When a jeweller creates a piece of jewellery they are aiming to make something which is beautiful, but which also holds a special meaning for the wearer. Although jewellery can be worn purely for aesthetic reasons a deeper symbolism permeates many pieces, adding to their significance and value. We’ve put together a brief guide to the most common symbolism found in antique jewellery so that you can choose a piece with a deeper meaning which speaks to you.
Perhaps the most important feature of antique jewellery is that it represents an enduring part of history – something which has stood the test of time and maintained both its beauty and purpose. This longevity is symbolised best by rings, as their circular shape has no beginning nor an end, and thus represents the eternal. This is the basis of the exchanging of rings for an engagement or wedding – it is the expression of the desire for a union which transcends time; a love which will never die.
The most obvious expression of the infinite is in the eternity ring. These pieces are ringed entirely in an unbroken array of precious stones, usually diamonds, although sapphire and ruby versions also exist.
In the Christian faith the holy trinity is comprised of God the father, Jesus the son and the holy spirit. Together they represent the totality of godhood, encompassing the divinity of the omnipotent God, the sacrifice of the martyred son and the ineffable power of the holy ghost who dwells within all things.
The trinity is a potent expression of faith, and has been laced into the symbology of jewellery since ancient times. Frequently it takes the form of the shamrock, a clover-like plant with three leaves and a single stem. Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, is said to have explained the Holy Trinity using this plant as a metaphor to show that all aspects of God are one, and it has consequently found its way into many pieces of wearable art.
Trilogy rings can also hold this meaning, although there are secular interpretations of this design – for instance that they represent the past, present and future, thus tying in to the theme of eternity once again.
Sun, Moon and Stars
The celestial bodies are also enduring symbols of the everlasting. Unchanging and omnipresent these symbols represent longevity, but also hope and a beauty which transcends our experience on earth.
The sun, moon and stars have been the object of veneration and even worship, and call back to pre-Christian traditions where they were deified. The moon was often viewed as a feminine deity, such as the ancient Greek Diana or the Roman Artemis. Lunar symbols are often representative of fertility and a plentiful harvest. The sun was more often deified as male, such as the Egyptian Ra or the Greek Apollo, and represented power and prosperity.
Humans have always valued flowers, working them into their crafts since crafting began, and particular flowers have developed symbolism over the years which can imbue a piece of jewellery with a very specific meaning. Forget me nots, unsurprisingly, express a desire that the wearer will remember the person who gave them the piece, but there are much more subtle meanings.
The thistle can be a symbol of tenacity and resilience, as it survives in harsh conditions, but it is also the symbol of Scotland as a nation, as the rose represents England. Lilies were often associated with purity, although their presence in funeral homes in more recent history has led to an association with death. The meaning of other flowers have also changed over time, such as the poppy. It was once associated with the sleep god Hypnos, as the seeds of the poppy were used to create opium, but after World War One it became a potent symbol of remembrance for those who lost their lives.
Jewellery which depicts insects was particularly popular in the late 19th century as increasing industrialisation led to a resurgence of interest in the natural world. Insect jewellery, crafted in precious metals and wondrous gemstones, came to symbolise the beauty of nature itself, but specific insects have older significance.
Butterflies have long been a popular subject for jewellers and other artisans for obvious reasons, they are perhaps some of the most beautiful examples of natural beauty. Their many patterns lend themselves to jewellery, particularly with the metallic iridescence that they exhibit, but their symbolism is one of rebirth and renewal. Beginning life as arguably less impressive caterpillars, pupating and emerging into their beautiful adult form in the spring means that they are potent symbols for new life and new beginnings.
Although butterflies were particularly popular during the early Victorian period many centuries before the humble scarab beetle was venerated and immortalised in ancient Egyptian jewellery. Myth held that the great scarab rolled the sun across the sky during the day, and it came to be associated with the cycle of night and day, one of the oldest examples of the concept of rebirth. The Victorian era saw a resurgence of ancient Egyptian styles as archaeologists unearthed newly discovered tombs, so there are many examples of the scarab in jewellery from this era right up until the modern day.
The Heart and Other Motifs
One of the most easily recognisable symbols of love is the heart, and it can be found in countless pieces of jewellery from all eras. It is a clearly recognisable symbol, and its meaning is most often unambiguous, with variations on style having little effect on the amorous sentiment. In the Roman Catholic Christian tradition there are many depictions of the Sacred Heart, said to represent the heart of Christ and representing his love for the world. This heart is often depicted burning with holy fire, paired with a cross or crown of thorns, and on occasion with a bleeding wound akin to that which killed Christ on the cross.
There are many other symbols in jewellery which represent love and devotion – the clasped hands or “Claddagh” is an incredibly popular design featuring two hands reaching for a single crowned heart. Love, loyalty and friendship are all clearly represented in such designs, often worked into rings and gifted by romantic partners or close friends.
Sometimes the symbolism of a piece is far subtler, relying on the materials it is made of to put the point across. The purity of gold, the durability of diamond, the enigmatic beauty of the opal – most precious materials have a significance that goes beyond their surface level beauty. If you are interested in learning more about gemstones and their symbolism why not take a look at some of our other articles in our blog?
If you have any questions about the pieces which we sell feel free to get in touch on England: 0333 700 4500 or send us an email via firstname.lastname@example.org. Our team is always happy to help!