Irish Jewelry Design: Neolithic to Now

Like many Irish-American children, I was educated from birth in the history and traditions of Ireland—almost to the point of suffocation. I had a claddagh ring, but eventually stopped wearing it, as too many St. Patrick’s Days requiring an “Irish Princess” sweatshirt began to take their toll. Since then I’ve preferred to absorb Irish culture on a more personal level, and I take great pride and interest in my heritage—but please don’t ask me to wear kelly green! In January, I was lucky to attend Showcase Ireland 2001 in Dublin for a first-hand look at Irish jewelry. This annual craft-and-gift fair—the largest trade fair in Ireland—attracts 12,000-plus buyers (including many from overseas) and generates more than $42 million (IR£36.1 million) in sales. More than 70 Irish jewelry companies exhibit at the show, which this year celebrated its 25th anniversary.

“Jewelry represents Ireland. We’ve been wearing it since 2000 B.C. , and unlike Britain or other countries, people associate jewelry with Ireland,” says Breda Haugh, jeweler and design consultant for Dublin’s Orna Jewelry Design and designer of the Danu collection for Lee Brothers Limited of Dublin.

Traditional Irish jewelry enjoys great popularity in the United States, which counts among its citizens more than 40 million Americans of Irish ancestry. Thus, it’s no surprise that the United States is the largest export market for Ireland’s jewelry. Classic designs such as the claddagh, the shamrock, and the trinity knot have long had their followers here, but the late 1990s fascination with all things Irish—thanks in part to Riverdance and Angela’s Ashes —has boosted the popularity of Celtic jewelry even more.

Dublin’s Solvar Ltd. is a leading designer and manufacturer of Irish jewelry, with a collection that includes classic claddagh rings, wedding bands, crosses, and brooches available in sterling silver and 10k, 14k, and 18k gold. For the second consecutive year, Solvar has been named North American Supplier of the Year by the North American Celtic Buyer’s Association. The award, which was presented at a Showcase event, is based on a survey of more than 300 U.S. companies that sell Irish-made goods. Solvar plans to introduce at least 40 new designs in 2001.

Dublin-based Celtic and Heraldic Jewelery Ltd. does 85% of its business in the United States, according to director Joe Kelly. “We’re moving more and more into the mainstream,” he notes, and the company has also added a successful platinum collection to its sterling, 10k, 14k, and 18k lines. Celtic wedding bands are its best sellers and, in keeping with the Irish respect for tradition, Celtic and Heraldic has introduced a companion piece to the bands—a wedding coin. The inspiration behind the coin dates back to an early custom in which a groom gave money to the bride’s family in the hope that the new couple would receive happiness and luck in return. The coin was saved and passed from mother to eldest son on his wedding day. Celtic and Heraldic incorporates two Irish sayings into its coin: On one side is the Gaelic “Ta a lan notaí i bport an bhanaís.” (“There are a lot of notes in the wedding tune.”) On the reverse, written in Ogham, the ancient Irish alphabet, is “Gra go deo,” which translates to “Love forever.” At the bottom is the claddagh, which symbolizes love (heart), loyalty (crown), and friendship (hands).

Joe Harbourne of Dublin’s JMH Manufacturing Ltd. says that although claddagh designs are JMH’s bestsellers, the classic symbol is seeing competition. “The Celtic designs are catching up,” he says—a trend that makes sense, as Book of Kells-inspired knot designs can often provide a more modern look that appeals to younger customers. Also new from JMH is its “I am of Ireland” ring. Designed by Michael Hilliar, the ring is inspired by an anonymous fragment of 14th-century verse: “I am of Ireland/And of the holy land of Ireland/God pray you sir/For holy charity/Come and dance with me/In Ireland.” The rings feature the first line of the verse written in Irish and are available in sterling silver and 14k.

Tradition plus imagination. During an address at the Showcase New Product Awards presentation, Irish President Mary McAleese said the Irish marketplace had “taken tradition to heart [while still displaying] a new imagination for a new millennium.” As smaller-scale Irish craft businesses build on their heritage and incorporate crucial business factors such as distribution, design, self-confidence, and the conviction to compete and win in the global marketplace, McAleese sees their success as a microcosm of Irish success in general. She described Irish businesses, both large and small, as “ambassadors for the past, present, and future.”

In a market profile titled Giftware and Jewellery, An Ireland Retail Perspective, published in November 2000, the trade group InterTradeIreland noted that “the ‘shamrock-embellished’ traditional market remains important, particularly for the overseas tourist from the U.S., but this market is aging and likely to be displaced by more contemporary design reflecting modern Ireland.” Judging from the designs on view at the show, Irish jewelry companies recognize the need to keep their collections fresh. A skillful pairing of traditional and modern elements was evident in the jewelry on offer—in fact, Irish designers’ ability to continually reinvent a small stock of classic elements is remarkable.

