This exquisite gold ring brooch, a sumptuous love token was made in Waterford around 1210 and discovered by archaeologists during the city centre excavations (1986-1992).
The fact that gold jewellery was being made in Waterford in the early 13th century shows a prosperous and highly sophisticated city quick to adopt the latest European fashions.
The Middle Ages was an age of romance and chivalry and ring brooches were medieval love tokens, the equivalent of modern-day engagement rings.
The Waterford Ring Brooch shows that the ideas of courtly love and romance brought by King John’s mother Eleanor of Aquitaine to England from France were now arriving in port cities like Waterford.
To show off her neck, she closed the top of her dress with an exquisitely worked and finely made gold brooch; she placed it rather low so that an opening, one finger wide, gave a glimpse of her breasts, white as snow on the branches, this made her look even lovelier.
When a 13th century French poet penned these lines in his famous poem The Romance of the Rose he almost certainly had in mind a brooch similar to the Waterford Ring Brooch.
This sumptuous brooch can be viewed as a symbol of Waterford 's 13th century golden age. The period of prosperity began in the decades following the Anglo-Norman invasion of 1170 when the Irish economy was transformed by the introduction of new farming methods that produced agricultural surpluses for export. One consequence of this economic boom was the growth of towns and of a wealthy urban merchant class that had the resources to acquire luxuries, status symbols and love tokens such as 22-carat gold ring brooches. We know that goldsmiths worked in Waterford in the Middle Ages. A man known as Roger the Goldsmith was bailiff, a city council official, in the 1280s.
Dating from about the year 1210 the Waterford Ring Brooch is one of the earliest surviving gold ring brooches yet found in Europe. There are four glass stones set into the brooch, two blue and two green. The wearer would very likely have believed that the stones were gemstones and in a superstitious age may also have believed that the stones had magical powers.
Up until the 15th century ring brooches were one of the commonest jewels of the Middle Ages, worn and given as love tokens by both men and women. They survive in large numbers in France, England, Scotland and Ireland. The only known illustration in an Irish manuscript of a ring brooch is to be found in Waterford's Great Charter Roll where the governor of Ireland John Darcy (1324-1327) is shown wearing one.
When given to a lady a ring brooch was the medieval equivalent of the modern-day engagement ring. A French poem of 1184 also makes the association between the ring brooch and marriage very clear in the lines my bride shall wear a brooch - a witness to her modesty and a proof that hers will be a chaste bed. It will shut up her breast and thrust back any intruder.
Whether this brooch made the wearer lucky in love, in childbirth or warded off some evil spirits or life-threatening illness we will never know. One thing is certain - the Waterford Ring Brooch is one of our great treasures, a link with a period of prosperity and sophistication, a time when the city's merchant princes reaped the rewards of international trade and commerce and patronised the skilled artistry of the goldsmith’s craft.