GALWAY, Ireland — Over the years the Claddagh ring — which shows two hands clasping a crowned heart — has been a love token, a friendship ring and, in modern times, a symbol of Ireland itself.
In the Past
Rings depicting two hands, called “fede” or fidelity rings, were worn in the Mediterranean region during the Middle Ages — and likely traders brought the first versions to Ireland.
The crown, which appears above the heart, is believed to have been introduced between the 1690s and 1700 by a Galway goldsmith named Richard Joyce. (According to James Hardiman’s “History of Galway,” published in 1821, Mr. Joyce had been captured by pirates in the West Indies and was sold as a slave to a Turkish jeweler, who trained him as a goldsmith.)
“Though there’s no concrete evidence that Richard Joyce was the first person to put the crown on the ring,” said Eoin O’Neill, a historian and collections officer at the Galway City Museum, “it’s safe to say he’s credited with it, as there are no Claddagh rings before the one we have from circa 1700 that has this feature. One theory is — because he was freed from slavery in North Africa by William III — the crown was a sign of thanks and gratitude to the king.”
When Mr. Joyce returned to Galway, he set up as a goldsmith on Shop Street and over time the people of Claddagh, a mazelike fishing village of small thatched cottages just outside the city walls, began using his version of the ring as wedding bands. By the 1800s, the association was so constant that the design had become known as the Claddagh.
There is another, unproven story in Galway about the crown design: When Mr. Joyce returned to Galway, he married the sweetheart who had waited for him through all his years of captivity — and he made a fede-style wedding ring with a crown above the heart.
“The crown indicates loyalty between two people — it’s fierce romantic,” said Jonathan Margetts, owner of Thomas Dillon’s Claddagh Gold, a Galway jewelers that specializes in the rings.
“In Galway, most people have Claddagh rings, they hand them down, mother to daughter, father to son,” Mr. Margetts said, noting that they call the design a “heart and hands ring.”
And many have brought old rings to him for repair. “Many of them have impurities in the metal so I’ve had to develop a technique to work on them,” he said.
The earliest known Claddagh ring, created by Mr. Joyce in the 1700s, went on display last month in the Galway City Museum.
The gold band is worn, but its engravings are still clear. Mr. O’Neill pointed out the maker’s initials “RI” (the I indicated the phonetic Latin pronunciation of Joyce, he said) and the initials LcM and MrC. “We don’t know who they were,” he said, “but this would probably have been a wedding ring for a very wealthy couple.”
Also, he said, “See how the heart is elongated. It looks more like a real, anatomical heart than the Disney-fied version we get today.”
The Dillon shop also has a small museum about the ring. And Mr. Margetts has the oldest known license to make the Claddagh ring — dated 1750 and issued by the Assay Office at Dublin Castle — so the bands of Dillon rings are stamped “original.”
Around the World
Today the Claddagh ring can be found almost anywhere — a journey that experts say began with the Irish famine of 1845-1852. When the potato crops failed, as many as 2.5 million Irish left the country, most traveling to the United States.
While anyone from Claddagh with a gold ring might have sold it to pay for the trip, others would have had only cheap rings made of bronze, tin, brass or even melted coins. “Many people would have kept the rings as a memory or connection to home,” Mr. O’Neill said.
And even today, Mr. Margetts said, he often sells Claddagh rings to young Irish people who “wear them as a badge of identification when they’re going away.”
After the 9/11 terrorist attack on New York, one of the books about the tragedy, “Report from Ground Zero” by Dennis Smith, said that more than 200 Claddagh rings were found in the rubble of the Twin Towers.
On your Finger
When it comes to Claddagh rings, “I’d say every teenage girl in Ireland has had one at some stage,” Eleanor O’Toole, 16, a fifth-year student at Sancta Maria College in Louisburgh. “One day I was in a cafe with four of my friends and I looked down at our hands and we were all wearing them!”
And all those girls likely know that the way you wear a Claddagh ring is as much an indication of your relationship status as whatever is on your social media.
“I wear it like this, with the crown facing down to my knuckle. If you are available, you wear it like that,” Eleanor said, displaying a silver version that she received from her grandmother at Christmas a few years ago. “If you are in a relationship, you wear it with the crown pointing to your fingernail. I honestly don’t think all boys have copped onto this!”
A Contemporary Take
In 2013, the Overall Winner at Showcase Ireland, a national exposition presented on behalf of the Design and Crafts Council Ireland, was a minimalist version of the Claddagh ring. The design, which eliminated any detailing on the hands, cuffs and crown, was created by Eileen Moylan, a goldsmith with Claddagh Design.
Ms. Moylan said she was 8 when her grandmother gave her a Claddagh ring. “It was my first proper piece of jewelry and I adored it,” the 44-year-old said. But when she studied jewelry design, she found the traditional Claddagh ring too ornate.
“I was inspired by fede rings, lovely, simple things,” she said. “I didn’t want to remove the elements of the hands, heart and crown — my rings are still recognizable as Claddaghs.”
Ms. Moylan, who makes all her rings by hand, does sell traditional rings, but she said her contemporary designs, which start at 196 euros ($206), are her best-sellers. She uses only recycled metal: silver, white and yellow gold, platinum and palladium.
A lot of customers “like the simple, clean lines,” she said. “I sell a lot of men’s wedding rings, they are not ornate. And an awful lot of men are getting my Claddagh rings as engagement rings.”
Fans of the Claddagh
As Mr. Margetts tells it, his grandfather, Patrick, heard a knock on the door of his home one Sunday in 1946. It was a man from the Irish Folklore Commission, asking him to open his shop for a customer in the car. It was Walt Disney.
Mr. Disney was in Ireland to research mythology that later inspired the 1959 movie “Darby O’Gill and the Little People.” Mr. Disney referred to himself as half-Irish; his great-grandfather, Arundel Elias Disney, had emigrated from County Kilkenny to North America in 1834.
In the “Partners” statues, designed by the sculptor Blaine Gibson for the Disney theme parks, Mr. Disney has his left hand in Mickey Mouse’s — and a Claddagh ring is on his right.
Many well-known figures, although not all who share Irish heritage, also wear the ring. Mr. Margetts has made an extra-large version for the Irish actor Gabriel Byrne. “I sat at my bench and soldered two large rings together to create that piece,” he recalled.
Queen Victoria, Mia Farrow, Jennifer Aniston, Julia Roberts and even Sarah Michelle Gellar’s television character on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” have been seen with Claddagh rings.