“I find signet rings so evocative,” says Emmet Smith, the man behind London’s custom jewelry house Rebus. “They are rich in detail, strange designs, and symbols.”
Indeed, the personalized rings—once known as the “gentleman’s ring,” but today worn by both men and women—have been a symbol of individuality and familial identity for centuries. And Rebus, which is home to the UK’s largest team of hand-engravers, is the modern-day master of the iconic pieces, adding everything from traditional family crests and initials to spirit animals, custom designs, and classic styles.
Now, with the launch of its new Kournas collection, Rebus is bringing the historic signet into the modern age. “Signet ring designs do not have to follow a strict, traditional code,” notes Smith. “Kournas is a contemporary expression of the signet ring.”
We caught up with Smith—who recently opened a new flagship salon in London’s upscale Hatton Garden—to explore the past, present, and future of this classic expression of personal style.
What was the first piece of jewelry you remember receiving?
The first piece of “jewelry” I had was a Pepsi-can pendant on a chain that I got from a bubblegum machine—I was only about 9, and it broke within an hour or two. The first precious piece of jewelry I was given was my dad’s signet ring, which has his initials engraved onto it.
Do you own a signet ring?
Yes, I have a platinum one with a Claddagh-symbol seal engraved onto it. The Claddagh is a very traditional Irish symbol used a lot in Irish jewelry.
Signet rings are so personal. How do you create the right design for each client?
The first thing we do with the client is determine which face size and shape ring they want, as this dictates the details of the design. Sometimes a client has a lot of ideas regarding the specificities of their design, so we collaborate with them to make sure that it translates onto the ring. If someone is unsure of what they want, we will invite them to browse through our previous designs. We also have several books on monograms and crests, which clients find to be really wonderful resources for inspiration. The final design is then sent to our artists for execution. Upon request, some pieces are done in watercolor and can then be framed and gifted—which is another memorable expression of their unique and personal design.
What is the most common reason people come in for a custom piece?
To commemorate a life event. Either graduation, a birthday, or a special moment. For example, for a 60th birthday gift, one of our customers went whale watching and was so blown away by the experience she decided to mark it with a signet ring, which we engraved with a whale.
Can you recall a particularly challenging design that a client requested?
An origami bear holding a pineapple was interesting.
What about a design that was particularly emotional?
One of our customers served in the military as a medic. After a couple of tours in Afghanistan, he bought a red gold signet and requested a poppy head with the motto dulce bellum inexpertis, which translates to “war is sweet to those who have not tried it.”
What are some of the most popular materials and motifs right now?
Eighteen-karat yellow gold has always been a firm favorite. But our UK customers are buying more 14-karat gold from us now. For the motifs, we can search our online databases of initials and family crests, but we are finding more customers are opting to use our service for a truly unique design.