Ah love, sweet love. How wonderful it is to be in love with someone. You just want to tell everyone you know, and shout it from the rooftops. And you only need one symbol to express your love, the heart. The heart shape conveys love, romance, passion and care without ever saying a word. The heart is one of the most widely used motifs in jewellery design, from rings and pendants to diamond cuts. The heart is everywhere. But how did the heart shape come to define love? And why does the common heart shape look so very different from the anatomical heart? Let’s look through history and find out how the heart shape came to be.
Like most things from long, long ago, we don’t know the exact origin of the heart as a romantic symbol. Ancient Egyptians believed that the heart was the seed of life, and that the “heart soul” descended from the mother’s heart into her womb and would then take the shape of a child. The Ancient Greeks thought the heart supplied the whole body with heat and controlled reason and emotion.
In terms of the shape, it was most likely derived from the botanical world. One line of thinking is that the now extinct Silphium seedpod was the original model for the heart shape. This seed originated in the Ancient North African city of Cyrene and was used as a seasoning, and more commonly, as a contraceptive. The seed was highly valuable and so crucial to Cyrene’s economy that its image was portrayed on their coins. The seed very closely resembles the heart shape and its link to sexuality may have led to its association with love.
The earliest heart shapes found in art were stylized depictions of fig leaves and ivy. These leaves were frequently found on Ancient Greek vase paintings of the god Dionysus, often in erotic scenes. Heart shaped ivy leaves were also a common symbol on Grecian and Roman grave stones, as the plant symbolized eternal love.
Middle Ages Romance
The first known depiction of the heart as a romantic symbol is in a 13th century manuscript entitled “Roman de la Poire” or Romance of the Pear, by Thibaut. In the image a kneeling lover offers his heart to a damsel, although the heart resembles more of a cone shape. The heart was probably depicted this way because human dissection was very rare during the middle ages, and artists were basing their drawings on writings from the ancient world.
In the early 14th century, the heart symbol began to be depicted with a “scalloped” shape, or dent in its base. And then in the latter part of the century it was then flipped so its point was facing downward.
In the 15th century, the modern heart shape became well known across Europe as it was printed on widely distributed French playing cards.
The Heart Shape in Jewellery
As the heart symbol gained popularity it started to be seen in European jewellery. It first appeared in heart shaped brooches used to hold clothing together, and which were inscribed with sayings of love.
A heart shaped diamond was first mentioned in a letter from the Duke of Milan in 1463, and then in 1562 Mary Queen of Scots sent a heart shaped diamond to Queen Elizabeth I.
In 17th century England, rock crystal hearts were worn to memorialize King Charles I who had been executed. These were pendants or rings made of clear faceted rock crystal which often encased a token, hair or initials under the crystal. Although these type of pieces were initially created as memorial jewellery, they later became known more as love tokens or wedding gifts.
During this same period the heart shaped brooch was extremely popular. It was often referred to as a ‘Luckenbooth’ in Scotland, or witches’ brooch in the rest of Europe. The depicted heart was usually asymmetrical and twisted up at the bottom to one side. They were worn as a talisman against evil spirits, and were often worn by pregnant women or pinned onto babies’ blankets. Overtime these witches’ brooches also changed in meaning, to show you were “be-witched with love”. The brooches were often covered in red garnets and a single heart meant you had a sweetheart, while a double heart meant you were married.
Hearts in jewellery reached their height during the reign of Queen Victoria, and the Queen herself wore a charm bracelet with hearts representing each one of her children.
The Universal Heart
Today the heart is a symbol of love. It usually represents romantic love, but can also be between family or friends. It is universally known and one of the most popular symbols in the world. It is also one of the most popular symbols in jewellery design, as jewellery is often given as a token of love. From its mysterious beginnings in plants and sexuality, to its role in religion and memorials, the heart has had many different meanings along the way. But for me, its current significance as a symbol of love, is definitely my favourite.