LOVERS HAVE given each other wooden love tokens since ancient times. In Wales these were often in the form of wooden cawl (soup) spoons. Young men in rural areas carved them to give to women as a prelude to courtship: they were illiterate, so the spoons were their love letters. The designs were often copied from the pewter and silver spoons used by the gentry. When a woman accepted a lovespoon, she would hang it over the mantelpiece for all to see.

During the 17th century, Welsh lovespoons became more elaborate, incorporating initials, dates and symbols. The handle was developed at the expense of the bowl to make more room for the carver to show off his skills and demonstrate the depth of his desire. Some spoons had two bowls, meaning "we two are one". Common symbols included a heart representing love; a wheel promising "I will work for you"; a key for "my house is yours"; or an anchor meaning "I want to stay". Celtic designs, with their unbroken, stylised lines carved in relief representing eternal love, or souls entwined for eternity, appear frequently.

These antique lovespoons are rarely sold on the open market, but sometimes can be found at auction. Mark Stephen of Sotheby's says about 30 to 40 spoons a year come up for auction across the country, and cost from pounds 400 to pounds 3,000.

Alternatively, you can buy one-off, hand-crafted contemporary spoons. Lovespoon making is undergoing something of a revival, with makers like Arthur Llewellin Thomas, and Peter and Lynnette Coupland, designing and carving spoons to commission (from pounds 40 to pounds 600).

Arthur Thomas started making lovespoons in his Cardiff workshop 25 years ago, after visitors from Australia said they would like an individually designed spoon. He uses traditional timbers, mainly sycamore and fruit woods. One of Mr Thomas's favourite commissions is an anniversary spoon, which took two weeks to make from one piece of pale lime wood: "It has six chain links representing 60 years, two balls in a cage for the happy couple wrapped or trapped in love, and a wild rose on the front. My little joke was to put a thorn in the side."

When you buy a handmade lovespoon, make sure it is the genuine article by looking at the shape. It should be curved in profile like a metal spoon and is usually carved on the back. Batch-produced souvenir lovespoons are flat-backed to enable machines to cut them out before they are finished by hand. Castle Crafts in Cardiff and the Lovespoon Gallery in Mumbles sell these spoons (starting at pounds 3) as well as commissioned spoons.

Visit the Museum of Welsh Life in St Fagan's, just outside Cardiff, if you want to check out one of the best collections of antique lovespoons. It includes the oldest known lovespoon, which is dated 1667. No bigger than a modern dessert spoon, it has a hollowed-out handle with six free- floating carved wooden balls and has developed a rich mellow patina through 300 years of handling.

In Welsh folklore, the balls symbolise the number of children the suitor hopes for. So if you receive a copy of this spoon on Valentine's Day (pounds 120, from the museum shop), you know where his spooning might end.

Jilly Allenby

Castle Welsh Crafts, Cardiff (01222 343 038); The Lovespoon Gallery, Mumbles (01792 360132); Museum of Welsh Life (01222 573 500). Antique spoons: Sotheby's (01403 833 500); Avon Antiques, Bradford on Avon (01225 862052). Spoon makers: Arthur Llewellin Thomas, Cardiff (01222 341 706); Peter and Lynnette Coupland, Bridgend (01656 659 264)

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