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A Brief History of Earrings

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A Brief History of Earrings

Diamond Industry

A Brief History of Earrings

August 27, 2015 BY Alon Ben-Shoshan IN Style Guide

It’s weird that human beings shove precious metals and gems into their ears. I’m not suggesting that it isn’t beautiful and interesting, but it’s weird. Really, who came up with that?

ancient egyptian earrings

Someone wanted these in their ears.

Pet Theories

Maybe the people who invented earrings were like the pre-history version of the writers’ room at WB headquarters – the ones who came up with the 1996 classic, Space Jam. A small but dedicated group of individuals, they combined previously unrelated concepts like “Post-Basketball Michael Jordon,” “Looney Tunes,” “Bill Murray Cameo,” and “Vaguely Jewish Aliens” into one narrative. 

In my fantasy, earrings were invented by a similar group of daring individuals who made unforeseen connections. Maybe some artistic caveman carved fish bones into elaborate designs for jewelry. Maybe his cave girlfriend said, “ya know what? I’m going to pin this directly into my earlobe as a way to enhance my beauty.” Jewelry + Ear = Attractiveness. When you stop to think, it’s truly groundbreaking.

Actual Facts

Sadly, there are no recorded or even theoretical stories about the first earrings. What we do know is that earrings and the practice of piercing are both incredibly ancient. Like biblical ancient. In the exodus story, Aaron commands the Israelites to “take off the gold earrings that your wives, sons and daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” He then fashions them into a golden calf.

golden calf

“Aaron, I left you in charge for like two minutes.”

While it is unclear when or even if the exodus took place, scholars trace the writing of the story to the post-exile period (538 – 332 BCE), though earlier versions can be found in the writings of 8th century prophets. The bottom line is that earrings are old, old, old.

They were also worn primarily by men, which isn’t surprising when you consider that men were the holders of wealth for most of history. Archeological evidence in the form of wall carvings suggests that Persian men wore earrings in the city of Persepolis, which was the capital of the Achaemenid Empire (550 – 330 BCE).

persian earrings

Sold silver earrings with Ibex from Ancient Persia.

The Ancient Egyptians also wore earrings. The British Museum has gold earrings from Egypt that date back to the 19th Dynasty (1200 – 1186 BC). There are tomb paintings that also display men and women wearing earrings during the New Kingdom era (1550 – 1070 BC). However, some archeologists suggest that earrings may have been worn primarily by children, as evidenced by the earrings commonly found in the tombs of child kings.

egyptian earring

An Egyptian earring from the 19th dynasty.

Earrings came in and out of fashion in Europe during the Middle Ages and throughout the Renaissance. Sometimes, courtiers wore them as displays of wealth. At other times, earrings were only worn by members of the lower classes. There seemed to be some ideological conflict within the Church about the piercing of ears, as it challenged the dogma that human beings should not alter a body made in the image of God.

However, sailors often wore earrings made of gold in order to pay for a Christian burial (in case his body washed ashore after a shipwreck). This tradition, though it enforced Christian rights, can be traced back to placement of a gold coin under the tongue of a loved one to pay the ferryman, Charon, for passage across the river Styx.

More Modern Times

Earrings came in and out of fashion in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries in accordance with women’s styles. For example, in the 18th century, women wore large bonnets that covered their ears. However, when women began wearing their hair upswept in the 19th century, earrings fell back into fashion. When Victorian morals overtook England in the later 19th century, piercing fell under the umbrella of vulgar practices.

pride and prejudice still

A still from the 2005 Pride and Prejudice, which takes place in late 18th century England. Note the bonnets.

The modern emergence of ear piercing in the United States didn’t really take hold until the 1950s. For the first half of the 20th century, earrings were considered uncouth by many, though the clip on variety was more acceptable. The shift for “good girls” to pierce their ears was noted in the movie Grease, in which Sandy gets her ears pierced by her not so good girl friends.

Today, the widespread popularity of ear piercing has created a great market for earrings, which contributes to the comparative variety in design. Asymmetric double piercing and cartilage piercing have become popular, though not nearly as common as the standard ear piercing.

 

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