Earrings in the history of fashion

Sterling silver hoops with semi-precious gemstone made by Nicole Mölders

Earrings tell something about you

In many cultures, earrings indicated tribal identity, rank, marital status and prosperty of their wearer. At one time, they may have served as amulets believed to have medical or protective powers. Independent of their original purpose, they are decorative jewelry since eons. And yes, they were worn every day. Jewelry is not just for the opera and holidays.

Antiquity

During the Bronze Age (3000 BC – 1200 BC), men wore earrings in Persia. In Greece, hoops with conical pendants were popular. In antiquity, earrings were the most popular jewelry. The earliest archaeological evidence of earrings are the crescent-shaped gold hoops worn by Sumerian women around 2500 BC. Around 1000 BC, tapered gold, silver and bronze hoop (aka boat-shaped) earrings were common in West Asia and the Aegean World. Finds made in Crete and Cyprus feature embellishments with twisted gold wire, bead clusters, and pendants.

Beaded penannular earring ca. 1991–1450 BC
Beaded penannular earring ca. 1991–1450 BC

In Egypt, earrings occurred arround 1500 BC. arious finds are hoops embelished with beads on wires. Many of them were mushroom-like shaped studs. They were put thru a relatively large hole that had to be stretched in the process. These pieces were often made of gold with decorations of colored glass or carved jasper. There also existed studs that could be worn screwed together or alone. Some pieces had cornflower or falcon pendants as well. Both men and women wore them. You can find evidence in Exodus 32:1–4 (about 1500 BC). While being already on Mount Sinai, the Israelites demanded Aaron to make a God for them from their sons’ and daughters’ earrings and jewelry.

Egyptian earring ca. 1295–1186 BC
Egyptian earring ca. 1295–1186 BC

Classical Age

It wasn’t before the Classical Age (800 BC – 600 AD) that mainly women wore these ornaments in the Middle East, in Greece and Rome. Pearls and sapphires (called hyakinthoi, i.e. hyacinths) were popular in Byzantine jewelry in the 6th century AD.

Greek earrings 6th-5th BC
Greek, Cypriot, Gold earring with lotus flower and two discs, from which hang three bud-shaped pendants. 6th–5th century BC.
5th centrury bronze and gold hoops from Greece
Greek bronze and gold hoops. 5th century BC. Dimension: 1 3/8 × 9/16 × 9/16 inch (3.5 × 1.5 × 1.5 cm)
Gold earring with pearls and sapphires, 6th–7th century, Byzantine
Gold earring with pearls and sapphires, 6th–7th century, Byzantine.

Head gear covered the ears

In the Europe of the eleventh and sixteenth centuries, fashion made them obsolete. Headdresses covered the ears. Later wearring this jewelry was impractical due to the high ruff and lace collars.

European pair of silver filigran ear jewelry 11th century
European pair of silver filigran ear jewelry 11th century

The renaissance

Like so often in fashion history, a sub-culture initiated a trend and brought the ear jewelry back. English courtiers and gentlemen started wearing earrings in the 1590s during the English Renaissance.

French earrings 18th century
French earrings 18th century
Spanish pair of earrings 18th century
Spanish pair of earrings 18th century

Subcultures and outlaws wore ear pieces for superstitious reasons. Among pirates, for instance, ear wear was believed they would to correct bad eyesight and prevent seasickness.

Trends come and go and come back again

In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, this jewelry was in and out of fashion depending on what was in or out in clothing and head gear. You can’t hang something on your earlobs when you wear a bonnet, you get the idea.

Ear piercing

While in the Old World piercing the earlobes was common especially in Catholic areas, it wasn’t before the 1950s that it became accepted in the United States. Here typically clips were common as well as pieces were screwed to the earlobe.

American earrings 1880s
American earrings 1880s

Big, bigger, … keyholder?

In the 10s of the last century, Coco Chanel brought affordable costume jewelry on the market that worked well with her modern (read more practical hats than in the 19th century). In the 1920s, the short hair became the perfect canva for chandelier like pairs. Balelite became a big thing.

In the late 60s, the straight long hair of the Hippies made huge pieces popular. Still today Bohemian Style dons chandeliers that could as well serve as a key holder.

My first pair and ear piercings

When I was six, my sister and I got our ears pierced. First, we chose our pair from the kids collection. They were all 333 (8K) gold as it was common in Germany in the late 60s. My sister picked a short coral cabouchon style, while I went for about 2 cm long hangers with one turquoise cabouchon each. Then our parents paid and we girls were accorted to a back room. There a woman cleaned our earlobes with alcohol. She heated a needle and took an ice cube from the fridge. Then she hold the ice cube behind my earlobe and pushed the needle from the other side. Thereafter, she placed my new jewelry into the whole, repeated it on the other side. She heated the same needle again and repeated the ceremony on my sister. Incredible from todays standard!

Do you have piercings? How were they made and when?

80’s earrings styles

As some of you may know, I took silver smithing classes when I was in college.
The photos below show pieces I made in class back then.

Sterling silver studs made by me
Examples of sterling silver studs made by me in the 80s

Modern day earrings

A big trend is sustainability and/or renewable resources. Wood is a light material that permits big pieces without being too heavy. Wooden earrings are often painted and cut in all kinds of shapes. There are collections like fruits, church windows, music, animals and science. In the science collection, DNA is my favorite wood earring. Another big trend in ear jewelry are pearl studs.

Recently, when cleaning out the garage, I found the box with my tools and lots of unused material. It inspired me so much that I started to make pieces again. The first pair in this post is one of them. My plan is to add a store to my blog to sell my new pieces at affordable prices.

Don’t let the right jewelry to your look be a random thing. Look up what to wear with what when and where in How to Dress for Success in Midlife. Buy my book now.

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Photo sources: Met and Getty museum open access

Photos of pieces made by me: N. Mölders

© 2013-2019 Nicole Mölders | All rights reserved

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