A Brief History of Earrings

Though we cannot pinpoint the exact point in history when earrings became a popular ear embellishment, it is widely believed that the first ear decorations were worn as a talisman for good luck or to ward off evil spirts.

So where did our love affair with the earring begin?

The earliest example of female decorative ear wear that have been unearthed archaeologically date back to 2500 BC. The Sumerian women of southern Mesopotamia (now southern Iraq) decorated their ears with crescent shaped gold hoops. It is a testament to the simple beauty of a curved hoop that the shape is still as popular today as it was an age ago.


Earrings: Ancient Origins

Ear embellishments were by no means limited to just female ears. The archaeological discovery in 1991 of the well-preserved frozen corpse of Otzi ‘The Iceman’ in the Alps was revealing in many ways. Archaeologists believe The Iceman died almost 5000 years ago, making him the oldest human corpse ever discovered.

One of the most interesting discoveries on this amazingly well-preserved find was the large ear piercings that were discovered on his corpse that indicated he wore heavy objects in his ears. With holes in his lobes that stretched to 10mm it’s clear he wore some form of heavy hoop and suffered the dreaded stretched lobe that is the bane of many women’s lives to this day.

It is assumed by historians that Otzi the Iceman wore ear embellishments for superstition and protection against evil spirts and this was also true of many of the ancient cultures that embraced the use of decorations in the ears.

In the age of the ancient Egyptians ear piercing were also prevalent. The most well-known bust of Nefertiti, the wife of Akhenaten, has pronounced pierced earlobes.

Indeed the death mask discovered in the tomb of Tutankhamun and the many statues, sarcophagi and paintings of the pharaoh all depict well-defined pierced ear lobes.

Egyptian women in particular but also men and children decorated their ears with rings, discs or pendants of various materials.

The Egyptians also believed in the wearing of ear ornaments as protection against demons. Even Egyptian cats – considered the most sacred animal – wore gold hoop earrings in their ears.

The wearing of ear decorations was by no means exclusive to the Egyptians. In Ancient Rome (around 45 BC) earrings were popular with both men and women.

The revered Emperor Julius Cesar influenced the trend by occasionally wearing a single hoop, elevating the earring to a status symbol and not just as a talisman of protection.


Jewellery and the Bible

References to jewellery can also be found in that most revered of tomes, the holy bible.

For example in Exodus 32:2-4 Aaron commanded his followers “take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me”. After which he set about carving a golden calf from the precious metals. While we do not know for sure if the exodus took place, scholars date the writing to the period between 538 and 332 B.C.

Other references to jewellery that can be found in the bible are more combative. In Peter 3:3-4 we are advised “do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear—but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious.”

This ambivalence towards jewellery, piercings, earrings and external ‘adornings’ continued through much of history. In fact, in the 13th century the Catholic church banned ear piercings altogether as they were an alteration to the what the Catholic church considered the ‘sacred body’ that should not be altered with piercings and tattoos of any kind. Piercings were also considered immoral for their general association with pirates and thieves.


Pirates and The Decadent Hoop

While pirates were generally castigated by the religious in terms of what jewellery they wore they actually used the earring for many different reasons.

Some believed it would improve their eye-sight, others that it would pay for their funeral should their body wash ashore after being lost at sea. Many pirates believed that precious metals held magical healing powers as well as the ability to repel evil spirts and the wearing of ear decorations grew from these superstitions.

Most seamen sported earrings as a mark of their travels as earrings were given to young sailors to commemorate their first crossing of the equator or when they first rounded the treacherous waters of Cape Horn.

Their choice of ear decoration also lent a touch of decadence to the humble earring, hence the disapproval from the Catholic Church who, for a period, banished any form of ear wear.

The mysticism surrounding the humble earing can be found in superstitions and beliefs through the ages though the popularity of earrings has ebbed and waned through history.


The Elizabethan love of jewellery

When earrings and ear decorations are embraced in a society they are generally done so with gusto.

Take the Elizabethans for whom ear piercings and the wearing of earrings were seen as a sign of nobility and not just among women.

For example William Shakespeare and Sir Francis Drake were often painted wearing ear hoops of varying sizes.

On the whole Elizabethan jewellery was elaborate, extravagant and the preserve of upper class men and women.

Cameo carvings were popular, as were semi-precious stones carved with women, ships and animals. Popular gemstones in Elizabethan jewellery included the diamond, ruby, emerald, topaz and sapphire.

The pearl was particularly celebrated in Elizabethan society and was worn as multiple strands or sewn in clothing and worn as a decoration in the hair.

Often the goldwork holding the gemstones in Elizabethan designs was decorated with coloured glass enamel and was more elaborate than the stones themselves.


The Victorians and the vulgar earring

After the liberalism of the Elizabethan age the Victorians were positively puritanical in their view of jewellery and earrings in particular.

The Victorians in 19th century England considered pierced ears vulgar, ungodly and strictly the preserve of the lower classes.

