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Hearts - the universal symbol of love

Updated: May 9

With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, I got to thinking about the heart shapes that I often use in my jewellery. How did the heart motif become the universal symbol of love and affection?

Gemstones such as Rose Quartz, Garnet and Emerald, with their associations with love and affection, make perfect choices for heart shaped jewellery. They are often my 'go-to' choices for romantic commission work. But, why the hearts? I mean, think of all those heart shaped emojis for a start. We use them as short hand for saying we love something, we love someone, we care. When did the concept of love get distilled into a heart-shaped symbol, that bears no visual relation to the human heart?

Human emotions have long been connected with the human heart. As far back as the 4th century BC, the human heart was believed to be the seat of intelligence, motion and sensations. The Greek Philosopher Aristotle described it as the centre of vitality in the body. It has also been attributed as the location of the human soul, and to have a symbolic connection with feelings and emotions.

Ancient civilisations erroneously believed that there was an anatomical connection between the heart and the fourth finger on the left hand. They called this ‘vena amoris’ – the vein of love. In Western cultures, this is often cited as the reason for the tradition we still have today – of wearing the wedding ring on the fourth finger of the left hand.

The more recognisable two-lobed image of the heart with a pointed end, began in medieval times. In 1344 it was first used in a manuscript The Romance of Alexander. During the Medieval era of courtly love and chivalry, the heart motif was quickly adopted and used on jewellery and given as love tokens - on rings, brooches and pendants By the 16th century the heart motif was well and truly connected with love and affection. Even though it clearly bears little resemblance to the real human heart, it has become the universal symbol of love.

Throughout the Victorian period, hearts were everywhere. Heart shaped jewellery was especially popular – including heart shaped lockets and charms.

In 17th century Scotland, the heart symbol took on a slightly different meaning. It began to appear with the pointed end twisted to one side and referred to as a ‘witches’ heart’. This twisted heart symbol became the basis for the famous Luckenbooth brooches – worn to protect against evil spirits. More commonly, Luckenbooth brooches include two entwined hearts (the witches heart now signifying ‘bewitched in love’ and the two hearts denoting a committed relationship) and a crown (denoting loyalty). They are still given today as tokens of betrothal, affection and friendship.

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