CANVASES, CARATS AND CURIOSITIES

Your Guide to the History of Earrings

Humans around the world, from a multitude of cultural backgrounds, have practiced ear piercing for millennia. Even now in the 21st century, ear piercing remains one of the most popular forms of body modification, allowing men and women alike to adorn their ears with a variety of precious metal types and rare jewels. Worn as a cultural practice or a fashion statement, everything from hoop earrings to drop earrings have a fascinating history that traces back nearly 7000 years.

 

The Origin of Earrings

 
Earring from Royal Tombs at Ur. Circa 2600-2450 BCE. Penn Museum.
 
Earring from Royal Tombs at Ur. Circa 2600-2450 BCE. Penn Museum.

 

When examining how earrings have changed over time, one can begin by examining prehistory. At even the oldest archaeological sites, evidence of earring wear has been discovered. At the ancient Sumerian royal tombs at Ur, vast amounts of gold jewelry were discovered, including these sizable gold hoop earrings measuring over 4 inches diameter. These earrings would have been worn by Queen Puabi (sometimes called Shub-ad), an important figure in ancient Sumeria and Akkad, to match her striking gold headdress. Though the cultural significance of Puabi’s rare jewelry is difficult to reconstruct, her access to precious metals and semiprecious stones denotes her as a woman of power.

 
The funerary mask of Tutankhamun, featuring pierced earlobes. Circa 1323 BCE. The Egyptian Museum, Cairo.
 

 

The funerary mask of Tutankhamun, featuring pierced earlobes. Circa 1323 BCE. The Egyptian Museum, Cairo.
 
Earring from Ramesside period of ancient Egypt. Circa 1295-1186 BCE. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
 

 

Earring from Ramesside period of ancient Egypt. Circa 1295-1186 BCE. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
 

Other ancient cultures and civilizations also used earrings for personal adornment. The practice was common among both men and women in ancient Greece, Rome and Persia according to archaeological studies. Ancient Egyptians chose to adorn their ears with different types of earrings, most frequently hoops. Gold remained the most popular material for crafting earrings, and lapis lazuli brought bright splashes of vibrant blue to the ears. When King Tutankhamun’s tomb was unearthed in the early 20th century, it was discovered that the Pharaoh had pierced ears; however, no earrings were included in his sarcophagus. In fact, the young king’s funerary mask also included pierced holes in the ears. Archaeologists present like Howard Carter have suggested that earrings were only worn in ancient Egypt by children at the time of King Tut’s burial, a cultural tradition that persisted in contemporaneous Egypt of the 20th century.

 

Earrings Around the Globe

 
Byzantine Empress Theodora from the mosaics in the church of San Vitale. 6th century CE. Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy.
 
Byzantine Empress Theodora from the mosaics in the church of San Vitale. 6th century CE. Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy.
 
After the ancient period, the popularity of earrings would wax and wane in different areas of the world. The legendary Empress Theodora of the Byzantine empire was depicted as wearing gratuitous amounts of elegant jewelry in a 6th century mosaic. Long strands of lustrous pearls hang from her crown, and her earrings featured green, red and blue gemstones — likely emeralds, rubies and sapphires. During her husband Emperor Justinian’s reign, the Byzantine empire was at its largest, nearly encircling the Mediterranean with strongholds in Anatolia, North Africa and modern-day Greece and Italy. While this level of finery was a luxury for royalty and members of court, it is clear that earrings were a form of personal style for many.
 
Empress Theodora’s ornamentation also features exquisite necklaces and necklace styles; to learn more about the history of necklaces, check out the related post in our blog.
 
In western Europe, earrings were less common during the Middle Ages. For a time, ear piercing was forbidden by the Catholic Church. By the Renaissance, earrings became more common place. In the famous Chandos portrait of William Shakespeare, England’s preeminent early Renaissance writer, is pictured with a small gold hoop earring in his left ear. Much like Shakespeare, men who wore earrings in the 17th century symbolized their bohemian, artistic and carefree lifestyle.
 

Outside of Europe, earrings were also worn, including in south and east Asia. In Hinduism, Karnavedha (कर्णवेध) is one of the samskaras (“sacraments”) It is considered a major Vedic rite of passage that Brahmin children undergo in their youth, and is an ear piercing ceremony that is believed to open the inner ears to hear sacred sounds. More than fashion or personal adornment, boys and girls alike wear earrings for their symbolic and spiritual significance.

 
Earrings worn by Ainu people from Hokkaido. Penn Museum.
 

