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Signet Rings & the Middletons: Nobility and Individuality

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A week or so ago I got an email from reader Julia asking about the Middletons' family ring. What the story was and what I thought about it...Not to plagiarize from Maria von Trapp, but, let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start...



When William proposed to Kate and she was standing on the brink of sky-rocketing from a commoner to a Royal Duchess, it was decided that her father Michael Middleton (and by virtue of his position, the whole family) would be granted a Coat of Arms. It seemed only appropriate for Michael and Carole to have this ancient symbol of identity and standing as their family would be joined to the royal family tree...and their grandchild sit on the throne of Great Britain. They worked closely with the College of Arms to come up with their family crest and I love every single element. It was very, very beautifully done.



By granting her father a Coat of Arms, it also meant that Kate arrived at the altar in possession of a coat of arms:
Prior to Her Royal Highness's marriage, her family Coat of Arms was presented in the form of a ‘lozenge’ and is shown suspended from a ribbon, which indicated that she was an unmarried daughter.



Heraldry is about defining the individual as best as possible, and if you are quite good at heraldry and symbolism you can trace all manner of details about a person's family history from their coat of arms. If you are interested in the royal family and coats of arms, see this earlier post briefly detailing William and Kate's conjugal coat. The website of The Prince Of Wales describes the Middleton Coat of Arms thus:
The three acorns represent Mr. and Mrs. Middleton’s three children (The Duchess of Cambridge, Philippa Middleton and James Middleton). Acorns were chosen because the area in which the children were brought up – West Berkshire, England – is surrounded by oak trees. Additionally, oak is a long-established symbol of both ‘England’ and ‘Strength.’ 
The gold chevron, which sits at the centre of the design, represents Mrs. Middleton, whose maiden name is Goldsmith. The two thinner chevrons, which sit either side of the gold chevron, allude to hills and mountains and represent outdoor pursuits that the family enjoy together. The colours blue and red were chosen as they are the principal colours from the flag of the United Kingdom.
As with so many things in English aristcrocay, the signet ring trails back to medieval tradition (although, the history of signet rings dates far into ancient times) and in this particular case heraldry. The signet ring was used to sign letters and legal documents and so bore the heraldic symbol of the family or a cipher/symbol of the individual. Over the centuries the signet ring evolved, but today it is still worn, by men and women.

Prince Charles and Camilla both wear wear signet rings on their left hands, clearly visible below, although Camilla does not always sport hers. Notice Charles does not wear a wedding ring on his 4th finger. Instead, he wears a small wedding band behind the pinkie ring, and this is actually fairly standard for men in the British aristocracy. 



His symbol is the emblem of the Prince of Wales: three feathers striking through a gold crown to form a fleur-de-lis with the motto, I Serve, in German underneath on a ribbon. I don't think he fit that  last bit on the ring... The history is fascinating. The title Prince of Wales was created during the Golden Age of medieval British history for Edward the Black Prince.
Experts in heraldry believe the feathers may have been used by the family of Edward's mother, Philippa of Hainault, but the Ich Dien motto formed part of the arms of the King of Bohemia. 
These are the moments you remember why royal watching is so amazing. The Black Prince...what a dude.



Prince William eschews rings of any kind. He wears neither a signet ring, nor a wedding ring. I suspect he does not wear a signet ring because he has been a bit of a reluctant prince in his past and now, despite maturing into the role, I think he continues to want to be more a man of the people. He may take after his father-in-law and just not like male jewelry. We will have to see if he wears the Prince of Wales ring when he is granted that title. I rather hope he does...



When are we getting to the Middletons, you ask? Right now. They were granted a Coat of Arms and the Grant of Arms gives him the right to pass it on to his descendants, so Pippa and James have the option to wear a ring with the arms or emblem. The emblem is appropriately the acorn. Carole wears her ring on her right pinkie.



A little mystery here...long before Kate married William, Carole wore a ring on her pinkie finger, but she wore it on the left pinkie. It may very well have simply been family jewelry that has taken a backseat now she has her family signet ring. The Middleton women have a penchant for rings on random fingers, but maintaining a pinky ring on the left while wearing a signet ring on the right would be a little too matchy-matchy.


