As invitation trends cycle, whispers of misgivings follow closely behind when etiquette is, often unknowingly, abandoned. Why the fuss? Misuse makes a well-meaning society newcomer look uninformed and possibly silly or frivolous. Historically, many artists and artisans learned from previous generations, and with that knowledge came both technical and decorum. Similarly, society members and the stationers that provided their wares followed the rules regarding how these items should and should not exist in society. There was reasoning behind their protocols; specifically, they were a form of clear communication.
Although many are not privy to proper protocol today by way of upbringing or primary education, there is a simple path to arriving both on-trend and etiquette-appropriate if you seek to use an authentic family coat of arms or would simply like to emulate the look. The chances of obtaining your heraldic symbol are small, but you can certainly learn about commissioning a family motif that resembles an era of nobility and propriety. Many can appreciate a gorgeous embossed, meaningful motif sitting atop a vital family document, like a wedding invitation. Whether you commission a Bell'INVITO design or make it elsewhere, there are two very important things to know.
First, there is no such thing as an authentic surname family crest, or coat of arms to be acquired online and placed on a plaque (or mug, or baseball cap). These are marketing schemes. To recreate a heraldic coat of arms and call it such is to feign nobility. Instead, I recommend that if you commission artwork, you understand the basic meaning of the art. Have something meaningful created that won't be mistaken for imposter-nobility or a bestowed heirloom you can't actually pass in ownership down to whomever you choose. Many artists can help you make something beautiful, meaningful, and heirloom quality—backed by knowledge on this subject—to keep you looking the sophisticated part you were hoping to achieve. For more info, read along as we dished with Town & Country on how to use a coat of arms on your wedding day (followed up by this article I also loved: T&C does Coat of Arms Jewelry How-To)
First, Understand the Symbolism
Here is a wealth of information about every shape, side, and surface of the shield, but to understand the basics, this will touch on the meaning of the shape of the escutcheon, Latin for "shield." Shields, as they typically fashioned after the particular shape of shield a country used for battle, were given only to men. British women used lozenges, which are diamond-shaped, and clergy, along with our European women, presented their coat of arms on a cartouche or oval.
Next comes the fill of the shield, lozenge, or cartouche. The elements comprising the central portion of the coat of arms are colors, furs—the patterns found in some coats of arms, ordinaries—the bands expanding across the escutcheon, and tinctures, which are the solid colors that carry symbolism of their own. An extensive directory of the symbolism of these features is here.
Around the escutcheon are supporters, granted to the nobleman or woman receiving the arms, or are inherited. As such, one inherits various parts of their coat of arms and does not necessarily use the entire structure as their own. Supporters can be imagined creatures, animals, or even vegetation.
Atop the escutcheon is a coronet or crown, and often a knight's helmet. The type of coronet, and helmet, along with the helmet's positioning, speak to the rank and social status of the person who is granted the coat of arms.
In some cases, when granted to nobility, an order—example heraldry orders listed here, would be below or surrounding the shield. These orders are blazoned only of the government or dynasty awarded them. Also, typically below the escutcheon (unless the nobility was Scottish, in which case it is above) can be a motto—which is often in Latin. Examples are listed here. Mottos are found within the shield in a Spanish coat of arms, and in the British tradition, a motto is not granted with a coat of arms, so one can change it at will.
The torse or wreath and mantling are always in the same tincture of the escutcheon. In British heraldry, there are always six twists in the torse, which is sometimes in place of the coronet and considered part of the crest.
The crest stands atop the torse and above the helm. These were sometimes won in battle and were assigned to identify a knight. A lady or clergy would never use them.
Second, Understand the Etiquette
In the United States, there is no heraldic authority assigned by the government to grant and track the legal blazoning of arms, and to track the abuse and misuse of such property. Because Americans are not educated in this type of property management, many mistakenly adopt a found crest through internet or library searches. This curiosity of family origin often leads to one unknowingly misusing the property of a nobleman who happens to share their surname. The selling or obtaining of an existing coat of arms artwork is a lucrative and risky business. A coat of arms is not granted to a "family name", it is granted to an individual, and is legally the sole property of that specific individual and their right to leave it to an heir. For this reason, misusing a coat of arms is not only poor etiquette; it is not a legal venture where heraldic traditions are still recognized.
Due to the lack of heraldic order in the United States, the proper way to make a coat of arms is to use a modern interpretation of the traditional applications of heraldry. The artwork is exclusively for the owner to maintain and pass on to heirs as they would pass on any other commissioned artwork. The art and symbolism themselves are left to interpretation by the artist and patron. To accurately practice heraldry in a modern era, the use of a properly inherited or granted coat of arms should be followed. To do this, understand what pieces are used by men and women, what a combined (called marshaling) coat of arms looks like, and how to use it. Similarly, once one knows which arms apply to their person, one should know when and where that symbol should be used. My favorite tip-of-the-iceberg example is from Miss Manners here, answering a question on usage.
Making a Coat of Arms Today
Once you have determined the symbols, tinctures, and shapes that are right for your commission, the next step is to hire an artist to create your personal artwork. Depending on how you want to use your mark, the artist will design your illustration to your specifications. A reputable artist will give you a contract or certificate expressing usage and serves as your claim to that mark as your personal property if it was created for you specifically. If you choose to use stock art, that kind of ownership is not available legally to you under normal circumstances. Go ahead and create something exclusive for yourself.
Most importantly, learn the rules to use it, and keep it as a special heirloom to pass on as a mark of your legacy. The moral of the story is authenticity. If you aren't certain of a family crest's specific meaning and origins, it's most likely not something to claim as a properly inherited coat of arms for your use on important documents.