Древнерусские_перстни. Рязанское_княжество

The authenticity of documents is always certified by a seal. How exactly did this method appear and what was used previously? The very first seals appeared before common era, they were made in the shape of rings. Ancient Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt and other ancient civilizations were the first to use them. The practical significance of the signet ring lies in its ability to certify and seal securities, as well as to serve as a signature for all documents. They were originally made of stone or ivory. When bronze was introduced, the material was replaced by metal alloys. A bit later people began to make seals of gold and silver. Some pieces were decorated with gemstones. The wide side of the ring had a coat of arms or other symbols indicating the high social status of the owner. 

It is known that only men of certain social circles had the right to wear signet rings, and as a rule those were powerful figures, such as kings, emperors, dukes and earls. Until the 19th century it performed its only function and could be inherited from father to son, but later it became mere decoration of high-ranking officials. The image of the coat of arms was mirrored in order to get a correct impression when applying the seal: the ring was held over a candle flame and then the symbol was imprinted on sealing wax.

An ancient gold men's signet ring

An ancient gold men's signet ring

The sealing wax impression

The sealing wax originated in India. Before that, people used ordinary wax. It was wax stamps (15–16 centuries) that became the progenitors of the sealing wax, due to the fact that the very method of use is exactly the same. 

At first, the sealing wax impression only showed images and symbols, later it began to be used with pictures, various inscriptions around or next to them. It first appeared in Europe around the 16th century and was used for a long time for seal impressions. Russia began to use sealing wax only in the late 17th century. Sealing wax is a fusible mixture of red-orange color (its standard shade), which included hard resins and fillers (turpentine, mastic, sandarak, volatile oils, balsams) for tightness and hardness of application. 

An antique male award signet ring

An antique male award signet ring

There were two ways to use sealing wax impression. Dry impression – by applying strong pressure to the paper, the print got a good relief and densities in the places of contact with the seal. Such a seal was quicker to cure. A liquid impression was made using a liquid or condensed substance (ink or wax), and it took time to dry. Today, sealing wax is used only for decorative purposes. 

Throughout the entire period of Moscow's reign sealing wax impression certified all documents instead of the signature of the grand prince or tsar. Since the beginning of the reign of Ivan the Terrible three types of seals were used, each of them had its own degree of importance in certifying valuable papers and letters. 

During the time of the Russian Empire the state seal appeared, it was available to all the supreme power. Since the beginning of the accession to the throne of a new emperor it was made in three styles: large, medium, and small. Each, depending on its size, had the state emblem on it, and a full imperial title around it. Just like any other seal, it was applied to the originals of state treaties, laws, acts, statutes, letters and other documents according to their degree of importance.

Seals of the 14–17 centuries of the Russian state

Seals of the 14–17 centuries of the Russian state

 The appearance of modern seals and stamps

Modern seals and stamps are based on a rubber (polymer) die glued to an automatic or manual tooling and a stamp pad. 

Before the appearance of rubber stamps, the American inventor Charles Goodyear discovered the process of vulcanization of rubber (heat and sulfur compound) during a homemade experiment in 1839, which marked the beginning of the creation of the first rubber stamps and seals. It was James Dorman, who opened the first stamp company in 1866, that started making rubber stamps and seals. 

The rubber stamp – James Dorman's invention

The rubber stamp – James Dorman's invention

Rubber seals and stamps came with a set of tools (external spare parts) – manual (wooden) and automatic. The two types of tools still exist today. And when exactly did automatic ones appear? In the 1860s, the American inventor Benjamin B. Hill invented a mechanism that allowed for easy stamping. It was the first automatic stamp for cancellation of duty stamps. There were stamp pads attached to the inside of each seal and stamp; they were filled with ink to imprint the stamp. The impregnated liquid had an unpleasant odor and the cushion was made up of hardened gelatin. During hot days, the combination of ink and melted gelatin gave off a much more unpleasant smell and always attracted various insects. Modern stamps and seals do not have any smell. In addition, automatic models have a special compartment for adding ink to impregnate the inner impression. 

These are certifying seals and stamps for official registration of various documents. Nowadays, along with the previous models, electronic stamps are widely used. It is very convenient and mobile in the 21st century. The main benefit of this stamp type is that there is no need to buy, refill or change them for a newer model. Electronic stamps have an encrypted key which is accessible only to the addressee and the addresser. This keeps the confidentiality of transmitted information. But you should not ignore the functionality of conventional seals and stamps. They are still in use in all business spheres as well.


  1. Sealing wax. Wikipedia.

  2. The history of sealing wax impression.

  3. State Seal of the Russian Empire.

  4. The history of seals and stamps.

  5. Men's signet rings. The history of appearance, purpose and difference from finger rings. 

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