|By Larry LeMasters
A seal is a device for making an impression in wax such as when one seals a letter for privacy. The seal is the device used to imprint a design into warm, soft wax. Most seals, by tradition, are “dry seals,” meaning the seal matrix is cut below the flat surface and the impression left by the seal is in relief (raised above the wax surface).
The use of seals dates back to the Old Testament when Queen Jezebel used King Ahab’s seal to counterfeit documents. By Shakespeare’s time, marriages were prearranged, forcing lovers to write passionately yet secretively to each other, sealing each letter with a kiss and a seal of wax, often the seal from a signet ring.
Signet rings are rings, worn by individuals, which have been carved, Western style, with images or inscriptions on the ring’s face. Signet rings date to ancient Egypt and have been used as the personal seal of the individual when the ring is pressed onto soft sealing wax.
By the mid-1800s, gummed envelopes were developed, effectively sealing an envelope from prying eyes and eliminating the need for wax seals. By 1880, seals were used as personal expressions of decorative embellishments in wax. A rebirth of sealing envelopes with wax emerged in the 1950s and ’60s among teenage girls who sealed “secret” notes with colored wax and whimsical, engraved images, trying to uphold the time honored tradition of sealing envelopes with wax.
Today, antique seals are highly sought after collectibles with the study and collection of seals known as sigillography or sphragistics. Seal collectibles are almost always cross-collectible since seal collectors seek them and specialty collectors, who seek the seal’s image or symbolism, also collect them.
One rare and sought after specialty seal is the John Wesley Centennial Seal of 1839. This seal, made of ebony wood with carved Mother of Pearl inlay, was created for the 100th year or centennial celebration of John Wesley’s first sermon of the Great Awakening, a series of Christian revivals that swept Britain between the 1730s and ’40s.
John Wesley, Anglican pastor and founder of Methodism, officially joined the Great Awakening when he preached to about 3,000 miners near Bristol, England, on April 2, 1739. Although Wesley would become famous as a Methodist Circuit Rider, this sermon in Bristol marked his first attempt at open air preaching, following in the footsteps of George Whitefield, who led the open air, Great Awakening, evangelic movement of preaching to the poor in England.
John Wesley Centennial Seals are hard to find, especially in good condition, and cost $250 or more on today’s secondary market.
Many personal seals are fob seals — seals that were meant to be worn as a fob along with a pocket watch. The idea was simple. Whenever a gentleman needed to “seal” his signature or seal an envelope, his personal seal was clipped to his pocket watch chain and ready to use.
Recently, on eBay, a rock crystal fob seal, from 1676, was offered for sale for $18,000. This seal once belonged to Friedrich von Arensdorff, a 17th century Danish aristocrat. The seal actually has three faces. One of the faces has the Arensdorff family coat of arms engraved on it.
Another interesting fob seal that was recently offered on eBay was a 19th century sterling silver Jewish fob seal with an engraved Star of David on its face. It probably belonged to a Jewish businessman who kept it close at hand and used it to seal business documents. This Star of David seal is valued at $2,500.
Some collectors enjoy searching for seals that are considered either Art Deco or Art Nouveau. These seals are collected as much for their stylish, artsy handles as they are for the seal image engraved on their faces. Some of the Art Deco seal handles look like stylized Art Deco buildings from the 1930s.
Another interesting area of seals that women collectors search for are 18th and 19th century silver sewing etuis with engraved seals on their bases. Ladies kept the sewing etui attached to their clothing, similar to a watch fob, for emergency sewing throughout the day. The seal was handy if an important document or note needed sealed.
Not too surprising, the expression “seal the deal,” which means to finalize a contract of some sort, came into existence because in the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods, a deal or contract was not finalized until both parties had used their personal seals and wax to “seal” the deal.