The regalia worn by those proud of their Celtic heritage – the type often worn at Highland games and Scottish or Irish festivals – incorporate many widely known and instantly recognizable pieces. These include – but aren’t limited to – the tartan kilt, the sash, the Balmoral bonnet, and the fur sporran.
Other parts of the apparel are perhaps less noticeable from afar but are no less important to the history and the tradition heralded by this formal dress. They quite literally bring the outfit together.
Sterling silver jewelry like the kilt pin isn’t worn only to keep a kilt from flapping in the breeze; each one is unique to its clan and often reflects the position of the wearer. It takes a skilled artisan to craft with that level of specificity.
Don Kimble is one such artisan. Currently residing in St. Marys, Georgia, Kimble has been making kilt pins since he opened his first shop in Atlanta back in the 1970s.
“That was my first little business I started,” Kimble shares with Celtic Life International via Zoom. “A gentleman named George Carr came to me; he had the nice kilt, he had the sporran, the sgian-dubh, he had the Balmoral. And he says, ‘Look, man, all I got to wear on my cap is this crappy pop metal badge.’ He wanted something nice, something made from solid sterling silver.
“We made our first badge for George, and he started wearing it around and taking it to the games. Before I know it, he had people coming to me wanting a badge like his. We actually formed a little business, Carr & Kimble LMT.”
As the proprietor of celticbadges.com, Kimble is still making custom kilt pins today. In fact, he is practically a one-man foundry, making each and every badge himself.
“I don’t have a way to mass produce these things. They are made with what is called lost wax casting. That’s where you make a model in wax, surround it in a cylinder with plaster, put it in the kiln, and melt out the wax. There is a cavity inside there that you sling molten silver into, using a centrifuge. There are more modern ways to do it, but that’s basically what it comes down to.
“I understand there may be as many as 400 clans,” Kimble expounds. “We have done about 200 in the past 40 years that I have been doing this, and I still add new clans all the time when somebody brings it to me.”
Most of these kilt pins share a similar design template with an outer circlet crafted to resemble a strap and buckle and the tongue of the belt hanging from the bottom. A clan motto is etched into the strap, and a unique crest design is set in the middle of the circle.
Kimble also has kilt pins for those who might be part of unrecognized clans.
“Many people come to me with their own personal crests, which is a different thing altogether…there are standard crests for the clans that are sometimes accepted, and then you’ve got people coming with their own personal crests that they have applied to the Lord Lyon in Scotland to have as a registered crest.
“I am always making crests; mostly for guys that are armigers or chiefs or chieftains. We do a little different format for them instead of the strap and buckle. It’s a plain circlet, and we would add one, two, or three feathers to it, make it an armiger, a chief, or a chieftain. They would put their personal crest in the middle, and then their motto, similar to what we do with the others.”
Mark McAplin is one of Kimble’s customers and hails from one such armigerous clan, the MacAlpines.
“The name McAlpin (MacAlpine) has been around since the dawn of Scotland,” writes McAlpin from his home in Alpharetta, Georgia. “There is a saying: ‘Hills, streams, and MacAlpines,’ basically implying that the family was around since dirt.”
McAlpin is the vice president of the House of MacAlpine Society and has been working to get a chief recognized by the Lord Lyon. Part of that journey included working with Kimble to design a crest for the clan.
“I have purchased a custom kilt pin and a custom brooch for a fly plate from Don. Now, when I say custom, it is truly custom. I can’t go online and buy a McAlpine\MacAlpine cap badge, kilt pin, or anything that is actually legitimate because nothing really exists. Mass production pieces get sold as such, but because our Clan currently has no chief, none of them are legitimate. Thus, the need for working with someone like Don, where I can interact and show him my coat of arms and talk about where we are headed as a clan.”
Kimble comes from mostly an English background, and admits that, at first, he was unaware of the many occasions when these kilt pins and cap badges were worn.
“It took me a while to figure out what exactly people were doing with them,” he chuckles. “They would wear it to occasions where they dress in Scottish attire, and at any number of Scottish affairs, Scottish games, Scottish ceremonies, and dinners. I have had many people ask for them to be made for weddings, for their best men at weddings, that sort of thing.”
Celtic wedding designs are Steven Forsythe’s bread and butter, having launched celtic-weddingrings.com 21 years ago.
“Originally, I wasn’t that interested in jewelry,” Forsythe tells Celtic Life International via Zoom from his home in Dublin. “It never really crossed my mind. But I was into Celtic history and Celtic mythology, which I studied quite intensely. In 2002, I was looking to set up my own business and I saw a niche market for Celtic jewelry. Obviously, jewelry was very big in the States – even back in 2002 – but there were very few websites specializing in Celtic jewelry and doing it well. So, I set up my own company.”
Forsythe isn’t a ring-smith himself, but instead curates designs from the best hand-made designers across Ireland and acts as a portal for those seeking Celtic-themed wedding bands. He explains that many of the classic Celtic jewelry designs come with a story attached to them and he gets to put his interest in Celtic mythology to good use. After all, the legends behind the lavaliere are the draw for most customers.
“I think one of our most popular things at the moment is – because we specialize in wedding rings and wedding bands – the Celtic Warrior Range and the Celtic Shield range. They are made by two different manufacturers, but the style is the same, and the are based on the designs of the Ardagh Chalice. The Celtic designs and the knot work on it were used to inspire all these ranges of wedding bands which have become hugely popular.”
Forsythe’s styles reflect several cherished Celtic myths and folklore; the Celtic Cross, the Trinity Knot, and the Claddagh wedding ring are just a few of his more popular items.