Pippa and James wear theirs sporadically. It seems to depend on the event. Here they are at Wimbledon together, both sporting their family symbols.



Pippa obviously doesn't wear it when trucking across the United States's desert by bike, but she also was not wearing it for her red carpet walk at GQ's Man of the Year Award, or to the Invictus Games (seen below) while hanging out with William's first cousin Peter Phillips and wife Autumn.



She did wear it to attend the wedding of Charlie Gilkes in Italy last weekend. Brief side note, while I would not be brave enough to pair this pink and purple myself (she looked fantastic) did these two not look amazing? I thought they made a pretty striking couple. Waiting, waiting for them to make it official... 



Despite being entitled to wear the signet ring, since the Coat of Arms was bestowed on him most properly, Mike Middleton does not wear one at all. He does not wear a wedding ring, either, so it may be he doesn't like rings, or it may be that he simply doesn't feel comfortable adopting the signet ring so late in life. (Not that you are old, Mr. Middleton, no one is suggesting that... Young in spirit. ;))  In fact, the tradition of men wearing wedding bands in the UK is a relatively recent one, and so many more traditional men simply do not wear them because it hasn't been the custom. Whatever the case...he doesn't wear one.



I am a medievalist and an American, and both those aspects inform my opinion on signet rings. I think they are awesome. I love history and it is very special to have well-documented family history. Your family history plays a roll in who you are and where you are going. It's a real blessing to know your family stories and if you have a strong family tree that includes the tradition and right to a Coat of Arms and to wear a family ring, I think you should embrace it. We shouldn't let go of these traditions. 

That is the medievalist in me. I don't see any impartial argument to be made against them. From my point of view, the trouble enters in at the particular level. It seems to me if you really have a problem with old-families wearing rings to celebrate their longevity, the issue lies in you. It shouldn't bother you.

Family history only takes one so far, and trust-fund babies excepted, at a certain point every individual has to to go out and make something of themselves...or not. Within one family you can see that personal choices can radically change individual characters and lifestyles. A family ring doesn't get you out of bed in the morning, it doesn't magically imbue discipline or good character--it can be a contributing factor to both a (wo)man's honor or failure, but it isn't magic. Your own choices will reflect the ultimate character you have.



Obviously, as an American, I was not raised with the class system in the same way as those in a culture that includes an aristocracy, although in every society man finds a way to break into groups. In America, we have laws about titles. The Constitution very clearly states that titles and styles of nobility are not to be granted in the United States. A story highlighting the response to titles: in 1803, Jérôme Bonaparte, the younger brother of THE Napoleon, came from France and met American Betsy Patterson, the daughter of a Baltimore, Maryland merchant. He fell for her charms and the two were married despite the strong protestations of the Emperor and the concerns of her father. The two lived in the United States for several years, but when they sailed to France to attend Napoleon's coronation, they were refused port in Europe. Napoleon was unwilling to reconcile with his brother's willful marriage. Jérôme swore to his wife that he would fix things with the Emperor and sent her off to Amsterdam to deliver their son; Betsy never saw Jérôme again. Unfortunately, Napoleon proved the more persuasive personality. He pressured his brother to give Betsy up, and when the Pope refused to grant an annulment, Napoleon issued a civil annulment recognized by French law. He rewarded Jérôme acquiescence with the Kingdom of Westphalia and the Princess Catharina. Although, Westphalia wasn't around long; the Russians conquered and dissolved it in 1813. But, back to Betsy... she was denied entry to Amsterdam, so she took refuge in England where her son Jérôme Napoleon Bonaparte was born. Betsy wanted Baby Jérôme to hold a title in France, since he was a member of the Imperial Family. This did not sit well in America, and many believe it spurred Congress to introduce an amendment to the Constitution of the United States that would strip any person of their U.S. citizenship who accepted a title from a foreign government. While Congress passed the amendment, it never was ratified by the requisite number of states, failing by two, and technically remains a pending ratification.  I did not make this up. Life is a funny thing...

