Here at The Irish Store, we see (and love!) a lot of Irish jewelry every day. And sometimes we wonder – what does it all mean?! We know it’s super important to wear your Claddagh heart facing the right direction. But we can’t always remember why. So we found out everything you need to know about the top 11 most important pieces of Celtic and Irish jewelry. And we learned there’s a lot more to them than just pretty.
Jewelry was a powerful force in Celtic society. Worn by people of high status, jewelry had supernatural properties that kept its wearers safe and blessed. Everything about a piece of jewelry had meaning, most importantly the metal it was crafted from and its engravings and design. Gold was ruled by the sun and silver belonged to the moon. Today’s Irish jewelry owes its beauty to this rich tradition, the Celtic craftsmanship that created designs that will endure forever.
Read on to decode the secret meanings of your favorite Celtic pieces.
The Claddagh is the most popular piece of traditional Irish jewelry. Its origins lie in the Galway fishing village of Claddagh in 17th century Ireland. The Claddagh became popular for the beauty and meaning of the design: the hands represent friendship, the heart love, and the crown loyalty. This symbolism has made the Claddagh a popular gift among family, friends and romantic partners. In Ireland and the United States, the Claddagh is gifted from mother to daughter, and grandmother to granddaughter. In medieval and Renaissance Europe, the Claddagh’s clasped hands became associated with marriage vows and the Claddagh remains a popular choice for engagement and wedding rings today.
In the 20th century, the Claddagh design moved beyond the ring to feature on many other jewelry pieces and items, like this beautiful locket.
2. Trinity Knot
The Trinity Knot is known by many names, most famously the Celtic Knot and Eternity Knot. The Trinity Knot’s official name is the “triquetra”, meaning “triangle” in Latin. The Trinity Knot is a religious symbol with both pagan and Christians heritage. In Celtic mythology, knots symbolize the sacred geometry of the universe and the interconnectedness of all life in the universe. In Christian iconography, the Trinity Knot represents the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Trinity Knot can be seen in Ireland’s most valuable relic, the Book of Kells, now located in the suitably named Trinity College, Dublin.
3. Tree of Life
The Tree of Life features in the theologies of many different cultures, representing the interconnection of life on heaven and earth. The tree’s roots reach into the lower world. The branches grow upwards towards heaven. The trunk remains on earth, uniting both. In Celtic culture, trees were invested with important meanings. When an area was cleared for tribal settlement, one tree known as the crann bethadh, the tree of life, was left in the center. Symbolizing the balance of natural life, the tree was valued for the food, warmth and shelter it provided to humans and animals. More mysteriously, the ancient Irish Celts saw trees as the ancestors of humans and believed that pagan gods communicated with them through the tree of life.
4. Celtic Cross
The symbolism of the 5th century Celtic Cross extends beyond the traditional Christian cross. Its unique combination of cross and circle reveals the lingering influence of Ireland’s pagan past. Like many Irish religious icons, the Celtic Cross is said to have been introduced by St. Patrick. Legend says that Patrick combined the cross of Christianity with the pagan sun cross in his conversion of the heathen Irish. Placing the cross on top of the circle symbolized Christ’s supremacy over the pagan sun.
5. Celtic Brooch
The Celtic brooch dates from the beginning of Ireland’s early medieval period. The strict rules governing the wearing of Celtic brooches reveals much about the use of jewelry to communicate status. Brooches were so important within Celtic culture that there were numerous laws defining how they should be worn and defining judgments on accidents they were believed to cause. An early Irish tract called The Senchas Mhor stated that the sons of high kings should wear “brooches of gold having crystal inserted in them”, while the sons of minor kings must only wear silver brooches. Choose your Celtic brooch carefully – it reveals a lot about you.
6. Celtic Bracelet
What we call bracelets and bangles were first known as torques and cuffs in the Celtic world. Unlike most modern bracelets, torques were charged with supernatural meanings. Crafted from precious metals like gold and silver, torques were worn by those of high status – warriors, priests and noblewomen. Torques bestowed their wearers with magical blessings, repelling evil spirits and the curses of enemies. Torques were also positively powerful, keeping confidence high and protecting from injury during battle.
7. St Brigid’s Cross
Like many pieces of Celtic jewelry, St. Brigid’s Cross has a dual pagan and Christian heritage. It is a small cross, usually crafted from rushes. At the center, it features a woven square with four arms extending outwards. Like the Celtic Cross, its influence extends back beyond Christianity to the pagan sun cross. Brigid is a patron saint of Ireland, with a feast day celebrated on February 1st. Reed crosses are traditionally crafted on the feast day and hung in the Irish home to protect from evil forces, especially fire.
8. Celtic Rings
The symbolic associations of the ring for thousands of years and begin with the circle, a central design in sacred geometry. The circle has many meanings and associations, including wholeness, perfection, order and infinity. The ring can represent the sun or the planets. In Celtic culture, the meaning of the ring depends on the metal it is crafted from, the precious stones included, and its design.
Ogham was the first form of writing used in Ireland, originating in the south west of Cork and Kerry. The word Ogham comes from ‘Ogma’, the name of the Celtic god of speech. Like most things from the Celtic world, Ogham carried a spiritual meaning, interweaving earthly and heavenly symbols. Many Ogham letters were inspired by trees, so central to the old Irish life and imagination. Ogham’s horizontal and vertical lines formed an alphabet consisting of between one and five groups across a vertical root. Each group of lines represents a letter, read from bottom to top.
The shamrock is the main symbol of Ireland across the world. Legend says it was used by St. Patrick to explain the Trinity of God the Father, Son and Spirit, in the conversion of the Irish to Christianity in the 5th century. Toasting St. Patrick became known as ‘drowning the shamrock’ in Ireland and the US. After mass on St. Patrick’s Day, would break their Catholic Lenten fast by raising a glass of whiskey or ‘St. Patrick’s Pot’. Whiskey glasses in Ireland now often carry shamrock engravings to assist with ‘drowning the shamrock’ today.
11. Rosary Beads
The word rosary is translated the Latin for a “crown” or “garland” of roses”. The beads were first crafted by Irish medieval monks to aid with the recitation of the long cycle of Catholic prayers known as the Rosary. With the beads helping keep count of the prayers, the mind is supposed to be free to focus on the mysteries of the rosary. Tradition records that the rosary was inspired by an apparition by the Virgin Mary in 1214, leading to her title as Our Lady of the Rosary and explaining its association with Mary’s traditional symbol, the rose. Many of the Rosary beads sold on The Irish Store include drops of holy water.
Now, spot the hidden meanings in our full collection of Irish and Celtic jewelry on The Irish Store!