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

Piercings and wearing earrings have a long history in humankind. The reasons why and who wore them changed as did how they were producted. By reading this post you will learn about earrings in the history of fashion and how their role in society changed over time.

Contents
  1. Earrings tell something about you
    • Antiquity
    • Classical Age
    • Head gear covered the ears
    • The renaissance
    • Trends come and go and come back again
    • Big, bigger, … keyholder?
  2. Ear piercing
    • My first pair and ear piercings
    • 1980’s earrings styles and trends
    • Modern day earrings
  3. Wrapping Up the History of Earrings
  4. Postscriptum
  5. References

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. Pirates, for instance, believed their ear wear would 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.

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. Bakelite 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.

 

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 that the wearer screwed to the earlobe.

 

American earrings 1880s
American earrings 1880s

 

The upcoming of techniques to create bakelite or even immitation of gemstones and to silver-plate wires was the beginning of costume jewelry. The Industrial Revolution allowed for mass production. Thus,  Jane Doe got access to cheap affordable  earrings to feel like a Star.

 

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 (8 K) gold as it was common in Germany in the late 1960s. 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 ascorted 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, and repeated the procedure on the other side. She heated the same needle again and repeated the ceremony on my sister. Incredible from today’s standard!

 

1980’s earrings styles and trends

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 1980s

 

Other big trends in the 1980s were holiday and college major earrings and jewlry.

Modern day earrings

A big trend is sustainable jewelry and/or jewlry from renewable resources. Wood from fallen trees or old furniture is a great material for this trend. Furthermore, wood is a light material that permits big pieces without being too heavy. This fact permits big statement pieces. Another advantage of this material is that one can cut it in all kinds of shapes. Wooden earrings are often painted.  Consequently, there are collections like fruits, church windows, music, soccer, basketball, animals, skulls and science. In the science collection, DNA is my favorite wood earring.

Another big trend in ear jewelry are pearl studs.

Gold or rose gold plated name ear jewelry are It among young women. See an example in my review post on sterling silver name earrings.

In the last decade, a never seen before variation came up called ear-jackets.  They have 3D-features on both sides of the lobe. When you wonder how you would put them on see this review post on ear jackets.

 

Wrapping Up the History of Earrings

Some styles exist since the Antique, while others came up as the tools permitted development of new techniques. Cultural, societal and access to resources as well as political and religious believes influenced the styles.

The large choice available today, makes finding the right pieces for you the hardest part.  See the guide at the link to learn which earrings work best for your look depending on your personal style, lifestyle and where you go.

 

Postscriptum

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.

 

References

Döbler, Hannsferdinand, 1972. Kultur und Sittengeschichte der Welt – Kleidung, Mode, Schmuck. Bertelsmann Verlag, München, Germany.

Mascetti, Daniela and Triossi, Amanda, 1999. Earrings: From Antiquity to the Present, Thames and Hudson, ISBN 0-500-28161-0

Young, Caroline, 2016. Style Tribes, Frances Lincoln Ltd.

Young, Caroline, 2019. Living with Coco Chanel: The homes and landscapes that shaped the designer, Frances Lincoln Ltd.
Photo sources: Met and Getty museum open access

Photos of pieces made by me: N. Mölders

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