President General Howard L. Hamilton (PG 1982-1983) describes this most valuable National Society possession.
The single most valuable property owned by the National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution is not its Headquarters building nor even it’s Permanent Fund. It is a small circular object, about 7/8” in diameter, which rests in darkness, untouched for 364 days of the year, emerging for only one night when a new President General is installed. It shares its space in a safety deposit box with the deed to the Headquarters Building, an insurance policy, some stock certificates, and an affidavit about its own origins.
This precious possession is the Seal Ring owned and worn by General George Washington.
The ring itself is of gold, with a thin band and delicate shank. It is a perfect size 10 on a modern mandrel. There is no maker’s mark or any inscription whatsoever on the inside. On each outer surface, the metal of the shank is deeply incised to give in raised relief a stem, three leaves, and a three-part bud or flower at the top, too worn to identify. The annulus of the crown is oval, surrounding and holding in place the setting of light orange carnelian in which is incised the Washington crest (Figure 1); a shield with three stars at the top and two transverse bands beneath; surmounted by a crown containing a griffin; underlain by a ribbon bearing the Latin words, “Exitus acta probat.” These words come from line 85 of the second Heroides of Ovid, and are translated literally as, “The outcome proves the deed.” 1 A common variation is, “The end justifies the means.”
A seal made by the Washington ring would now show the griffin facing left and the words of the motto read properly from left to right. The original Washington crest, done in colored glass, could be seen in a window of “what is now the buttery”, at Sulgrave Manor, the Washington ancestral home in Northamptonshire, England. 2
Unusual Box for Ring
Almost as interesting as the ring is its box, which is the original used by General Washington. It is made of varnished wood, possibly birch or fruitwood and measures 3 ⅜” wide, 3-9/16 inches long, and 1 ⅛” high. On its cover is a shield, ⅞” long and ¾”wide, inlaid of ivory – much crackled with age. A small brass knob at the front of the lower half controls the catch. (Figure 2)
Inside, the lid is lined with lavender silk, now brown and hanging in shreds. A pin holds a card loosely in place in the top pad, saying, “General Washington’s Seal Ring. Statement and Affidavit under bottom pad.” The bottom pad is covered with velvet, once lavender, but now faded to brown except around a center post where the ring rests securely.
The original affidavit is now in our safety deposit box and is preserved flat between two layers of plastic, because it is so fragile and cracked from being folded beneath the bottom pad. It gives the history and line of descent of the ring through the Washington family. Being typed, it is easily read (Figure 4).
On the rare occasions when the ring is worn, it attracts the greatest of attention and excitement. People look at it with awe and almost reverence. Their greatest wish is to touch it. The ultimate thrill is to be allowed to slip it over the end of a finger and off again. Occasionally there is a skeptic who questions its authenticity despite the affidavit of William Lanier Washington and the great care given to the ring by the National Society since 1922 when it was presented to us. To these we can only give a very unscientific answer: when you put it on your finger and feel that comfortable fist from decades of wear, and see the inner glow of translucent orange radiance from the authentic Washing Seal Ring, you know it is real!
Presidents General Wear Copies
In the spring of 2000, President General Horne contacted Balfour in North Attleboro, MA, to see if they could make an exact replica of the George Washington ring that would be made available to future Presidents Generals. Balfour responded that they no longer were in that business and referred us to a company called Creative Molding, also located in North Attleboro. It seems that Creative Molding was a spin off of Balfour.
President General Horne wrote to David Winn, President of Creative Molding. David Winn told President General Horne it might be possible to replicate the ring but that he and his staff would have to see the ring. Arrangements were made for President General Bill Gist to get the ring and travel to North Attleboro. President General Gist picked up the ring at the bank and put in his pocket and flew to North Attleboro. He has said many times that he was scared to death something would happen to the ring while it was in his possession. Fortunately, nothing did.
The Creative Molding employees took the measurements, a mold and generally did everything necessary to be able to see if they could replicate the ring. When they finished President General Gist boarded a plane for the return trip and the ring was returned to the safety deposit box.
Approximately two weeks later David Winn called President General Horne to say they could not cut the stone in their facility. Instead, if they were to proceed they would have to contract with a company in Germany to cut the stone and then make the stone like the original with the appropriate carving. He said that would take a couple of months and he didn't know the cost of the cutting and carving. He gave President General Horne an estimate and was given the go ahead. The Germans prepared twenty stones and shipped them to Creative Molding.
About a month later (February 2001) ten rings were shipped to SAR Headquarters with the remaining 10 in stock when we needed additional rings. The first ten cost $1,200 a piece. Presidents General Bill Gist, Russ Page, Howard Horne and Bruce Butler received the first four rings. We ordered the additional ten when Roland Downing was President General and these cost nearly $2,000 a piece. Each President General pays the cost of the ring personally.
When we need additional rings Creative Molding will have to start from their mold and have stones cut and carved in Germany as before. President General Horne’s guess is they will cost much, much more than those first ten rings. The ring is presented to the incoming President General after he has had the original George Washington Seal Ring on his finger for but a few minutes during his installation.
All living Presidents General are now permitted to purchase copies of the ring. These copies are not replicas as they are purposely made different in several respects from the original. Sardonyx, a much darker and more opaque stone, is used for the Seal. There are variations in the gold work and in the carving of the seal. On President General Horne’s copy, the gold work is not as deeply sculptured. The oval Seal is smaller and darker. The griffin has a serpent’s tongue and streamlined wings. There is no possibility of confusing the copy with the original. Additionally, for each ring Creative Molding replicated the seal ring box in which the ring is stored for the Presidents General. The box has the same dimensions, same type of locking mechanism and the interior is lined with a very nice cloth material.
The Value of the Seal Ring?
The value of the Washington ring? Well, that cannot be expressed in terms of money. Who could place a price on such a rare and historic object? Besides, for security reasons the National Society is not anxious for speculation or publicity on this subject. No amount of money could measure the mystique of this ring nor the aura of grandeur, authority, and dignity it bestows upon the office of President General.
1 Communication from Dr. and Mrs. Arthur F. Stocker. Compatriot Stocker is Chairman of the Department of Classics at the University of Virginia and Past-President of the Thomas Jefferson Chapter, VASAR, Charlottesville.
2 Footnote from Vol. 1 of Washington Irving’s Life of Washington.
Centennial History of the National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution 1889 – 1989, Turner Publishing Company, Paducah, KY. Copyright 1991 NSSAR Louisville, KY. Pages 111-112.
Interview with President General Horne on obtaining replica rings for Presidents General. Wilmington, DE. October 2008.
Photographs by Bob Gardner