A Brief Guide To: Earring History
Studs, plugs and chandeliers have all pierced their way into the heads of women and men since ancient times. Here, Lily in the Labyrinth takes a rummage through history’s jewellery box to share with you some of the wonders of the earring world...
Earrings have been around for over 5,300 years, rising and falling in the fashion stakes over the centuries as humans evolved and styles changed. Even the oldest mummified body ever found was discovered sporting a nice pair of studs, what further endorsement does this timeless piece of jewellery need? In fact, earrings haven’t always been used to make a fashion statement - Ötzi the Iceman wasn’t sporting studs to highlight his swan-like neck, but rather as a tribal statement. The tribal employment of earrings has been a constant throughout history, with Bronze Age remains found buried with earrings believed by the wearers to act as a protective talisman. Tribal earring use even continues today in some cultures.
The origin of the earring is said to come from Asian culture – in particular, India – where paintings dating back several thousand years depict figures decorated with gold hoop earrings. Archaeological finds from Persepolis in ancient Persia (Iran) revealed carved images of soldiers, many wearing earrings. In fact, perhaps surprisingly there have been plenty of times in history where earrings have been more commonly associated with male wearers.
Among sailors, a pierced earlobe is said to have symbolised that the wearer had sailed the world or crossed the equator on his travels. Sailors are also believed to have worn a gold earring intended to act as payment for a “proper burial” should said sailor have drowned at sea and his body been washed ashore.
The earring has long associations with showing the wearer’s status or wealth. Indeed, when Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered, several pairs of elaborate earrings were found buried with the Ancient Egyptian pharaoh for use in the afterlife. Yet paintings from tomb walls also showed everyone from gods and royalty to musicians and dancers adorned with earrings of all shapes and sizes – even the poorest people are believed to have crafted jewellery from pottery to copy the fashions of their pharaohs (sounds strangely familiar).
In ancient Rome earrings seem to have been primarily favoured by women. As women of wealth competed in the style stakes by decorating themselves with ornate jewellery, it is from this period that some of the first earrings embedded with gemstones and jewels can be found.
In Medieval Europe, earrings temporarily fell from favour as high collars and ear-covering hair styles became the fashion – making expensive earrings rather redundant. However in Elizabethan times earrings made a comeback – on both men and women. Women’s ears were often adorned with pearls and jewels hanging down from the ear lobe, whilst dashing men such as Shakespeare and Sir Francis Drake sported simple gold studs or hoops.
As styles continued to evolve, the evolution of the humble earring took a backwards step as high collars returned along with elaborate hats and hairstyles in the Victorian age. Evening social occasions did however keep the dangling earring alive, with Queen Victoria herself often spotted flashing a nice pair of danglers.
Soon glass and other more readily available and, more importantly, affordable materials came into play, making earrings available to the masses. Some women however did fear that having their ears pierced was unsanitary, and so in the 1930s clip-on earrings – for the faint hearted lady - were introduced.
In modern times earrings and piercings have become readily-available tools of expression for everyone from the dustman to the Duchess of Cambridge and have been represented by safety pins, ear-cuffs linked to multiple piercings, mass-produced copies of Ancient Egyptian originals and all sorts.
I suppose what all this goes to show is that the humble earring hasn’t changed much throughout centuries’ worth of history. As an item of jewellery it is still popular with both sexes; still used as a key piece of tribal symbolism (see African tribes etc); and still used as part of traditional dress (think Indian wedding wear and the like). But what has changed is the culture surrounding us earring wearers. We are now exposed to the mass produced in a way that no other generation before us ever witnessed. Now – just like the ancient Egyptians but without the crude, DIY aspect - anyone can own an almost exact copy of the earrings seen on the rich and famous. Yes, the gold and gemstones may be replaced by metal and coloured glass, but for a simple fun fashion accessory, we aren’t complaining.
From fine jewellery to highstreet highlights, these days, we can have it all ... stuck in our ears.