To look at the history of Connemara Marble I think it is important to firstly look at the evolution of how marble became such a sought-after material & a symbol of greatness.
The use of marble for decorative purposes is an age old tradition and dates back over two millenniums ago where the Greek and Romans choose marble for their grand temples & buildings as symbol of their progress & imperialism Aside from statues and buildings, coloured marble was used to create beautiful tile flooring & Ornate objects such as sculptures. The colour of marble varies due to different minerals that are present in the stone. As the Roman Empire grew in size coloured marble was imported from various parts of the empire and was adorned in luscious villas in the form of flooring and Sculptures of the Wealthy Roman ruling class & Public Places such a place of worship like the Pantheon in Rome; A magnificent example of Roman Architecture. The word marble is derived from the Greek word “marmaros” meaning shining stone.
In Geological terms Marble is a rock resulting from metamorphism of sedimentary carbonate rocks, most commonly limestone or dolomite rock. Metamorphism causes variable recrystallization of the original carbonate mineral grains. The resulting marble rock is typically composed of an interlocking mosaic of carbonate crystals. In Layman’s terms Metamorphism occurs when limestone is heated under pressure and changes over a period of time. Connemara marble was formed from sediment deposited in a shallow primal sea called the Iapetus Ocean a predecessor to the Atlantic ocean over 600 million years ago. These sediments were transformed by natures forces generated in the formation of the mountains of the West of Ireland and Scotland over 390 million years ago! The Marble occurs in what is known as the Appian group which is a sub group of the Dalradian Supergroup.
Connemara marble contains a diverse range of colour within its fine granular structure as it contains so many different minerals within it including Serpentine green (most suitable for Jewellery) Epidote (much subtler shades of green) Calcite ranging from a Carrera White to misty Grey mica phlogopite (Bronze) and dots of pyrite known fool’s gold. The beautiful green marble is found in the region of Connemara in North Galway. The word Connemara comes from Connemaicne Mara the Gaelic word meaning “inlets of the Sea” The Region of Connemara itself has a particular rugged beauty to it and ironically in contrast to the lush green habitats found elsewhere in Ireland, the landscape tends to quiet baron in nature due to its vast acres of bogland and complex series of lakes. It makes for poor farming land only suited to sheep so the discovery of the Marble in region nearly 200 years ago was a welcome industry to its people as it was a significant source of employment. Cromwell an English conquer in the 1600s once said go to hell or to Connaught as the land was so bad it was not easy to live off. It is said that Marble was first quarried in the 1820s in Streams town just outside Clifden.
A quarry owned by a local Landlord named John Darcy. Given the nature of the poor land he owned finding a rare marble was a welcome surprise. A purpose-built quay was erected in Clifden and first shipment was bound to Liverpool.
Initially Connemara Marble was adorned in table tops grand fire places & public buildings across the world notably Westminster Abbey, The senate Chamber in Washington and in many Church and cathedrals across Ireland including Galway Cathedral. One fine example stands out to me this being a church build at Kylemore Abbey built by the original owner Mitchell Henry who built a chapel with Cathedral feel to it with beautiful Marble Romanesque pillars combining this with other marble from different provinces such as Cork Marble and Kilkenny Marble making a beautiful contrast of colours (some of which you can see in our jewellery)
In the Victorian era of the British Empire in the 1850s leisure travel became more popular and together with the development of railways across Ireland made remote places like Clifton and other towns in the west of Ireland quite accessible. This created the demand for souvenirs and jewellery as tourists wanted a memento of their trip. This came in the form of various ornaments mounted on marble and Jewellery items such as Traditional brooches, Crosses & Rings In 1849 Queen Victoria was presented with a Traditional Irish Brooch and also wore a Claddagh ring –The traditional Irish Ring representing Friendship and Loyalty with two hands clasping a heart and a crown this was a huge endorsement of Irish jewellery by an English Head of state.
Over the course of the next century there was over three quarries along with several areas where marble was present by the lakeshore such as Lough Inagh were in operation producing various block of marble with a huge variety of colour and depth for various purposes. In this period thousands of local people were employed in the industry with one quarry employing up to 200 people at one time. During the 1960s an increasing demand for Connemara Marble Jewellery came from increasing number of tourists that came to visit Ireland these were produced by several large companies some of which are still in existence today and have made a huge contribution in turning Connemara Marble into an Iconic brand worldwide. Souvenirs range from Animal carvings & sculptures to Kitchenware such as Cheese boards napkin holders Tealight candle holders many of which over the years have found many Americans have brought home with them as mementos of their great trip back to their roots what better than to bring a real piece of Ireland home with you.