Additionally, the Victorian fashion of large collars, elaborate wigs and high necklines did not naturally lend itself to elaborate displays of jewellery in the ears.

Much like the Elizabethans, the Victorians loved to wear pearls, though their preference was more influenced by the pearl being considered the eternal symbol of purity and innocence.

Victorians also favoured ornate pieces of jewellery with intricate filigree work, decorated with semi-precious stones like garnet and diamonds. The favoured pieces of jewellery of the Victorians were statement necklaces and elaborate brooches, all worn on the clothing and not next to the skin.

Over time the vulgarity of the pierced ear gave way to the gradual acceptance of clip-on earrings in more refined society and by the end of the 19th century earrings began a resurgence as fashions and hairstyles changed.

Gone were the elaborate bonnets, capes and powdered wigs of the Victorians to be replace with elegant chignons, simple collars and ponytails that allowed for more emphasis on the ears as the earlobes could finally be seen and admired.


The Fabulous 50s

It is difficult to date earring trends through the ages as styles go in and out of fashion at dizzying speed.

For example, by the 1950s jewellery had evolved into large statement pieces, very reminiscent of the Edwardians but on a much smaller budget. Think long strands of over-sized faux pearls, statement brooches and chunky gold tone bracelets and wide circle earrings.

Whereas in the past large jewellery came with a hefty price tag, in the 1950s statement jewellery in precious metals gave way to faux stones set in more economical base metals such as copper and brass.

Jewellery constructed from ‘new’ materials like Lucite and Bakelite were also coming into fashion, driven by the trend for over-sized but affordable statement jewellery.

Faux diamonds were also the order of the day as women’s spending power increased with their incomes. Evening jewellery in base metals with over-sized faux diamonds, glass beads and pearls was the staple in the wardrobe of the modern 1950s woman.


The Indomitable Hoop

As the coiffed, hyper-styled hairdos of the 1950s gave way to the looser, more free-flowing longer hairstyles of the 1960s the earring trend moved away from over-sized discs and faux stones to a style that would have an impact even through long hair.

While the hoop earring is a trend in itself, it was most associated with Latina women and minority cultures long before it’s emergence in the 1960s and 1970s as a fashion accessory.

Worn as a celebration of ancestry through the ages the hoop made the jump to fast fashion after the 1970s.

While earring trends have changed dramatically over the ages, from its roots in Mesopotamia to the present day the humble hoop has never lost its universal appeal.

Of course now there is more choice than ever and not just in the metal or desing of circle but also how the hoop closes. You can choose a twisted, polished, rope, patterned, creole, huggie with a French lock, snap fastening, spring closure or wire loop – whatever you choose, the appeal of the simple circle has endured.



Earrings in the modern age

Ear piercing in the modern age is very much a ritual to signify coming of age. There has always been something individualistic, rebellious and downright ‘grown up’ about having pierced ears.

Who doesn’t remember the excitement of getting their first piercing! The Victorians had a point, there is a thrill and emotion attached to getting a pierced ear.

The movie Grease epitomised this association of the piercing as something edgy and rebellious when good girl Sandy was tempted by the ‘bad girls’ to get her ears pierced as a rite of passage to be accepted.

Earrings have always gone through stages of unpopularity followed by periods of acceptance, and this is true from the Middle Ages all the way to Renaissance and the 18th and 19th centuries. Sometimes kings and queens have worn them to display status and wealth and at other times earrings were only worn by members of the lower class, ‘undesirables’ and slaves.

The simple fact is that throughout the ages earrings have represented more than their physical form and that is still true for the styles favoured today.


Curating the modern ear

The trend for multiple ear piercings has been gathering steam over the past few years and it’s now not uncommon to see A-list stars on the red carpet with multiple ear piercings and a dazzling array of ear embellishments worn almost as ear armour.

Asymmetric triple piercings and cartilage piercings have become popular though they are still not nearly as common as the standard lobe piercing.

Whether you choose a triple lobe piercing or a pierced helix, conch, tragus, daith or rook it's a fact that there are more options now than ever before for decorating the ear.

While style bibles try to dictate how we should layer this new trend there are no hard and fast rules.

Celebrate the hoops in your collection by teaming a simple small hoop in the tragus with a large over-sized hoop in the lobe for a contrast of size and symmetry of shape.

If the pain factor of multiple piercings make you flinch there are now illusion designs that give the impression of multiple piercings but without the pain.

Additionally, simple climbers with a built-in c-clasp allow for more parts of the ear to be decorated without the need for additional piercings and more importantly the look is totally pain-free.

While the trend for multiple piercings is to keep to multiple small hoops and studs there are really no limits on the combinations of the designs you can wear.

The right look is always one that is comfortable for you and that resonates with your own personal style.

If you decide to go the route of multiple piercings consider how you can incorporate a treasured hoop or long threader from your existing jewellery collection with the new style.

By all means embrace the new but also celebrate the vintage and switch up the combinations to breathe new life into your jewellery treasures.