 

Earrings worn by Ainu people from Hokkaido. Penn Museum.
 
William Shakespeare portrait by John Taylor. Circa 1610. National Portrait Gallery, London.
 

 

William Shakespeare portrait by John Taylor. Circa 1610. National Portrait Gallery, London.
 
As a final example, the Ainu people, an indigenous group from the Hokkaido island of modern-day Japan, were censured by the 19th-century Meiji government and forbidden to wear earrings, or ninkari. Prior to the prohibition of earrings, Ainu men, women and children alike would wear examples like the above — round hoops with a circular ball.
 

Earrings of the 21st Century

The transition from the mid-20th to the 21st century led to exponential increases in popularity of earlobe piercing and selecting a personalized earring style. In the United States in the 1960s and 70s, “ear piercing parties” became popular among high school girls, and counter-culture movements began to experiment with the number and locations of piercings in the ears. Today, ear piercings are extremely popular for both men and women worldwide; therefore, earrings are an essential item to create for any jewelry designer.

 

Henry Dunay

 
Hammered Gold Earrings by Henry Dunay. M.S. Rau, New Orleans.
 

 

Hammered Gold Earrings by Henry Dunay. M.S. Rau, New Orleans.
 
Coral and Diamond Dangle Earrings by Henry Dunay. M.S. Rau, New Orleans.
 

 

Coral and Diamond Dangle Earrings by Henry Dunay. M.S. Rau, New Orleans.
 

Known for his fashion-forward designs and impeccable quality, Henry Dunay is counted among the finest jewelers in the world. Born in 1935, he began apprenticing with a New York-based jeweler at the young age of 14. His earring style designs often include his favored material — 18 karat yellow gold — and his famed hand-hammered and Sabi texturing techniques. Other examples of the designer’s earrings incorporate bold pops of color and diamonds, utilizing materials like coral and enamel to bring desirable hues to his creations.

Van Cleef & Arpels

 
Diamond and Sapphire Earrings by Van Cleef & Arpels. M.S. Rau, New Orleans.
 
Diamond and Sapphire Earrings by Van Cleef & Arpels. M.S. Rau, New Orleans.

 
Gold Door Knocker Earrings by Van Cleef & Arpels . Circa 1970. M.S. Rau, New Orleans.
 
Gold Door Knocker Earrings by Van Cleef & Arpels. Circa 1970. M.S. Rau, New Orleans.

 

One of the most celebrated names in jewelry, Van Cleef & Arpels has attracted the most affluent clientele for more than a century since its inception in 1906, counting royalty and celebrities among its list of devotees. The jewelers famously were commissioned to create custom crowns for Queen Nazil of Egypt in the 1930s and Empress Farah Pavlavi of Iran in 1967. Bold in design and expertly crafted, their other designs — particularly earrings — embody the style and artistry for which the French firm is renowned. Many Van Cleef and Arpels take flora and fauna motifs as their form, embellished with fine gemstones and diamonds.

 

Non-Designer

Having a revered jewelry designer can offer a promise of quality craftsmanship and prestige, but some remarkable creations remained unsigned works of ingenuity and beauty.
 
Asscher-Cut Diamond Earrings . M.S. Rau, New Orleans.
 
Asscher-Cut Diamond Earrings. M.S. Rau, New Orleans.
 

The Asscher cut stands apart from other types of diamond cuts for its unique 74 facet arrangement that creates a distinctive effect known as “the hall of mirrors.” An Asscher cut diamond can absorb and reflect light from every angle, further enhancing the perfection and sparkle of a fine diamond. If you’re familiar with diamond cuts, learn more about the types of diamond shapes.

 
Tahitian Pearl, Tsavorite and Sapphire Earrings. M.S. Rau, New Orleans.
 

 

Tahitian Pearl, Tsavorite and Sapphire Earrings. M.S. Rau, New Orleans.
 
South Sea Pearl and Diamond Climber Earrings. M.S. Rau, New Orleans.
 

 

South Sea Pearl and Diamond Climber Earrings. M.S. Rau, New Orleans.
 

Another iconic earring material is the pearl. Lady Sarah Churchill once stated, “I feel undressed if I don’t have my pearls on. My pearls are my security blanket.” The mesmerizing luster and sophistication of a pearl earring allows for an extra dazzle in both simple studs and high jewelry creations.

 

Interested in discovering more modern and antique earrings? Browse our collections of earrings for salefrom diamond earring to stud earring styles, there’s something for everyone.

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