Betsy Patterson Bonaparte
All that being said, a few laws never held an American back from a fashion trend. It's relatively prevalent for men to wear college and fraternity rings and it has become quite en vogue for some women to commit to a pinkie ring that is evocative of her style and personality.  Several years ago, The Wall Street Journal ran a piece on the pinky-ring as a personal talisman.
"To me, the pinky ring connotes taste," said Ward Landrigan, owner of the jewelry company Verdura. "The few women that I know who wear them have a lot of style and self-confidence."
While you don't have to be an aristocrat to make a statement with a personal ring, the reasons and the symbolism are different. You may wear a pinky ring because your family counts itself among the aristocracy, in which case the relationship to that reality is broad and based in family and history. It is different from the woman who wears a statement piece as a sign of individuality and personal style and strength.  Kate had signature jewelry before she married William. She always wore rings on her middle fingers. Now she wears the sapphire of The Princess of Wales, but jewelry is personal and, as I have said before, usually holds meaning and symbolism-whether that is grounded in your family tree or more individually. I don't see them as the same things, but I see them both as good.




In the particular case of the Middletons, I very much support the choice to grant them a Coat of Arms and their right to wear their signet rings. HRH Prince George of Cambridge is the future king of England; an immediate family member, Kate, ranks in the highest level of the peerage and will one day be Queen Catherine. This is not a small thing. The Middleton Coat of Arms is fused to the the Royal Family tree. Whether you like them or not, the Middletons are part of history. That's what signet rings are all about: national history, family history and identity, and maintaining that cohesive reality from generation to generation. The Middletons participation in history is something they should celebrate and they have every right to begin to "brand the family" with all the elements that enables one to hold together a family story.



If you have a family ring, celebrate it! It's a rich, historical patrimony you are blessed to have. If you don't have one, don't lose sleep over it, because no matter which side you fall, life is still what you make of it. 

39 comments:

  1. This is so interesting! Thank you for doing all the research, I really enjoyed reading!

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    1. Super glad! Thanks for the great question!

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  2. Great post, Jane! It might be off topic, but I am actually wondering if you wear a pinky ring yourself?

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    1. Hi Sophie: I don't. As I mentioned, I really have always been a person who likes to wear jewelry with meaning. I wear little jewelry, but with significance for me, but none with the flair that Ms. Guinness was telegraphing. This WSJ article I quoted caught my eye some years ago and it has been on my mind, but as I say, I think it should symbolize something. I need to a) find a ring that clicks for me stylistically, which I haven't yet, but b) more than that, I think I need to have achieved more professionally, something that really stands out as a milestone and that has ongoing impact on my life. Like starting my own business or something. To me a pinky ring is a status symbol, either one that marks you as an old family, or one that displays a confidence and pride in your achievements. I don't have low self-esteem, I just haven't hit the ah-ha moment professionally. I am thinking it is 1-2 years out. Fingers (and pinky) crossed. :)

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    2. Hi Jane,

      I think that creating this awesome blog site could definetely count as great achievement!!

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  3. Loved this post and now I want a signet ring! lol

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    1. Thanks, KayLynn! Glad you enjoyed it! :)

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  4. Awesome post Jane!!! Thanks for touching on a subject that I have long wondered about. During the royal wedding was when I first noticed Pippa and Carole wearing their signet rings and I wondered if they had their new family coat of arms on them. Since then I've seen lots of photos of Pippa wearing hers, but sadly I still haven't seen the face of the ring to tell how they incorporated the coat of arms onto a small ring.

    I completely agree with you on the importantence of maintaining traditions especially family ones. So much of how we think and the values we hold come from our families, so it's important to find ways to pass those values and traditions onto the next generation.

    What do you think of the Queen or maybe Charles, when he becomes King, granting the Middleton's a title? I read somewhere that their family would be the first in history to be grandparents of the future King and not hold a title. I think that there was some talk about this in the run up to the wedding but it never came to pass. Personally I can see both sides of this, in the interests of tradition it would be nice for them to have titles even if they were only Lord and Lady Middleton but in this day and age it's also apparent that to most people titles don't really mean all that much in their day to day lives. I would love to get our thoughts on this.

