A Symbol of Distinction
Rings……and other things are beautifully engraved in Emmet Smith’s Hatton Garden hideaway
Article by Rupert Watkins Photography by Andy Barnham
Signet rings have long been seen as a tasteful and discreet accessory to the gentleman’s wardrobe. Worn on the non-dominant hand – convention in England favours the little pinkie finger – the traditional family crest is no longer the only stamp one should have on it. Tucked away amongst the warren of streets that make up Hatton Garden is Rebus signet rings. Run by Emmet Smith, Rebus has been in existence since 2005. Specialising in signet rings, Emmet comments that despite this niche arena, business remains steady throughout the year. As well as traditional 18th and 21st birthday gifts, he now sees a number of rings being given by parents as graduation presents. A lot of his time is spent sourcing the finest quality rings from UK bullion dealers but despite the extremely time intensive nature of their work, Rebus still engrave around 850 rings per year.
Emmet has been in the engraving trade since 1986. Working for RH Wilkins, a renowned engraving firm, he bought that business off the retiring Ray Wilkins in 2000 and in 2005 founded Rebus as a department within the firm. Since then Rebus has thrived to the extent the two firms now happily sit alongside each other.
Given the traditional status of signet rings, crests are still by far the most popular engraving option. Many customers come with the required crest. However, more modern designs and initials are slowly becoming more popular. Emmet sees many people come in with a tentative idea, “there was one chap who proposed on top of a volcano and wanted that to be worked into a design” or the female customer who had deer in her garden and was inspired to use that animal in the engraving. So often Emmet sees his task to, “coax the idea out” whilst carefully discouraging wilder excesses; many clients bring in photos of old family designs or for inspiration. Although he does get asked to engrave full coats of arms, Emmet believes the ring becomes too busy with that large a symbol. For engraved initials, the most traditional format remains the cypher though he is seeing monograms becoming a steadily more popular choice.
The internet has made research and transfer of data a lot faster and Emmet has found that some customers believe this instantaneous speed can be replicated in the actual engraving. He always takes customers in Hatton Garden on a tour of the workshop so they can see the painstaking work and time involved in creating what they want. Given this labour and time intensive process, while Emmet is interested in doing trunk shows he knows he cannot over-commit and exceed the capacity of either the workshop or his bullion suppliers. 20 per cent of his custom is from abroad – Rebus has shipped rings as far afield as Mongolia.
Rebus rings are available in all precious metals – including white gold (made by introducing palladium) and rose (introducing copper into the gold). Emmet offers semi-precious stone faced rings – including onyx and bloodstone – but does find that men baulk at the bold colours. That said, his onyx and tigers eye set rings are very smart and since the time of Beau Brummell one discreet ring set with a stone rather than engraved has been an accepted accessory for the dapper gent.
Heading downstairs into Rebus’ Dickensian workshop, a team of a dozen engravers are hard at work. The atmosphere is one of calm and patient concentration. Using tools their mediaeval counterparts would have been familiar with, not everyone takes to this artisan life. Emmet finds his best apprentices are in their early 20s with a bit of life experience behind them. Rebus takes on two apprentices a year indentured through Goldsmiths Hall, the full apprenticeship is five years. Actual engraving can take anything between half a day and three days; most engravers Emmet finds have a leaning towards specific areas, be that seal engraving or initialling. The remainder of the small team specialise in the many tasks – from soldering to buffing – that makes up the final product. Most work is done completely by hand with hand-held tools though there is a polishing and buffing machine with different “nap” heads to go from an initial coarse through to a fine buff.
The passage to being a fully-fledged engraver is a long one; remembering his own training, Emmet comments, “the hardest part of the apprenticeship is seeing the perfection of senior artisans and having the patience and discipline to work towards it.” Such has been the quality of Rebus, the firm’s staff have won a string of awards including The Goldsmith’s Company Apprentice of the Year and the Theo Fennell Master & Apprentice Awards in 2015.
All of Rebus’ rings are hallmarked. Emmet explains this ancient practise has been going for over 600 years. This independent quality control is carried out by the Goldsmith’s Assay Office. There are five hallmarks on each ring, the date letter, finesse mark, finesse symbol (the ring’s material), the Assay Office’s and the maker’s. All these are done at the Assay Office – it is illegal for an engraver or manufacturer to do otherwise and stamp their product themselves.
Away from signet rings, the RH Wilkins side of the business continues to thrive. The firm still engraves the Augusta trophy, the Ryder Cup, Wimbledon and has done the FA Cup in the past. One of RH Wilkin’s artisans is Roman, a Pole who has been engraving for the All England Tennis Club since 1968 and who now mentors Emmet’s engraving team of five. Other work includes state and diplomatic gift engraving on behalf of Downing Street. The firm has also done work for the College of Arms.
There is a 70:30 split between male and female customers with Emmet seeing a consistent trend towards smaller ring faces regardless of gender. 18ct gold is most popular when people are buying for themselves with 9ct the most popular when it’s a gift. Inscriptions on the inside of the shank – sometimes a family motto otherwise a message – are exceedingly popular. Rebus offer free re-sizing. The firm sells a small range of gold and sterling silver cufflinks though Emmet observes men do not rigorously match ring, watch and cufflink; sometimes a complete match is a bit too much.
So any tips to keep this unique gift in top condition? Emmet stresses you should avoid the beach and swimming pool when wearing a Rebus ring. It should be washed reasonably frequently with Fairy liquid and buffed with a clean duster. As a final question, he was asked what has been his most memorable engraving. After a pause, Emmet smiles and describes engraving a silver sex toy for one satisfied…. customer. So there we have it. Head to Hatton Garden for his – and her – engraved gifts…..
Enquiries: Rebus, 59 Leather Lane, Hatton Garden, London / 0207 4055188 / www.rebussignetrings.co.uk/
RH Wilkins engraving: www.rhwilkins.co.uk/