Symbols of Love in Art, Antiques and Jewellery

Love is in the air, and it's also in the antique market! As Valentine's Day draws near and the search for that perfect, heart-felt gift intensifies, we're taking a look at the timeless, and unusual, symbols of love in the decorative arts.


Few symbols encapsulate love and romance as universally as the iconic heart. Dating back to Ancient Greece, where lyric poetry associated the 'mad heart' with our strongest human emotions, this symbol has endured through the ages. In 1344, the first known image of the classic heart icon that we know appeared in The Romance of Alexander manuscript, setting the stage for its widespread presence in art, jewellery and modern day text messages! 

Detail from The Romance of Alexander, where we first see the classic heart icon.

Various gold heart-shaped lockets. Available at Spectrum Antiques.


Easily recognisable on Valentine's Day cards with his signature bow and arrow, and angel's wings, Cupid's origin traces back thousands of years to the Greek God Eros. Adapted by the Romans, Cupid is an ancient 'match-maker' famed for his enchanted arrows that induce love between mortals and even divine beings. Cupid is ubiquitous throughout art history, often depicted in mythological scenes such as the story of his forbidden love with the mortal Psyche, which is immortalised in the famous marble statue by the Italian sculptor Antonia Canova. We see his image and attributes across the decorative arts and jewellery, and his legacy is evident in objects available at Grays. 


Symbolising the eternal bond between lovers due to their indiscernible beginning and end, knots were a frequent feature in Ancient Greek and Celtic works of art. Think of the phrase often used when two individuals are getting married - they are 'tying the knot', considered to mean that they are forming an unbreakable bond. Knots became a popular feature of jewellery in the 19th century thanks to Sailors, who were known to fashion intricate love knot designs using gold wire to give to their loved ones at home. We have an array of knot motifs woven into our collection from gold knot rings to retro knotted necklaces, which paired with their interesting history, could make the perfect gift for someone special.

Vintage gold tube knot necklace, c.1960. John Joseph Antiques.

Lover's Eye

In a time before photography, miniature painted portraits were frequently swapped between lover, but in the Georgian period, a trend of the single eye or 'lover's eye' became the must-have token of devotion. Originating in 18th-century Britain, these symbol-eye portraits came to be symbolic of a lover's love-filled or lusty gaze. In her 2012 book Treasuring the Gaze: The Intimate Vision in Late Eighteenth-Cenury Eye Miniatures, the art historian Grootenbeur explains that during that time 'people were desperate to give not just images of themselves, but parts of themselves'... literally! Rowan and Rowan showcase several lover's eye jewels that could capture your heart and imagination. 

Georgian lover's eye miniature set to a gold brooch, c. 1800. Available at Rowan and Rowan, Stand 315. 


Although serpents have biblically been associated with fear and deception, serpents have long symbolised eternal love, dating back to the Ancient Greece's Ouroboros - the snake eating it's own tail - symbol of eternity. Famously, Prince Albert proposed to Queen Victoria with an emerald and ruby snake engagement ring, which both solidified the snake as a symbol of love, and popularised snake jewellery in the Victorian era. Besides its symbolism, the sinuous movement of the serpent around the wearer adds a touch of romantic allure to snake jewellery pieces. 

One of the first known depictions of the Ouroboros, found in a shrine enclosing the sarcophagus of Tutankhamun. 

Victorian gold snake rings available at Spectrum Antiques
Victorian silver snake collar. The carved snake holds a later engraved silver heart, c.1880. Available at Arjang Byron

Look at this vintage Italian pearl and emerald gas pipe snake bracelet with Moira Fine Jewellery that combines the serpent image with the aforementioned knot motif. Double love!


With associations of femininity and fertility, seashells have a long-standing connection to love. Venus the Goddess of Love was famously depicted in Botticelli's Birth of Venus on a scallop shell, which depicts the moment Venus is born from the ocean and ferried across to the shore. The shell, with its hard casing which protects pearls, has been thought to symbolise the protective aspect of love. Because of these associations, seashells are sometimes used in wedding decoration, or swapped as charms between lovers. Shell motifs, and decorative objects fashioned from shell and materials like Mother of Pearl offer a unique and whimsical expression of love, sure to make your sweetheart smile!

At Grays, our 80 antique and jewellery specialists have curated collections teeming with romantic pieces for Valentine's Day. And don't forget, we also have engraving services downstairs at O'Connells Engravers - who can add a touch of personalised charm to your gifts!

By Holly Kavanagh


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