A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE HEART SYMBOL
The familiar heart shape is an almost universal symbol of love and has deep historical roots. It is thought to have been originally inspired not only by the shape of the actual heart organ, but also by botanical forms such as the ivy and the fruit of the silphium. It is also thought to be a stylised depiction of a woman’s curves.
Ancient Greek pottery incorporated countless examples of the heart shape and it appeared in early religious art. The heart can be seen in the Istanbul Empress Zoe mosaic dating from 1239 and in stucco reliefs and panels from Persian ruins dating from 90 BC to 637 AD. However, it was not thought to be a metaphor for love until at least 1250, when the earliest known example was shown in an illuminated manuscript.
It wasn’t until the 15th century, however, that it developed into the symbol of love that we know today. The heart symbol truly came to the forefront during the Renaissance. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the heart symbol exploded in popularity and became a prevalent Valentine’s motif.
Today, the heart shape is ubiquitous and never seems to decline in popularity or meaning.
THE HEART IN JEWELLERY
During Georgian and Victorian times, the heart was often found in jewellery pieces given as sentimental gifts between family members, close friends and lovers. Hearts were also often seen in engagement and wedding rings. Heart shaped lockets containing sentimental keepsakes such as hair or miniature portraits were particularly popular. Beginning in the early 1800s, Irish Claddagh ring featured a heart clasped in two hands. These rings came to be widely used to symbolise friendship and love and are worn as friendship, engagement and wedding rings to this day, particularly in Ireland.
As was typical of the Victorians, the heart motif had a nuanced meaning depending on its setting and design. For example, two hearts set alongside one another meant ‘betrothed’. Sapphires were added to represent fidelity or rubies for passion. Diamonds symbolised enduring love or eternity. Many Victorian pieces used the heart symbol alongside other symbols, for examples snakes or birds. If a flame was used, this represented passion or ‘The Sacred Heart of Christ’. Various flowers could be incorporated into the piece to convey the specific meaning accorded to each flower.
An ever expressive array of pavé hearts, engraved hearts, hearts encrusted with gems or carved from them adorned the throats, ears, fingers, clothes, bonnets, hair and wrists of our fore-bearers and continued in popularity throughout the 20th century and to this very day.
Below you will find some examples of beautiful heart pieces used in antique and vintage jewellery.
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