As vintage jewellery hunters and sellers, we often come across Celtic styled or inspired jewellery, most of it made in the 20th Century. Celtic styles are striking in that they are ancient in origin but appeal to modern tastes. The inspirational spirit of the natural world and mystical symbolic qualities which for all sorts of reasons we feel drawn to.
The Romans thought of them as barbarous savages. Yet, despite not having the organization of a central government. As well as a lack of any written records. Archaeology has shown that they had highly developed cultures
The sophistication of Celtic arts and crafts were extremely intricate. As they portray powerful visual imagery and symbols to communicate their identity and spiritual beliefs.
Celtic culture lives on today in the language and arts along the ‘Celtic Fringe’. Seen across Western Europe in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, The Isle of Man, Brittany, and Galicia. Here the inspiration of Celtic styles and designs are still felt by craftspeople, especially in jewellery.
Below are some design styles that are characteristically Celtic including some commonly found in jewellery:
Knotwork of Celtic Styles and Designs
Knotwork is probably the best-known type of Celtic design. Never ending intertwined patterns symbolized ideas of eternal life as well as the relationship between humanity and the natural world.
There are many types of knot design including basket weaves and plaits, but one of the best known, and the simplest, is the Triquetra. Specifically, this is a three-lobed knot created from one line. Which relates to ancient ideas of the interlocking levels of physical, mental and spiritual. While in nature – land sea and sky.
When the Celts embraced Christianity, it came to represent the Trinity. In the modern world, it can also represent love, honour, and protection.
The Use of Spiral in Celtic Styles
The spiral is one of the oldest symbols associated with the Celts. To illustrate one of the characteristic ways it is used we can look at the triskele or triskelion, a triple spiral design.
Likewise, this design has been interpreted as representing the power of three. The past, present, and future or the Christian trinity.
Another Design of the Celtic Styles, Zoomorphism
Zoomorphism is a kind of Celtic pattern that incorporates elaborately interwoven fantastic ‘beasts’, such as snakes, dragons, birds, horses, and hounds, each with their own symbolic or mythic meaning.
While this Sea Gems brooch incorporates both zoomorphic and spiral ideas. Representing the Three Birds of Rhiannon – a Welsh Goddess.
Celtic Styles of the Cross
The Celtic cross is a pagan symbol of a cross with a circle on the intersection representing the meeting of the celestial realm with the earthly plane. Where the circle symbolizes the sun or the great wheel of life.
When Christianity spread to Ireland and Britain, the pagan cross was combined with the Christian cross. Where it is now seen in many forms at holy places all over the Celtic fringe as is Celtic cross jewellery, now considered a classic souvenir for pilgrims and visitors
This beautiful silver and enamel brooch combines all three elements, the cross with knots and spirals
This beautiful silver and enamel brooch combines all three elements, the cross with knots and spirals.
Celtic Styles from the Victorian Period into the 20th-Century
Celtic styled art had a revival during the Victorian period. As well as an influence on Arts and Crafts and the Art Nouveau movements.
But the style really took off a little later in the twentieth century. Most of the jewellery now considered Celtic in style has been produced during this period as Celtic’ nations explored nationalism and sought their identity while reviving old craft styles.
Other factors responsible for the surge were new age religion. Both pagan and Christian, as well as exciting new archaeological finds and souvenir tourism.
Celtic style jewellery has been influenced by ancient pieces and also by the later Christian artworks produced in Celtic lands in a distinctive style often referred to as Insular, this includes stone crosses and illuminated manuscripts such as the Book of Kells.
Key Designers of Celtic Styles
Iona is a small Scottish island. Known as a religious and pilgrimage centre with an abbey founded in the 6th Century AD. It was a centre of Celtic Christianity. and the famous Book of Kells may have originated here.
Stone crosses sculpted on Iona may have been the first to have the design/shape we now think of as the Celtic Cross
The revival of Celtic styles and craftsmanship on Iona was spearheaded by Alexander and Euphemia Ritchie in the late C19 and into the C20. While Alexander became renowned worldwide as a silversmith.
After the Ritchies died in 1941 their successors, including apprentices Iain MacCormick and John Hart who formed Celtic Art Industries or CAI in 1945. They continued using Ritchie’s designs while also created their own in the ‘Iona’ style.
The works of these makers are highly collectible and fetching good prices. Nowadays much jewellery is referred to as Iona style. With these artists being the real deal!
The Islands of Orkney north of Scotland are steeped in both Celtic and Viking history. A more modern tradition of jewellery making in Celtic styles has been established here by two well-known names.
Ortak was founded in 1967 by Malcolm Gray. Although the firm did have some financial setbacks recently. They continue to produce beautiful jewellery designs today.
Ola M Gorie is one of the UK’s most important jewellery designers of recent years. She was a pioneer in the 1960s, exploring her Celtic and Norse heritage, inspiring stunning stylish modern jewellery. Her company continues today to inspire and influence the next generation of designers.
Vintage pieces by either Malcolm Gray and Ola Gorie are highly desirable and collectible.
Lower End Collectable Celtic Styles
Slightly lower end but no less collectible are pieces produced by Miracle. Founded in 1946, it is a trade name of A Hill and Company Ltd.
Although they were based in Birmingham in England, they have come to be associated with the Celtic style, particularly Scottish and Irish jewellery inspired by ancient finds.
They are famous for antiqued silver and gold tone pieces set with glass faux agates and gemstones, often vibrantly coloured.
These days Miracle has been merged with St Justin, based in Cornwall and a company that itself produces jewellery in Celtic styles.
Founded in 1984, some of St Justin’s output can now also be called ‘vintage’
Sol D’Or is an Irish based company that has had strong connections with Miracle. With some pieces having both Miracle and Sol D’Or marks.
You will also find Sol D’Or made in Ireland pieces such as Celtic crosses and Claddagh rings often set with Connemara marble.
Whether or not your heritage is Celtic, and many of us have at least a drop of Celtic blood, these ancient designs have a universal appeal. Whether or not we really truly understand the symbolism and spiritual meaning of the beautiful interlaced patterns, Celtic designs manage to convey both a sense of deep history and a connection with nature. With an appeal to modern tastes and ideas of harmonious design.