There are a number of reasons why people give jewellery to each other. It may be as a thank you present, to celebrate an anniversary, to recognise an important event in that person’s life, to show love and respect, to remember a person’s life and so on. Underlying all these reasons are feelings – love, respect, remembrance, and/or appreciation. All very sentimental but important all the same. And there is no doubt that the heart, whether in the shape of a pendant, a locket, a padlock, a ring, a brooch or a bracelet, is the most sentimental expression of love that we know.
But why did the heart symbol become associated with love? It has been argued that originally the shape was based on certain leaves (ivy, fig and water lilies) and plants (the fruit of the Silphium plant which was used as a contraceptive in the 7th century BC). It is clear, however, that the heart symbol we know today (♡) was not used in paintings and tapestries until the very late 14th century. There is a beautiful tapestry in the Louvre Museum called the ‘Le Don du Coeur’ (The Gift of the Heart) which shows a man giving a tiny red heart to a seated lady. It was created around 1410. There are a few heart shaped rings in museums dating from 14th century, one with an inscription ‘ The heart brings love to you’. The British Museum has some gold heart-shaped dangle earrings from the 15th century.
The 16th and 17th centuries saw a revived interest in the medieval concept of courtly love. Much of the medieval poetry conjured up images of broken hearts and stolen hearts. This imagery can start to be seen in jewellery. From the 1600s, fede gimmel rings became popular. They have two hands clasped together and open up to reveal one or two hearts. In the 17th century, the claddagh ring from Ireland has a heart held in two hands, often with a crown on top of the heart, meaning ‘ruler of my heart’. In France, ‘alliance’ ring set with two hearts became popular as wedding rings in the 18th century.
It becomes clear why the heart, with its association with love, should then begin to be linked with St Valentine’s Day as a special day of love, and used in cards and gifts in the 18th century when it acquired a wider acceptance. The first commercially printed cards were produced around 1850 and the Day has never looked back. Neither has the heart symbol which is recognised around the world.