Say “Celtic jewelry” to anyone today and they’ll likely immediately think of an Irish Claddagh ring, Celtic crosses, and trinity knots. And if you’re looking for celtic rings, it’s good to know exactly what constitutes “celtic” design. It’s also likely, however, that the average person can identify these icons of Irish jewelry only by sight, not by name and that they know even less the designs’ rich histories.
Archeologists and historians use the term “Celtic” to refer to Iron Age European culture beginning in roughly 1000 B.C. and ending around the Roman Conquest. Most of the Celtic art we recognize from this time is specifically from the La Tène period (circa fifth to first centuries B.C.), named after the archeological site in Switzerland where thousands of artifacts from these centuries were discovered after a lake’s water level dropped in 1857. Scholars estimate that La Tène culture proliferated throughout eastern and western Europe, reaching as far as Britain and Ireland.
Jewelry and metalwork from this period was characterized by intricate spirals and geometric designs, and the pieces were often made in gold, silver, and bronze. The tripartite spiral of the triskele was used frequently, suggesting movement, but La Tène art and jewelry was rarely representational, and the human form almost never appeared in it.
One famous example of the ornate and decorative style from this period is the Broighter Hoard, named for the Derry town in which it was found. One evening in 1896, two farm workers, Thomas Nicholl and James Morrow, were plowing a field when they ran into something hard in the dirt. Upon inquiry, they discovered a large number of metal items arranged together. They returned to Nicholl’s home, where his maid, Maggie (also the future Mrs. Nicholl), washed the soil from the items. She had later admitted that none of them were aware the dirty objects were made of precious metal, and that one or two smaller pieces might have accidentally washed down the drain.
Once cleaned, the dirty, greasy objects revealed themselves as a shimmering treasure trove of stunning gold jewelry and ornaments. The hoard included several gold chains and bracelets, a bowl, a miniature boat, and a massive torc—a metal ring-shaped collar worn by nobles in Celtic culture. The boat is an astoundingly detailed replica of early Irish sailing ships measuring only 7 inches long and it even included a tiny mast and two rows of 18 delicate gold oars. The torc is now widely considered to be one of the premier examples of La Tène metalwork. Wearing one was a symbol of status and power, and the larger and more ornate the torc, the more powerful the wearer. The Broighter torc measures 7.5 inches in diameter (larger than the boat!) and is worked with various floral and geometric designs. It featured an elaborate clasp, which allowed the wearer to have the torc completely closed around his or her neck.
The hoard was sold to the British Museum not long after its discovery, but the Royal Irish Academy argued that the trove was not automatically a possession of the British crown. In 1903, the hoard returned to the Emerald Isle and can now be seen in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin.
After the Roman conquest of Britain and Ireland and the spread of early Christianity, the production of what historians now call Insular art began. The term comes from the Latin word for “island”—insula—and unlike La Tène art, the styles produced in Britain and Ireland remained distinct from that of mainland western Europe. Insular art incorporated many of the geometric designs from La Tène art into its motifs, but began to use them in devotional illustrations and the construction of crosses, as Ireland was quickly becoming a Christian country. In this era, work began on the Book of Kells, the most famous illuminated manuscript in European medieval history. The intricate folios feature elaborate Celtic knots, swirls, and spirals, often surrounding illustrations of monks, animals, and plants. The famous manuscript is on view at Trinity College Dublin, and every day of the year a different page is on view to the public.
The Tara Brooch is one of the most famed examples of jewelry from the Insular period. Though it was named for the Hill of Tara, the ancient seat of the high kings of Ireland, it was found nearly 25 miles away in the seaside town of Bettystown, County Meath in 1850. The antiques dealer who eventually sold it likely named it for the Hill of Tara to increase its perceived value, as in the mid-19th century Celtic Revival had heightened the mania for artifacts from ancient and medieval Ireland.
Historians date the brooch back to roughly the eighth century It is made of silver, both cast and gilt, gold filigree, glass, enamel, and amber. It is decorated on both front and back, featuring delicate animals and intricate scroll designs. Its shape is pseudo-penannular, meaning it included a circular shape and a long pin and was meant to be used as a clothing fastener. The National Museum of Ireland, where the brooch can be viewed, boasts, “The Tara Brooch can be considered to represent the pinnacle of early medieval Irish metalworkers’ achievement. Each individual element of decoration is executed perfectly and the range of technique represented on such a small object is astounding.”
The brooch has inspired fascination and imitation since, and while you can only see the original behind glass in Dublin, there exist many beautiful homages that make it easier to wear a piece of exquisite Celtic heritage close to your heart.
The Claddagh ring, today easily the most famous example of popular Irish jewelry, has much more recent origins than its Celtic cross and triskele counterparts. The ring belongs to a category of rings called fede rings, which take their name from the Italian phrase mani in fede, which means “hands joined in faith” or “hands joined in loyalty.” This style of ring features clasped hands and had been used as a symbol of commitment in Europe since the Roman age. The Claddagh ring, specifically, adds a heart, symbolizing love, and a crown, symbolizing loyalty, to the clasped hands design.