    Off topic of signet rings, I loved the pink/purple dress Pippa wore!!! The colors, the cut, the style, everything about it was a hit for me. Her and Nico are such a good looking couple. When is he going to propose??? And I'm really liking her new, shorter hairstyle. She doesn't seem to have the thick, wavy hair that Kate has so this shorter cut really makes it looks so much fuller.

    Lastly, the photo of the Queen, Camilla and Carole together is my favorite. When I see it I always wonder what was going through Carole's mind at that moment.

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    1. Ouf, I don't know. That is something that you sort of have to feel your way through. Right now, it doesn't feel right. Maybe in 20 years it will feel more natural, but I think it would send the opposite message that William likes. William seems to a be a man that wants to modernize and remain down-to-earth. He married a commoner, his in-laws are commoners and he thinks that's ok. It is ok. To give them a title might come across as needlessly drawing distinctions. They have ben granted a Coat of Arms, which socially sort of raises them above the hoi polloi. The rings are a modern status symbols, so they have that. I guess the PR person in me says, no way. I see the historical and traditional arguments, but today the monarchy has to walk a fine line between tradition and modernization. I don't think the palace would want to deal with the inevitable snarky press, and honestly, I am not convinced Mr. & Mrs. Middleton would either. Better to simply be family--no title is needed to draw them closer to royalty, they already have the perks of intimacy with Kate and William, etc.

      It is possible that at some point in the future Pippa and James may be granted titles for one reason or another. I could see that happening. And, as I say, the whole landscape will change when Charles is king, and perhaps at that time it will be enough of a shift that suddenly titles for the Middletons will feel right, but at the moment, my gut says no. In future, possibly...

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    2. I heard a lot of this talk with Kate's first pregnancy. I have a sneaking suspicion the Queen may have been willing to grant a title, but I have thought too that William probably was against it. My assumption is based on how he seems to be a reluctant royal.

      My personal opinion is I would like to see all the Michael & Carole have titles. I agree with modernizing the monarchy, but I think it would be a nice gesture. I partially view it as a "thank you" for raising the wonderful daughter who has been a positive addition to the monarchy, and is taking care of and loving the future king(s) of England.

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  5. Great, great post. I have always looked down on the signet ring wearing as a symbol of arrogance and entitlement, but I see your point about the value of family history. I have a different take on this now. Thank you for your reasoned out defense!

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    1. I am glad I have changed you mind. :) It's very cool to have a family ring...you can't manufacture something like that.
      Thanks for reading!

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  6. I always wonder why in Great Britain the royal men do not wear wedding rings. This seems unique to GB since the men in Denmark, Sweden, Norway etc. have been seen wearing wedding rings.

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    1. As I understand, it just hasn't been a prevalent custom at all, until the last 70 years or so. My dad does not wear a ring. He doesn't like jewelry. Increasingly, I think it is important to women that their husbands wear rings, and I think we will continue to see society move that way, even in Britain. But, aristocracies are usually the last to succumb to those sorts of changes.

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  7. Jane, I have been enjoying your entries so much recently! The break in appearances has allowed you to demonstrate your insights and your eloquent writing for topics other than just the latest fashions. I love the reflective and analytical tone of your recent entries!

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    1. Oh, thank you! You are very kind! I always enjoy writing these more commentary-like pieces and I am certainly happy they are well received. It is fun to branch out a little--as much as I miss seeing Kate.:)
      Hope you come back often!
      Warmly, Jane

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    2. Very well received indeed! I agree fully with Anon 9:21. Very interesting posts, I wanted to comment and discuss more but have been very busy. Thanks Jane!

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  8. Thank you so much for this post! As an American, I would love a coat of arms and I'd wear my signet ring a lot if I had one! How exciting that would be. :)

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  9. Zoe, we should design one!

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  10. Hi, Jane,

    Many thanks for your very interesting post. You made me think of many things surrounding pinky rings which I had quite forgotten.