Given the amount of material that has been extracted over the last two centuries from various locations Connemara marble is becoming more rare and sought after material. No two pieces of Connemara Marble are the same. The process of cutting marble into blocks is a complex process and then extracting the jewellery grade material. Unsuitable material that can only be used for other objects such as coasters or Worry stones can be as high as 90% making the material used in Jewellery very rare indeed. A Large block is placed in a Frame saw which is multi bladed Cross saw Producing thinner slabs this then is assessed in terms of colour and quality and age old skilled craftsmanship in still used which originated from Greek and Roman times to achieve the complex geometry required to produce stones of beauty and symmetry once the stone is cut into thin rectangle slabs which are put into a stone cutting machine that is pre-set to create various sizes of beads and cabochons. The last part of the process and the most important Finish. The stone is held against an abrasive wheel to eliminate marks and as the fineness increase the surface becomes increasingly smooth. The sheen of Connemara Marble allows the stone to act as a mirror drawing in light and reflecting the deep shades of Green within the stone.
This part of the process is undertaken by local craftsman that we are partnered with and then the final stage of the process is grading and setting/beading the gemstone beads and cabochons in our variety of Jewellery pieces from beadwork Bracelets to striking pendant inlaid with Marble.
My journey with Connemara marble started with purchasing a few strands of beads and cabochons from Local craftsmen for customers that I met at my weekly market stalls beside the infamous Bunratty Castle and renowned Milk Market with over 150 years of history of Market trading. There was extensive demand and knowledge of our national gems from the overseas tourist I met & also a real desire from the visitor for something that was a bit different and was made by a local craftsman. Over a period of five years I went about designing a unique range incorporating these beautiful Connemara marble beads & cabochons with my vast range of Bohemian Czech glass beads and array of assorted gemstones and Antique silver Celtic beads. Being a bead & cabochon collector, I had a huge collection to choose from vintage Swarovski to Faceted Amethyst beads. My aim was to create a range that utilized Connemara Marble in Modern & Contemporary Jewellery design observing current trends in fashion to appeal to a wider audience.
The extent of colours that naturally compliment the Green serpentine of Connemara marble beads is amazing and joy to behold. I now acquire our marble beads & cabochons in large quantities’ and one of my favourite parts of the process is grading our jewellery beads and carefully selecting the best suited material for a certain design. Choosing the right shades of green marble beads to create a multi coloured bracelet is essential to achieving the right colour contrast. Another crucial part of the design phase was incorporating Irish symbols in our designs primarily through antique silver plated beads engraved with symbols such as the Celtic knot representing the timeless nature of the human spirit; The claddagh representing Love Loyalty and Friendship; The shamrock A symbol of Irish Luck; The Trinity knot symbolizing the holy trinity; the father, son and the holy ghost. The Celtic Cross combines the Sun Wheel; symbol of the eternal cycle of life, death and the rebirth with the traditional Christian Cross symbol of the risen Christ. The Irish Harp one of the oldest symbols of Irish Nationalism no one knows exactly why the Harp was used but It can be found on official government seals & coins for centuries. The St Brigid’s Cross is traditionally woven from wreaths one to commemorate St Brigid a patron saint of Ireland some say she was A pagan Priestess. I will cover more about Irish symbols in our next post. The possibilities of shapes and sizes of Marble beads & cabochons are endless and discovering the optimal size of beads to use has been a learning process. Generally, our darker serpentine marble sells the best but sometimes a bracelet designed with a contrast of paler greens works really well. Once you have a passion for design you will experiment with everything and eventually find what works best! Part of the enjoyment of my work is the journey of exploration of Jewellery design as it is a constantly evolving process. I am fortunate to live in beautiful rural village nestled beside Bunratty Castle where the colours of nature are all around me my father being an avid gardener has been combining colours for years in our beautiful wild flower garden which has covers over an Irish acre which been a source of inspiration for many of my designs. We have experienced rapid growth in the past few years and I have transformed my business from a humble beginnings at a Market stall to creating a well-known brand both in Ireland And USA through supplying various Craft & Gift Stores My work can now be found in over 150 Craft shops and Heritage sites across Ireland including Kylemore Abbey, Bunratty Castle the iconic Blarney woollen mills and many more. My full range is available to purchase directly here on www.galantajewellery.com Please check the website for new products that are added each week.