The most common myth regarding the ring’s creation is as follows: in the late 1600s, Richard Joyce, an Irishman from the small fishing town of Claddagh, County Galway, was captured by Algerian smugglers. The smugglers sold Joyce to a silversmith, from whom he learned the trade, and during his captivity, he pined for the sweetheart he’d left at home. He designed and created a ring for her that he hoped would convey his love, friendship, and loyalty. In 1689, he was released from slavery and returned home, ring in tow. Legend has it that he presented the ring to his sweetheart, who’d waited for him for the 14 years of his captivity. The two were married, and Joyce became a goldsmith of considerable wealth and renown.
Some of the earliest examples of the Claddagh ring have Joyce’s initials on them, but others from the same era bear the initials of Thomas Meade, another goldsmith, which calls into question the accuracy of the legend surrounding Joyce. Today, Thomas Dillon Claddagh Gold is the longest-operating makers of the Claddagh ring, having opened its doors in 1750. They are the only producers with the right to stamp “ORIGINAL” in each of their rings. Celebrities and dignitaries who have gone to Thomas Dillon for their Claddagh rings include John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Winston Churchill, Mia Farrow (and this writer!).
The way a Claddagh ring is worn even has significance. A ring worn on the right hand ring finger with the heart facing the fingertips indicates that the wearer is single and ready for love. On the right ring finger, crown facing out, the wearer is in a relationship, but may not be fully committed. Once engaged, the wearer moves the ring to their left hand, and wears it with the heart facing out. After marriage, the wearer flips the ring so that the crown faces out. Because of these customs, Claddagh rings are quite frequently given as promise, engagement, or wedding rings, though they are often handed down from mother to daughter, as well.
In the late 18th century, Romantic art and literature began to look with interest on Scottish and Irish Celtic history. In 1765, Scottish poet James Macpherson published The Works of Ossian, a collection of Gaelic verse he claimed to have found and translated. The work was largely dismissed as being fabricated by Macpherson himself, but not after it had achieved massive global success. Fake or not, Macpherson’s Ossian had awakened worldwide fascination with Celtic culture, literature, and language.
In the 19th century, Irish antiquarian and historian Samuel Ferguson studied ancient Celtic monuments throughout Ireland and the British Isles, and his masterwork, entitled Ogham In Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, was published posthumously in 1887. At the same time, folkloric and historical interest in Ireland’s past took a political turn, as well. Founded in 1842, the Young Irelanders began to agitate for the nationalist cause, and they and their supporters were eager to re-establish a narrative of Irish history distinct from English colonization and rule.
In this time, ancient Celtic jewelry styles had begun to see a resurgence in popularity, and in the 1840s, even Queen Victoria was wearing a copy of the ornate penannular brooches from insular Ireland. By the time the Tara Brooch was discovered, the trends had been set, and the frenzy for Celtic jewelry and artifacts only grew from there.
Not only interest in Ireland spread worldwide by the mid-1800s, but so too had the Irish population. The famine-forced diaspora had sent Irish families all over the globe, especially to the United States and Canada. No longer did Ireland only have a small sphere of influence in a northern corner of the Atlantic ocean, but a far-ranging people, some related to the Emerald Isle by blood, and others only by political and artistic sympathies.
Even after the Celtic Revival, the Easter Rising of 1916, the ensuing War of Independence, and the Civil War, Irish people and those of Irish heritage worldwide have maintained a fierce desire to proudly display their ancestry.
Some jewelry can display Ireland’s past in more literal ways, as well. This beautiful pendant distills the history of Ireland to twelve key images that highlight the richness—and the upheaval—of Hibernia through the ages. The tiny etchings represent events and figures from Ireland’s medieval past through today, including a tiny Saint Patrick, patron saint of Ireland and bringer of Christianity to the country, and a famous round tower, whose real-life counterparts serve as impressive relics of Ireland’s monastic age. The pendant also features a Viking ship, a Norman soldier, and a small King William of Orange astride a horse, representing the Viking invasions in the ninth century, the later Norman invasion, and the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, respectively. The final two images bring us to the present age—the small building in the bottom left corner represents the General Post Office, the infamous main site of the Easter Rising of 1916, and on the bottom right, a small map of Ireland separated into the Republic and the North, represents Partition.
Whether you feel a kinship to Ireland and want to display it with pride, or you simply find the Celtic designs beautiful, there are many different ways to wear Irish treasures. The popularity of the Claddagh ring has led to it being made into pendants and earrings, too. And the famous trinity knots, which hearken back to the Insular art era, make for beautifully intricate and eye-catching jewelry. The Celtic knot seems to unite designs of pre-Christian and Christian origin—it is popular in depictions of the Celtic pagan tree of life, as well as in renditions of the Celtic cross.
Participants in the Celtic Revival reproduced ancient Irish art and jewelry in hopes of highlighting and promulgating Ireland’s rich, creative past in contrast to the negative Irish propaganda that England produced. Through the twentieth century, that negative propaganda has been all but erased, and though Ireland’s history—recent and ancient—has been fraught with turmoil and conflict, the lasting popularity of Irish jewelry design is a testament to both its beauty and excellence.