    In my family, women wear pinky rings related to their schools/education. I have two-one for my college/university and one for my law school. I haven't worn either in years, mostly because they need to be resized. Hands and feet really do get bigger as we age. On a very poignant note for me, I made very sure that when my mother passed away, she wore her beloved nursing school ring on her pinky. She always wore it and was rightfully proud of 70+ years of being a Registered Nurse.

    Canadian men often wear signet or initial rings given to them, usually for milestone birthdays (18 or 21). Sometimes, they have stones set in them, sometimes carved with the signet or initials. My late father-in-law inherited one set with a diamond. He thought the ring made him look like a "river boat gambler" so he didn't wear it often! I've never been angrier at my brother than when he went to the Canadian near North and lost my beloved uncle's bloodstone signet ring while snowmobiling! My husband has a gold one with his initials which his parents gave him on his eighteenth birthday.

    Anyways-thought you might appreciate a bit of information on how I've seen such rings worn here in Canada. My husband's family has a coat of arms from the Canadian College of Arms so maybe I'll have such a ring made for my son some day...

    I think the Middletons' coat of arms is lovely. How wonderful for them to have had some input to make it so meaningful. Whether they are ever offered a title-why do I feel that they may already have been on the quiet-and not accepted it. It just doesn't seem like their style.

    With Prince George's birth, they are part of the future "inner circle", title or not. I think that position is far more secure relationally and emotionally than any title could ever make it. Also, they may dread the nastiness of those who would accuse them of social climbing, etc.-just more trouble than it would be worth, considering that it really wouldn't have a lot of impact on their relationship with William, Kate and George.

    Thanks again for the information and insights.

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    1. Interesting! I'm Canadian and don't know anyone with a ring. Maybe it is where you're from in Canada or your family background. Cool, though :-)

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    2. I think Princess Anne made it acceptable for an heir to have non-titled cousins when she choose for her children to not have them. Peter and Zara Phillips are William's non-titled cousins. So it follows that Pippa and James' children do not need to be "enobled" to travel in royal circles either. I wonder if Pippa might move her family planning along so that her children and Kate's children can be playmates. If so, expect a summer 2015 wedding for Pippa, after Kate's 2nd child is born.

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  11. Great post and I love the photos!

    I LOVE that Carole wears her original wedding/engagement rings, despite the fact that they are smaller and less flashier than what the Middletons can afford. I know a lot of people who are worth less than them and have upgraded (traded in) to larger, fancier, more expensive rings. Especially being around the royal family who can be adorned in expensive jewelry, I think it speaks to her values, which discredits rumors (IMO) that she is a ruthless social climber.

    It's fair that Michael doesn't wear his signet ring, but I love how he wore the acorn tie pin (or whatever it is called) on the wedding day. I think he's worn it since then, hasn't he? I think wedding rings (as with William) are a choice of the couples, too, so if Carole and Kate are okay with it, these men can forego wedding rings without being subject to anyone's judgment. :-)

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    1. I've noticed the same thing about Carole's wedding rings. I admire her for not bowing to the pressure to compete with the royal family's large collections of jewels. There isn't any competition to be had for the crown jewels so I love that she's true to the rings that hold the sentimentality for her. I think she's a lovely lady.

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  12. Lovely Read! Thank you for taking the time to share.

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  13. Great post, I learned a lot, thank you! One question, there isn't a symbol on the coat of arms for Mr. Middleton or is it unnecessary because it is his family coat of arms?

