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A Brief History of Earrings

| 11 min read

Without a doubt, no piece of jewelry better displays the dispersion and brilliance of colored gemstones than a pair of beautiful earrings. They have been worn by men and women for thousands of years, and have featured precious gems for much of that time. Their history is long and fascinating, taking us from the Bronze Age right up to the present day. Here, we’re looking back at how earrings came to be the desirable adornments that they are today, and at the myriad different styles that have evolved over the years. Let's begin our story 5,000 years ago, when a man named Ötzi passed away in the Alps near Italy's border with Austria.

It’s not the manner of Ötzi’s passing but rather the location that he passed away in that has earned him his place at the start of this story. He is Europe’s oldest known preserved human, having been frozen in the Alps for over 5 millennia, between circa 3300 BC and September 1991. The remarkable condition in which he was found was able to provide archaeologists with a wealth of information about how we lived all those years ago. Most interestingly for us, they were able to see that Ötzi had his ears pierced. The piercing holes were quite large, suggesting that Ötzi had been wearing heavy earrings for much of his life.

The discovery of Ötzi places the earliest known evidence of humans wearing earrings a full 1,000 years earlier than once thought.

The discovery of Ötzi places the earliest known evidence of humans wearing earrings a full 1,000 years earlier than once thought. And while he may be one of the earliest known wearers, Ötzi is far from alone when it comes to ancient cultures adorning themselves with ear piercings. Archaeological finds show that hoop earrings were very popular in Asia and the Middle East as long as 4,000 years ago. Frescoes left behind by the Minoan Civilization from circa 1800 BC show that hoop earrings were regularly worn on the South Aegean island of Santorini, which is now part of Greece. The Ancient Persians left behind carved images of soldiers who were often depicted wearing earrings. In these early days, soldiers often wore earrings as talismans to protect themselves in battle.

The Ancient Egyptians wore earrings from around 1650 BC too. They were worn decoratively and are thought to have been first worn by pharaohs before the idea spread to the rest of the society. Designs were often made of gold, and could sometimes feature gemstones such as Turquoise, Lapis Lazuli and Jasper. The Ancient Egyptians revered cats and many statues and paintings have been found from the time showing cats wearing earrings. Mummified cats were quite often found alongside their jewelry too, not unlike their human counterparts. When the tomb of Tutankhamun (1341 - 1323 BC) was unsealed in 1923, the mummified pharaoh was found with pierced ears, and there were earrings within the tomb. The famous gold and blue burial mask also had holes in the earlobes (see photo). Tutankhamun was only around 18 or 19 years old when he passed away, which may support the theory that during this time in Egyptian history, children wore earrings too. Much later on, the pharaoh Cleopatra (69 - 30 BC) was thought to have owned a pair of Pearl earrings, one of which she is said to have dissolved in vinegar to impress the Roman general Mark Antony. At the time, the extreme rarity of Pearls would have meant that the destroyed jewel was worth at least £3 million.

Tutankhamun

At one time, the wearing of an earring was seen as an easy way to identify a person's background or political loyalties. Some tribes even wore earrings to protect themselves as they believed demons could enter the mind through the ears. It was thought that the metal would repel the demons and thus keep the mind pure. For much of their history, earrings were also a status symbol and quite often a show of wealth. Depictions of the Buddha frequently show him with long earlobes but with no earrings. This represents the Buddha’s rejection of living a material life, indicating that he once wore heavy earrings but chose to abandon his luxury possessions to become a monk. In early Ancient Roman times, earrings were still being worn by both men and women, and they were incredibly popular during the reign of emperor Julius Caesar (100 - 44 BC) who himself was thought to have worn an earring at times. As the Roman Empire wore on, the wearing of earrings started to be seen as a more exclusively feminine practice. Around this time earrings began to take on their luxury status and began to shed their ritualistic and protective associations. As time progressed, only the well-to-do could afford to wear the rare gemstones and precious metals from which earrings were now almost exclusively made.

During the Middle Ages (5th century - 14th century), earrings seemed to fall out of favor, though they were never entirely forgotten. During these times, the wearing of rings, necklaces, brooches and lockets became much more widespread, and large hats, high collars, and the popular hairstyles of the era generally covered the ears anyway. During the 13th century, the piercing of ears was forbidden by the church and, for a time, earrings were usually only worn by thieves and the lower classes. Earrings made something of a triumphant comeback during the Renaissance (14th century - 17th century), when shorter hair became fashionable once more, leading to a surge in the popularity of smaller earring designs. Upper class ladies were once again wearing beautiful gemstones in their ears, and Pearls were seen as the highest fashion statement of the day. Baroque Pearls – those of irregular shape – were particularly popular. Earrings also became popular with gentlemen once more, with the writer and poet William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616) and the explorers Sir Francis Drake (1540 - 1596) and Sir Walter Raleigh (1552 - 1618) all having been depicted wearing an earring. Raleigh appears to be wearing a Pearl in a famous portrait of him, perhaps one he gleaned himself on one of his famous voyages?

