Legendary Irish tales from both the pagan and Christian times always seem to find a way to include mentions of both silver and gold ornaments. As these pieces of personal décor seem to have been worn particularly by the upper classes, remnants of these objects in both gold and silver have been found in several regions of Ireland. Nowadays, Ireland’s National Museum houses an extensive collection of artistic ornamental pieces belonging to ancient times. Their loveliness shines as they are made from precious metals, combined with beautiful fine stones. Their patterns, regardless of the metal they are made from, range from the simplest to the most elaborate. Order here or find further information about Irish jewelry pieces.
The way these jewelry pieces are decorated, using what is known as the Irish interlaced work, is a reflection of the history of the Irish people, where Christian artists put their hearts into the creation of these pieces that mix precious stones and metals. Even the simplest pieces boast spirals, zigzags, circles, and parallel lines, and they can be traced back to pagan times, long before any Christian influence had reached the land. All told, the Irish National Museum’s jewelry collection is larger even than that housed in the British Museum in London.
Bracelets and Rings
Bracelets and rings were favorites among the upper classes who enjoyed gold, silver, or white bronze ornaments. They would place them on their arms, forearm, and fingers -including the thumb. References to this custom can be found in several sources of ancient Irish writings.
With no gender distinctions, custom dictated that both men and women wear bracelets and rings. This tradition grew so much that it was common to have both men and women of the upper classes walk around with their arms and fingers fully covered with bracelets and rings. Interestingly, some of these ornamental pieces were worn to emphasize the wearer’s position, while others were simply carried to have on hand and bestow upon storytellers, musicians, artists, or any other person whose craft was related to the arts.
Some people went so far as to wear circlets of silver and gold around their ankles and the whole lower part of the leg. This explains why rings and bracelets have been found in many different shapes and sizes.
Necklaces and Precious Stones
Ireland is blessed with mines that produce many kinds of gems and precious stones, some more valuable than others. Tradition called for people to either wear these gems and stones on their own as personal ornaments or attach by artists to more elaborate decorative objects. When gems were worn on their own, they were also expected to be cut into attractive shapes or engraved with original patterns. Ancient Irish documents make mention of topazes, sapphires, emeralds, garnets, and amethysts. Pearls also played a role in ancient Irish jewelry. Several rivers were known for their pearl production.
As far as the selection of jewels worn, necklaces were one of the first pieces produced, and there is evidence of their use earlier than other ornaments such as bracelets or rings. The earliest examples of necklaces, as it happened in many other cultures, were those made from shells. These have been found to belong to prehistoric times. Later on, as jewelry design and production evolved, necklaces started being made from much more expensive gems combined with beads made of gold.
In older times, the Irish upper classes wore more than plain necklaces. They were comfortable adorning themselves with torques. These were ornaments made from silver or gold, usually formed into a single bar that could be triangular or square. With hollows along one of the flat sides, 3 or 4 ribbons could hang and be twisted into a braid that was positioned into a circular shape to go around the wearer’s neck. While the ribbons in some torques were barely long enough to circle the neck, others were so long that they could extend to the shoulders or the breasts.
Other torques were formed by twisting a single thread of gold with two small balls at its end.
Necklets, also known as crescents, were worn around the necks of both men and women. They followed three main design types. The first one was thin, flat, and brightly burnished, ornamented with delicate line patterns. The second and most elaborate one had one convex side and one concave one, fully covered with ornamental designs produced by hammering the metal with a mallet or punched. The design of the third type of necklets is semi-tubular and much thicker than the first two types.
All these crescents were worn around the neck with the two ends and the opening in front. At some point, it was believed that they were used as diadems around the face, but writings have confirmed that this was not the case.