Heraldry is Art, Language, History and Ancestry all in a single form.
Born of military necessity, heraldry grew to become an inheritance of honor and meaning. The beauty of heraldry is in its form, but its deeper meanings and long-held traditions are rarely familiar to the average individual. The interest in, and use of Heraldry is as popular as ever in the United States, especially with the growing interest in genealogy. It can be exciting when we find an ancestor who bore arms. Armorials speak to us, on a deeper level through its beauty and esoteric meanings.
The terms "family crest" and "last-name coat of arms" are often misused to describe an armorial design belonging to an individual with a similar surname. There are hundreds if not thousands of unscrupulous businesses (typically called "bucket shops" by the heraldic community) that sell "surname" or "family" arms.
Simply because you share a similar surname does not necessarily mean you have a right to bear arms that were awarded to a person who is actually entitled to them. Arms are typically granted to a specific individual, and unless one is in direct line of descent (depending on the heraldic traditions of the country of origin), the use of ancestral arms by any other than those who have been properly matriculated is fraudulent at best.
We need to be aware that just because an ancestor bore arms, does not necessarily give us the right to bear those same arms. The traditions of heraldry must be upheld for it to continue to be meaningful.
The sale of "surname" or "family" arms is a dishonorable practice. Unscrupulous vendors count on the prospective customer's lack of knowledge of the traditions of heraldry. To use arms that are not properly owned usurps someone else's heraldic identity. Using someone else's arms without proper matriculation is fundamentally a mix of identity theft and property theft.
In the U.S. we are free to assume original arms, and may pass those arms to our children. We are also free to use the arms of our ancestors if it is appropriate under the accepted traditions of Heraldry. When using the arms of ancestors, we must respect our ancestor by adopting the arms in accordance with the traditions of the country in which the arms originated, following the long-held heraldic traditions of proper matriculation.
That being said, ancestral arms will not address an individual's recent history or interests. As an alternative, original, personal & meaningful arms can be designed and assumed in order to start a new heraldic legacy, passing those arms to descendants. Designing original arms gives the freedom to use heraldic symbology to indicate ancient as well as recent history. Newly designed arms can use elements of an ancestor who bears the same surname, or it can be designed to reflect unique characteristics that have a more personal meaning and value. Creating original arms allows us the freedom to tell our own story, our own way in heraldic terms.
Once an armorial has been designed, it can be registered as assumed arms here at the Society of American Armigers, or at any one of several available armorial registries.