Sir Walter Raleigh

It was around this time that sailors also began to wear earrings, often made of solid gold. The intent was that if they ever fell overboard and were washed up on shore somewhere, the jewelry would pay for their funeral. Some sailors even had the name of their home port engraved into the earring so they could be returned to their families for burial. There’s also some truth to the popular depiction of pirates wearing earrings. Young pirates were often given an earring the first time they crossed the equator or when they plundered their first ship. It was also thought to be a sign that a pirate had survived a shipwreck. It was believed that wearing an earring could act as a talisman to protect against seasickness, improve eyesight and prevent drowning too.

During the Georgian era (1714 - 1837), a type of earring known as the girandole became extremely popular. Girandole earrings were seen as the height of fashion and somewhat helped to define the look of the period. They were of a distinct design that had a single gem set near to the earlobe with three other gemstones hanging below and appeared not unlike a chandelier. Their ornate appearance was often heightened with filigree metalwork and smaller accent gems to create an intricate but bold look. Their popularity soared as the hairstyles of the day began to favor upswept looks that fully revealed the ears. These earrings were very heavy and often caused the earlobes to elongate. Many modern earring designs have been inspired by the girandole styles of this time. Colored gemstones such as Ruby, Sapphire, Emerald and Garnet were popular during this era, but new discoveries of Diamond and advances in mining technology saw the gem start to climb in popularity.

Girandole earrings were seen as the height of fashion and somewhat helped to define the look of the period.

The Victorian era (1837 - 1901) began with a decline in earring popularity once again caused by popular hairstyles that covered the ears. However, by the 1860s they were once again in vogue, with pendant-style drop earrings being particularly favored. Queen Victoria herself wore earrings, and her fashion sense was idolized by many of her subjects. She had a significant, direct influence on the fashions of the era. Victoria preferred long earrings bejeweled with gemstones, and this look became fashionable across the UK and Europe. Towards the end of the Victorian era, Diamonds really were starting to make their mark on the gemstone world, and solitaire stud earrings grew in popularity. Diamond cutting techniques had improved to the point of the stones having superior brilliance and fire to other more classic gemstones.

As the 20th century dawned, it wasn’t earrings that went out of fashion, but how they were worn. Demand for ear piercing fell dramatically, but the development of clip-on and screwback earrings meant that earrings continued to be popular.

The Art Nouveau (1890 - 1910) and Art Deco (1910 - 1939) style movements had a significant effect on the jewelry designs of the day. Both angular and organic shapes were incredibly popular, and the wearing of earrings continued to gather momentum throughout the early part of the century. The 1920s saw longer drop-style earrings rise in popularity, while the 1930s saw designs getting shorter and closer to the earlobe again. Big looks and block colors were huge, with gemstones such as Jet, Lapis Lazuli, Onyx, Jade and Carnelian being sought after. By the middle of the century, traditional ear-piercing was starting to gain popularity again. Queen Elizabeth II is thought to have helped bring the practice back into the public consciousness. She had her ears pierced to wear a pair of Diamond earrings she had received as a wedding present in 1947. Surprisingly, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the modern ear piercing procedure started to become widely available on the high street, though some doctors and medical establishments had been performing them for a little while at this point. We’ll spare you the details of the home methods that were common at the time when the practice first started to regain popularity!

The fashion explosion of the 1960s made earrings one of the must-have accessories of the decade, with large, ostentatious designs going alongside the clean, straight hairstyles and dress designs. The 1970s ushered in a more delicate, dainty look. It was also the decade in which ear piercings in places other than the earlobe started to gain in popularity, including multiple piercings in the same ear.

Ear Piercing Locations

After 300 years out of fashion, the 1980s saw men wearing earrings again too. Big hoops, bold colors and chunky styling saw earrings rise even more in popularity during the decade, helped along by the rising trend in costume jewelry that made earrings affordable to all. The 1990s and the start of the new millennium didn’t bring any particularly new styles to the forefront but instead focused on updating some of the classic looks of long ago and keeping things simple. More recently, there has been a trend back towards using colorful genuine gemstones in earrings rather than fake stones or plain metalwork.

Today, earrings are favored among women and men of all ages, across a whole range of different cultures and styles. There are many kinds of earring available, and there are also many different ways of fastening them to the body, making earrings available to everyone. Earring design has come a long way, and a great designer will always take into consideration the gem, the metal and the size of each stone when deciding how to show each jewel at its very best. Buying a good quality pair of earrings means that while the gemstones do all the hard work, you’re free to relax and enjoy yourself.

Earrings have never been more popular, both in the traditional styles and the more recent fashion of multiple piercings in various different parts of the ear. They continue to change and develop as trends come and go. Earrings have a truly fascinating history and are woven into the fabric of human development right across the globe. We’ve only scratched the surface of their history here, and we thoroughly recommend you look deeper into their meaning and history if you have enjoyed reading this article. To browse our selection of earrings in a wide variety of designs, click the button below.

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