Younger designers are putting particular effort into updating traditional Celtic themes while retaining the romanticism of those themes. Nora Watson, whose company is based in County Down, Northern Ireland, pushes Irish jewelry into the here and now. Her sterling designs—some teamed with 9k red or yellow gold—play with the classic Celtic knot, pulling it into loose, loopy, almost freeform shapes. In another collection, she sets them into the center of round shield forms. The effect is modern and minimalist but imbued with Irish jewelry tradition.

“You have to do the Celtic stuff—like the Book of Kells-influenced things—but I like to dig a bit deeper,” says Niall Walsh of Troellen, a company based in County Wicklow. Walsh’s handcrafted sterling jewelry designs dig deep enough to reach the Stone and Bronze Ages. For example, some of Troellen’s jewelry is embellished with Celtic triple spirals, a design element that also decorates the entrance stone of Newgrange, a Neolithic passage grave in County Meath. The jewelry features an uneven, polished surface that gives it a traditional yet contemporary feel. Other Troellen pieces feature intricate animal designs inspired by the Book of Kells, and even the Venus of Willendorf—a Stone Age fertility figure dating back to 25,000 B.C.—makes an appearance as a pendant.

Neolithic designs in particular appeared over and over in jewelry at the show. Patricia Cross of Craigmount, a company in County Down, Northern Ireland, combines rustic, true-to-the-original Celtic spirals with Connemara marble in pieces mainly fashioned out of pewter, while Jewel Art of Dublin presented a more streamlined, contemporary version of the spiral motif.

Ancient techniques. During the Bronze Age, the Irish were highly skilled in the technique of flanging. Working mainly with gold, craftsmen took a bar of the metal, hammered it into four thin flanges, and heated it until it became malleable. The gold was pulled and twisted to create a piece of jewelry. Many ancient Irish torques were made the same way. One pair of flanged gold earrings, uncovered in Castlerea, County Roscommon, dates back to 1200 B.C., and another ancient torque (dating back to around 1100 B.C.) is flanged into such a tight spiral, it resembles a solid rope of gold.

Pamela Wilson of Jewellery Sculpture, based in Belfast, Northern Ireland, uses small-scale blacksmithing to make her jewelry. Incorporating techniques that are thousands of years old, she forges steel and white metal into pieces like pins and pendants that bridge the gap between traditional and contemporary. “There’s a strong Celtic feel, but it’s not overt, it’s not in your face,” she says. She may manipulate the metal into the ubiquitous Celtic spiral, but when it’s combined with a black-and-white effect (derived from high-temperature-induced color changes) and other quirky touches (a squiggle here, a flower there), the finished product looks thoroughly modern.

John and Annie Daly also bridge the design gap between ancient and contemporary. They’ve run a small business called Celtic Impressions for 17 years, exporting silver, 10k, and 14k jewelry all over the world. They also operate a retail shop in Clifden, County Galway, and a Web site that lists their jewelry collections by name and date—”Newgrange/2000BC,” “LaTene/800BC,” “Celt-Christian/400AD,” etc., up to “New Age/2000AD.” Contemporary designs include a wraparound horse’s head ring and a pendant depicting three men carrying a curragh—a common fishing boat used in the west of Ireland. “People are always looking for something new,” says Annie Daly. “You’ve got to keep fresh. You can’t just sit back and say you’ve got the collection. Even if it’s just five or six new pieces, people will try it and come back.”

Even the venerable claddagh ring has been updated. Ogham Design Ltd. of Dublin offers “Claddagh 2000™”—designed, according to company literature, “with the dawning of a new millennium in mind.” Ogham has simplified the traditional design of heart, hands and crown by removing extra detail on the crown and leaving out any definition of fingers on the hands. The look, available in rings, bangles, cufflinks, and pendants, is streamlined and highly polished—a successful modern take on a classic design.

Another common thread binding Irish jewelry designers is their determination to keep their collections affordable. Throughout the show, sterling silver predominated. As a result, some exceptionally beautiful, well-treated, yet inexpensive jewelry was on offer.

Some designers paired sterling with bits of colored gold, while others relied on finishes to help their designs pop. One standout piece was a calla lily brooch by Linda Uhlemann of Dublin. To create it, Uhlemann takes a sheet of silver and runs it through a press between two sheets of muslin. The muslin pattern is impressed onto the surface of the silver, which she pickles four times. The result is a bright, startling shade of white. These eye-catching pieces, available in two sizes, retail for about $62 (IR£52) for the smaller and $73 (IR£62) for the larger.

Colored stone items were scarce. The few that were available—such as those in the collections of Linda Uhlemann and Dublin’s Céline Traynor, who won the Best New Product Award for Fashion and Accessories—featured semiprecious gems, including garnet, amethyst, and tourmaline.

Overall, the quality of the collections on display at Showcase 2001 was impressive, as excellent treatment of the jewelry combined with visionary design showed that Irish jewelers are aware of their status and responsibilities as “ambassadors” for Ireland. I was so impressed, in fact, that I may have to invest in one of those updated claddagh rings—but I still refuse to wear kelly green!