metal from the surface, producing small curls of metal, not unlike the shavings a wood carver would be surrounded by. It's not uncommon for a good hand engraver to have hundreds of gravers and all kept unbelievably sharp. Each graver has a particular shape for its intended use and desired effect. Some even have a row of teeth for engraving several parallel lines at once. Others are only used for full stops, or cutting off the small curl of metal left after and engraved line. Once you get into the different lengths and curvatures for inside rings, bowls, trophies and so on, the list gets pretty big very quickly.
I have produced stampings and done a bit of machine engraving (with a pantograph), I have even tried hand engraving and have had some passable results, but this is a skill that I hold in very high regard. Apprentices used to spend years engraving circles in copper sheets before they were allowed to engrave their first letter. That is dedication. If you want initials on a signet ring, hand engraving is what I would recommend.
Seal and Sight Engraving are different things again. Sight engraving is hand engraving a picture. The most usual form is a family crest, a small part of the family coat of arms engraved as a picture on a ring, but it could be pretty much anything. It doesn't have to be a crest, I recently had a Pelican engraved as it was the state bird of Louisiana and the client was very proud of their home (See right).
Seal engraving is most usually a family crest, but this is a much more complex engraving style. It is much deeper and carved out in reverse. Why in reverse? The origins of seal engraving was so an engraving could be used to leave an impression in sealing wax as a way of sealing or signing a document. It would be pretty embarrassing if the recipient of the document couldn't read the seal as it was the wrong way around. There has been a trend in recent years to engrave "seal for show" a seal engraving that is the right way round (unless you make an impression), it's not something I like as I think it removes a little of the intrigue.
As far as pricing goes, Hand engraving costs a little more than machine engraving or stamping, just the same as a calligrapher would charge a little more than I would for my scruffy handwriting. Sight engraving is akin to commissioning a miniature piece of artwork. If Sight engraving is akin to commissioning a painting, Seal engraving is more comparable to a sculpture as it's a more complicated, deeper, engraving which has to be engraved in reverse.
Many shops or websites offer free engraving, but I don't. Think of it this way, nothing is ever free, it's always built in somehow. If you didn't want engraving, are you overpaying? If you do want engraving, why is it not good enough to charge for? Is it machine engraving which is generally shallow? Free seal engraving? Really? Probably not, you're paying for it somewhere. So in short, engraving is rarely/never free, as is the same of most things worth having.
Image of engraving machine credited to Gravograph.com Stylecard for Hand Engraving courtesy of the National Association of Jewellers. All other images are my own.
Please keep an eye out for a future post on Heraldry in relation to engraving.