The Legend of the Claddagh Ring

Though it’s nicknamed the Emerald Isle, Ireland’s real jewelry claim to fame is the Claddagh ring, usually fashioned of simple silver or gold. 

18th Century Irish Claddagh ring, British Museum. 

18th Century Irish Claddagh ring, British Museum. 

The Claddagh is a lovely little cypher featuring two hands for friendship, a heart for love and a crown for loyalty. Legend tells us that the Claddagh ring was invented in the seventeenth century by a lovesick Irishman taken from his homeland.

Robert Joyce was a fisherman from Claddagh, a small village that was located near modern Galway. On one of his fishing trips he was kidnapped by pirates and sold as a slave to a Moorish goldsmith. Poor Robert had left a girl back home in Galway, and created the Claddagh ring as a symbol of his love for her. But the legend has a happy ending! In 1689 William III negotiated the release of all his citizens that were being held as slaves, and Robert was able to return to Ireland where his faithful gal was waiting. The two wed, and Robert opened his own successful goldsmith shop in Galway. His ring design became a hit, and has been exchanged between friends and lovers ever since. 

Hearts in History

The heart is an ancient symbol of unknown origins, and has been incorporated in romantic jewels since at least the middle ages.

Gold Brooch c. 1400, probably France or England. Victoria & Albert Museum.

Gold Brooch c. 1400, probably France or England. Victoria & Albert Museum.

This golden pin would have been used to fasten a garment, and the back is engraved in French with the message "Ourselves and all things, at your whim."

Add a little crook to the heart's point and it becomes a "witch's heart."

Silver and garnet brooch c. 1770. Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Silver and garnet brooch c. 1770. Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

These neat little tokens first appear in the British isles in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Originally they were used as protective amulets, but later on were gifted to both men and women as symbols of love. 

 

A crowned heart denotes loyalty.

Silver gilt scent case, Germany, 18th Century. Victoria & Albert Museum. 

Silver gilt scent case, Germany, 18th Century. Victoria & Albert Museum. 

Place the crowned heart in a pair of hands for "friendship", and you have Claddagh ring. 

Diamond, silver & enameled gold ring c. 1706. Victoria & Albert Museum. 

Diamond, silver & enameled gold ring c. 1706. Victoria & Albert Museum. 

Claddagh rings are named after an old Irish fishing village. They are a variation of the ancient fede rings that take the form of two clasped hands.  This lovely jewel was used as a wedding ring, and is inscribed "Dudley and Katherine united 26. March 1706."

Two hearts joined together? That's a symbol that speaks for itself. 

Moonstone, pearl and gold double-heart bangle, 19th century. Currently available at Gray & Davis.

Moonstone, pearl and gold double-heart bangle, 19th century. Currently available at Gray & Davis.

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