“The Claddagh was designed by this jeweller who happened to be a slave who escaped and came back to find the love of his life. The hands represent friendship, the heart represents love, and the crown denotes loyalty – which makes the perfect promise ring, right? I suppose that the Claddagh became popular as people could attach their own meaning to it.”
While the designs and the legends they represent can run back centuries or even millennia, the techniques used to etch them into metal have certainly changed with the times. Kimble’s methods have evolved a lot since he started smithing himself – all to create a better product and end-user experience.
“When you cast that outer part, the strap and buckle are common to all the clans, so we decided early on that we were going to engrave the motto onto the strap and buckle. That was the part that I had the biggest problem with. There was no way to cast that and get a high-quality surface that could be polished. With casting, there is always a little bit of porosity. There is a lot of sanding. It doesn’t come out ready and it is a lot of work. It was crazy because the cost of a badge would have been astronomical if you got it to the point where we really had a shiny surface.
“We decided that what we needed was to have this outer strap and buckle struck from a solid sheet of sterling. That way, we have a pristine piece that was ready to polish, and we would bypass all these problems. We went to the expense of having a die cut by a special die company up in Massachusetts, and then we started having the outer part struck.
“There was still some casting involved, and we still had molds that we could cast all the crests from. We’re still doing lost wax casting, but it’s a lot easier to manage because just casting the centre part, which didn’t matter so much; you could still have some highly polished finish on the crest. But it wasn’t as important as having a glossy, shiny, sparkly finish on the strap and buckle.”
This process isn’t necessarily easier, Kimble adds; instead of a one-and-done casting, each pin badge is made in different stages and soldered together at the end. But he feels that it is worth the extra effort.
“It wasn’t so much the efficiency of it, as it was the quality of the final product.”
His clientele agrees – many of them aren’t commissioning a piece only to be worn a handful of times, but rather something that can be handed down for generations.
“The pieces that Don crafts are heirloom pieces, that I will either will to my family or be buried with,” says McAlpin. “If you want a true heirloom piece and a work of art, then you want a traditionally made piece.”
Other advancements in technology have changed the face of the Celtic jewelry business. Forsythe and Kimble both owe their reach to the advent of the Internet. In fact, aside from McAlpin and a few others, Kimble has few local or area clients.
“It is pretty much all over the world now. I would say predominantly Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, and across the USA. I could probably count on one hand the number I have sold in Georgia.”
Kimble sells his designs on his own website, as well as via crafts portals like Etsy – which, he admits, is not without its pitfalls.
“I have 180 listings on Etsy. They only charge a little bit, like 20 cents per listing. Then they get a piece of the action when you sell the badge. I sell a badge for $170 and, I might get a check for $80 by the time they have deducted this, that, and the other thing. And then it cost me almost $50 to have the damn thing stamped in sterling material. Sometimes I think it is a miracle that I make any money at it.”
None of this has been existentially disruptive to the Celtic jewelry market, but Forsythe sees a few advances on the horizon that threaten to be.
“The actual handcraft element of it seems to be slowly fading away,” he laments. “A lot of these new manufacturers are using large laser cutting machinery and so on to do the intricate designs, and then they will only do the finer detailing at the end by hand. And 3D printing will have a big part to play – anything that can automate and speed up the process. Right now, if you were to order a Celtic wedding ring from me, between the handcrafting process, the hallmarking process, and the shipping process, you are looking at three weeks for a turnaround time.
“These days, many clients want you to be a brick-and-mortar shop and to have the product in stock as they are looking for a quick turnaround. We get emails from customers saying, ‘I’m getting married next week.’ I think to myself, ‘You’re buying your wedding rings now’? To that end, I think that AI and 3D printing will be used much more, especially by the larger manufacturers.”
Whether or not such a shift would mean the end of traditional, hand-crafted Celtic jewelry is in the hands of the client, Forsythe believes.
“A little part of me would prefer if that didn’t happen. I like the idea that it takes time. These are artisans, and they do really great work. You should celebrate the artist as much as the piece. I know that several of the manufacturing companies have downsized in staff, but upscaled in production, and that is due to technology. If it continues on that trajectory, I would be concerned. As soon as you lose that human touch, people will notice. That is where it could fall, especially with jewelry.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’ll upgrade the website with the latest technologies and so on. Anything that improves the experience. But when it comes to the quality of the product, I don’t think that needs to be tampered with in any way, shape, or form, not even to speed up deadlines. It is okay to wait three weeks and plan when you are ordering a wedding band for a lifetime or several.
“You want to know that someone has taken the time and care to create this piece. It has more meaning.”
“Technology has its place, for sure” continues McAlpin, “and design is one of those places. I have not met Don in person yet, but technology has allowed us to correspond and share design ideas. And as design tools are so much more advanced now, a good design can speed up and aid in what would still be a handcrafted piece.”
However, he stresses, automation and quick turnaround are no replacement for the quality that the product demands.
“As long as the quality remains high, having a machine capable of stamping out 100 of something – with designs that needn’t be changed or tweaked in any way so that they can be available to the masses – is not a bad thing.”
As far as Kimble’s concerned, these sorts of questions don’t haunt him.
“I’m pretty sure that when I am dead and gone this line will be gone. I do not have anybody working for me. I do not have any relatives that are interested in taking over the business. I’m 72 now. I might hopefully have another good 10 years. As far as getting into new technology, I’m probably not going to be delving into anything high-tech anytime soon. I’m not in any big hurry to run out and buy new equipment when what I have has been working well for the last 50 years.
“You do it for the love of the work,” he adds. “If I can cover all my costs, make some people happy, and maybe make a few bucks to pay for my golf, then I am a happy man.”