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    1. Well, the coat of arms are his...and through him, his family. So baseline they are his and incorporated in are the aspects that make up his family. Prominently featured are his children, the acorns symbolize Kate, Pippa, and James. Back in the day, had Carole been a landed heiress, and Michael was some duke-dude, or what have you, he would have taken her coat of arms that symbolized the territories that she controlled and he would have incorporated them into his own, to show that those lands were one. When John of Gaunt married Constanza of Castile, he impaled his shield with the Castilian shield, to show that he was king of Castile. (Tenuous at best, and he never really held onto that claim.) Present day, William holds a higher level in the order of chivalry and so his conjugal arms with Kate remain separated, but leaning toward one another. What I am trying to get at with this rambling is that spouses who both carry a coat of arms, usually unite those arms. Carole has no arms, but they gave a nod to her pivotal participation in the Middleton family with the gold chevron alluding to her maiden name. They are playing catch-up, she needed to have representation, despite having no coat of arms to contribute. Then the smaller chevrons represent a shared passion for mountains and skiing, etc. All in all, a very balanced coat of arms, issued to Michael that I think very completely cover the man he is. I think this is extremely convoluted. Sorry, I need more coffee. :)

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  14. Like you, I love, love, love the history behind a coat of arms (my husband's family has one), signet rings, and I completely support the Middleton's right to have/wear them. Like Kate I wear pinky rings and rings on my middle finger. They all have meaning. The ring I wear most often on my middle finger is my grandmother's wedding band. It's 18k gold and that's the finger it fits on. Great post! (BTW, Jérome Bonaparte was a worm for leaving Betsy. If I were her I wouldn't have given my child his name. Bless her poor, abandoned heart.)

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  15. Such a great post! I've been thinking of getting a signet ring for a few years now. I almost bought one with my school's crest when I finished grad school, but now I'm leaning toward just having my monogram or (big perhaps here:) the traditional family crest from my mother's family name in Ireland, which features fish and feels very personal to the water-baby in me. But then I wonder if maybe it's a bit gauche, since I don't suppose we have any real connection to the family for whom the crest was created, other than sharing a name.

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  16. Sadly I fell on the side of not having a family ring or symbol, nonetheless I've loved reading about the Middleton symbols! I can see the appeal of holding a symbol of your family so close to your heart.

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  17. Just stumbled on your blog and love it! Such an informative post, I've always been an admirer of signet rings, and have one myself, one I purchased when I graduated university. It's been languishing in my jewelry box but I think now I need to bring it out into the light of day, wear it and enjoy it!

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  18. Interesting to see Pippa and james wearing there signet rings on there left pinky fingers. I bought my husband a signet ring to wear on on his left pinky(he has never worn a wedding ring) for our 25th anniversary.It matches the ring Ive worn since before we met on my left pinky finger.I thought we were the only ones

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  19. Hi, I just wanted to add a little insight to why Prince William may not wear a ring. My husband is a helicopter pilot, as is the prince, and wearing a ring while piloting a helicopter could risk your whole finger if anything unusual should happen (which is more likely in helicopters than planes). Don't know if this is his reason, but a definite possibility. Most helicopter pilots don't wear them while flying.

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  20. Hi, just chiming in to endorse the above. My father worked in the energy industry and was also an avid hunter and fisherman.
    He respectfully declined to wear a wedding band, as it was unsafe or awkward in those situations. Had nothing to do with love for my mother or advertising to others that he was married.

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  21. I stumbled upon this post while researching rings and wonder if you recall the photo of Kate and William at a wedding right before their engagement was announced? Kate was wearing a signet ring in that photo, one in which many speculated they had already become engaged but it had not been officially announced. Any insight?

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  22. Just found this swell post, and I have only one thing to point out: there are NO laws in the United States against having titles. The constitution says only that no elected official may accept a title or honors from a foreign prince without the express consent of Congress. This was not enough for many, and that was when the bill you discussed was put forward, though as you correctly note, was never ratified.

    Titles are inherited under nobiliary law, rather than civil law. In the US, we only recognize civil law, and so while there are no laws to prevent Americans from inheriting or being granted titles of nobility (unless you are an elected official) there are laws to prevent you from using them.

    It is entirely possible to be born in the US and to inherit a title as well as a coat of arms. but as an American citizen, you may not use them on legal documents. (And many would argue it's in better taste to leave them off your writing paper and rings as well)

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  23. I'm a married women that wears a family crest ring from my mothers side.I wore a wedding band when I was first married but decided I would like a family crest ring and have worn it on left pinky finger for twenty years.

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  24. Great post! Is it possible to wear a thin wedding behind the pinky signet?

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