The design and customs associated with it originated in the Irish fishing village of Claddagh, located just outside the city of Galway. The ring was first produced in the 17th century during the reign of Queen Mary II, though elements of the design are much older.
According to Baxters Jewellers the Claddagh Ring was first made by Richard Joyce, a member of an ancient Galway family who was abducted by Algerian Corsicans while on a sea voyage and sold as a slave to the Moors. It was during this period that Joyce was taught to work as a goldsmith. In 1689 he was released as part of a general amnesty agreed by William III of England and the Moors. Joyce returned to Galway where he set up as a goldsmith. It was here on the shore or "Claddagh" of Galway Bay that the first Claddagh Ring was created.
The Claddagh ring belongs to a widespread group of finger rings called “Fede Rings”. The name "fede" comes from the Italian phrase mani in fede ("hands in trust" or "hands in faith"). These rings date from Roman times, when the gesture of clasped right hands (dextrarum iunctio) was a popular design style (vid. Jones).
Fede rings are often cast in the form of two clasped hands, symbolizing faith, trust or engagement. Fede rings were popular in the Middle Ages throughout Europe, and there are examples from this era in the National Museum of Ireland, Kildare Street, Dublin.
According to Sir William Jones, on his book Finger-ring Lore, Chatto & W
indus, 1890. the Claddugh (Jones' original spelling) was part of Claddagh's tradition; Jones says the natives of Claddugh [sic] are "particularly exclusive in their tastes and habits."
The Irish Potato Famine (1845–1849) caused many to emigrate from Ireland, and the Claddagh ring spread along with the emigrants to the United States and elsewhere. Now the design is worn worldwide. These rings are often considered antique, and passed on from mother to daughter as well as between friends and lovers.
A "Fenian" Claddagh, without the crown, was later designed in Dublin for the Irish Republican community, but that is not an indication that the crown in
the original design was intended as a symbol of fidelity to the British crown.
The Fenian Claddagh, while still in use, does not quite share the popularity of the ancient design.
In any event, it seems likely that the crown was intended to represent the ancient kings of Ireland.
W. Dillon in his publication on "The Claddagh Ring" in the Galway Archaeological Society Journal, Vol. IV, 1905-6, defines the limits over which the ring is worn as roughly from the Aran Islands on the West, and through all Connemara an
d Joyce Country to Galway, and then eastward and southward for not more than 12 miles at most. The whole district is the one served by fisherfolk of the Claddagh village just outside the city of Galway, but became known as the Claddagh ring probably because of the proximity to the city of the large Claddagh fishing community using the ring alone.
Dillon describes some early rings, one with a mitre-like crown, rings made from coins, an analogous ring from Brittany, a "Munster" ring, also Spanish rings with some similarities. He tells us that the Claddagh ring was the only ring ever made in Ireland worn by Queen Victoria and later by Queen Alexandra and King
Edward VII. Their rings were made by Dillons of Galway, established in 1750, to whom the Royal Patent was granted and the tradition has been carried on at Dillons to this day. Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco in 1962 were presented with gifts embodying the Claddagh ring motif set in Connemara marble.
In 1984 when Galway celebrated its Quincentennial as a Mayoral City, the people of Galway presented a specially commissioned 18 carat gold Claddagh ring to President Ronald Reagan.
The earliest examples of Claddagh rings that can be dated are stamped
with RI, the mark of Richard Joyce, a goldsmith working in Galway circa 1689-1737, of the Joyce Tribe, one of the renowned "Fourteen Tribes of Galway" City. According to Dr. Kurt Ticker in "The Claddagh Ring - A West of Ireland Folklore Custom" (1980) interest in Claddagh rings became dormant after Richard Joyce ended his manufacturing career in the 1730s, and it was revived a generation or more later, probably by George Robinson (Dillon in fact had attributed the earliest ring to Robinson). From then on a number of Galway goldsmiths and jewellers of Galway made Claddagh rings. Their early manufacture was by cuttle-bone mould casting, then the cire perdue or "lost wax" process up to the 1840s, when manufacture became commercialised.
Some marks on Claddagh Rings from the latter part of the 17th to the early part of the 18th century