John's college crest: now available on branded signet ringsAndreas Praefcke

I’m going to begin this article with a confession. I find college stash weird. Really weird. Perhaps it’s because I come from a bog-standard comprehensive, the name of which no one would want on their back to parade around in. It’s a strange phenomenon that one can’t buy the ‘Cambridge University’ sweatshirts because in some unwritten rules these are deemed touristy, but college stash is wholly acceptable because it is specific. It confounds me as to why so many people delight in buying branded sweatshirts, teddy bears, and even bottles of port in order to broadcast their college identity to the outside world.

Signet rings with the charming St John’s crest are the just the latest additions in a long line of increasingly ridiculous stash. Part of the question, I suppose, is the age-old chicken and egg. Does college stash exist because students are desperate to buy anything they can get their hands on which asserts their college identity, or because colleges are always on the lookout for more ways to capitalise on their students? In other words, does the market fuel demand, or vice versa? The relationship seems symbiotic, with each comfortable to feed the other’s desire.

There is a further use of college stash: presents. I think a lot of us are guilty of giving a mother/uncle/grandmother/godfather (delete as appropriate) a college-themed gift – and yes, chapel choir CDs count. When you sit down to think about it properly, this is quite odd. It’s an attempt to give them something personal, something to make them think of you. But a really well-considered gift, or giving them something you really love (a favourite book, for example), is a much better way to do this than a bottle of wine with a sticker of your college on it.

Let’s think a bit more carefully about signet rings in particular. Wikipedia tells me that signet rings date back to Ancient Egypt as personal seals – a way to attest an individual’s identity. In today’s European tradition, signet rings are generally associated with old families and their coats of arms. Can your college – a place where you spend three years – really be equated to individual or familial identity?

“The conscious choice of John’s to instead market their ring as a signet ring ties it to a masculine tradition of elitism rather than established educational custom.”

General consensus would be that it can’t. And that is why there is a different word for rings that are worn by students and alumni to commemorate their university. They are called class rings. While this seems to be a broadly American tradition, the conscious choice of John’s to instead market their ring as a signet ring ties it to a masculine tradition of elitism rather than established educational custom.

The other bit about this whole John’s ring malarkey that really got to me is a detail at the end of the email: order forms for the rings “must be authorised by the Domestic Bursar”. The signet rings can only be bought by college members, and John’s, it seems, are taking this seriously. They wouldn’t – God forbid – want someone to pretend to be a Johnian. At £65 a pop, it would be quite an expensive hoax.

I was really conflicted in writing this article. Irresponsible journalism on this theme which capitalises on sensationalist headlines and lazy stereotypes does little but perpetuate and give a platform to the nasty, elitist underbelly of college identity: it literally is advertising. 

But ignoring the issue won’t make it go away. As Cambridge students, I believe we have a moral duty to speak up against the persistent ugly facets of this institution if we are to combat the elitism which year upon year leads talented students to turn elsewhere.