Besides my wedding ring, there’s another piece of jewelry I wear daily – earrings! In my opinion, they’re one of the most versatile kinds of jewelry out there. From time to time, I have gone through phases where I experimented with wearing other pieces of jewelry on a daily basis – a statement necklace, perhaps, or a bracelet. Or several bracelets. But those efforts never lasted. The truth is, for me, earrings are part of my everyday jewelry-wearing. Big hoops, pearl drops, or small studs, I like the way I can be subtle or fierce or glam – just because of earrings!
Earrings seem very modern to me, so I was surprised to discover that …they’re NOT. In fact, they go back a LONG ways. I also found out some other cool stuff that I’d love to share with you!
Four generations of earrings
If you want to wear earrings. you really need to have pierced ears. With that said, I’m kind of embarrassed to tell you I honestly don’t remember getting my ears pierced. I imagine it happened at the mall, after all, that’s where all the cool stuff happened in the 80’s!
As for my own children, we also went the mall piercing route. Easy peasy, you just take your kid to Claire’s to get their ears pierced. Those folks have it down to a science! They even bill themselves as the “world’s leading ear piercing specialists!” Although plenty of moms pierce their baby’s ears soon after they’re born, my kiddos had to wait until they were older. Bottom line, though, here in modern day America, piercing is really common, available almost everywhere, and pretty cheap. So hooray!
Not so for my mom and grandma! My mother has a pretty horrific story about how she and her best friend pierced their ears with ice and a needle! And my grandma didn’t even have pierced ears! She wore clip-ons her whole life. And if you’ve ever watched Grease, you should know that only bad girls got their ears pierced.
Note that bad Sandy has earrings, but good Sandy doesn’t.
I guess I had thought that before there were clip earrings like my grandma wore, there just weren’t earrings. Turns out nothing could be further from the truth!
Earrings are ancient!
I’m not just talking like they go back a couple generations. When I say ancient, I mean pre-biblical. Three thousand years before Jesus walked on the earth, we were wearing earrings! That’s right, gem gals, earrings go back more than 5,000 years! And all over the world – in ancient Egypt, in ancient Columbia, and in Africa. And the Good Book (a.k.a. the Bible) has several mentions of not just earrings, but gold ones. Oh la la!
I was surprised at how beautiful earrings from the ancient world were. They used a variety of gold techniques, and some were even made with gemstones.
Assortment of earrings from the ancient world
Gold seemed to be the most common material, although there was silver too.
Solid silver earrings from Ancient Persia
So who wore earrings back then? Well, lots of people. Persian soldiers, King Tut, women of nobility, slaves. Depending on the place and time, it showed your status or rank in society. For example, in ancient Rome, pierced ears were a sign of wealth. They liked theirs to be showy, with lots of gemstones. However, in other places, sometimes your ears were pierced because you were a slave, to identify you as a slave. And sometimes, earrings were significant for religious reasons.
Bottom line – earrings are old, old, old. And worn throughout history by men and women, rich or poor.
Men & Earrings
Some of our best archeological evidence of earrings comes from men! King Tut’s tomb was filled with all sorts of jewelry, including earrings. (Interesting side note: In ancient Egypt, even the cats wore earrings!) A 5,000 year old mummy, the oldest found in Europe, was another man (Ötzi the Iceman) who wore earrings. And wall carvings (dating back to 300 BCE) from the Persian Empire show soldiers wearing earrings.
Man with a pearl earring: Sir Walter Raleigh, 1588
Besides the men of antiquity, noble men of Europe in the 1500’s had pierced ears. Famous men like Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Sir Francis Drake, all wore earrings. The Spanish and French were considered the “bad boys” of their era, and wore only one. So did explorers, pirates, and sailors. One pierced earlobe indicated a long journey by sea. If you survived a shipwreck, you wore an earring in your left earlobe. There was even a rumor that wearing one earring improved your vision!
After that time period, men didn’t really wear earrings again, at least in the United States, until the 1970s. It started as a trend among certain groups of people – sailors, bikers, and gay men. Now, of course, plenty of men wear them! And not just the groups I mentioned before. Lots of modern men wear them. In fact, the stud in one ear seems to be pretty popular, and very normal.
When earrings went away
Oddly, earrings for European women completely disappeared for about 500 years, during the Middle Ages. This was because of fashion and hairstyles. You see, back then, women wore giant hats, headdresses, wigs, and high ruffled collars. And this basically meant your ears were covered. So no point in wearing anything in your ears.
You see how these fashions kept women from wearing earrings, right?!
What a shame….. Thankfully, fashions changed and those horrid ruffled collars went away! Earrings were back in style again! Women wore enamel designs, and later, faceted diamonds. In the seventeenth century, pearls were all the rage.
Earrings in America
Earrings were worn in colonial America and for many years afterward. All up until those prim and proper Victorians decided that earrings and the piercing that went along with it were vulgar and barbaric practices. That was in the late 1800’s. How annoying. Thankfully, they didn’t cause them to go away completely. But earrings did become smaller, and not as many people wore them.
But times change and fashions change. So in 1900, piercing was still taboo but earrings were coming back. Who needs pierced ears anyway? Screw-back and clip earrings did the trick. Plus, costume jewelry was now available to essentially everyone.
And so earrings became common again for women in America. By the 1920’s, everyone who was anyone was wearing them.
a model from 1925 wearing dangly earrings
The 60’s Baby!
The 60’s changed everything. The way that generation pushed norms, standards, morals, and values extended to ear piercing. Besides the movie Grease, where Sandy becomes a bad girl and get her ears pierced, there was Mia Farrow in Peyton Place with these perfect little pearl studs.
Mia Farrow with her pearl studs
Before long, teenagers all across America were piercing their ears with whatever would work.
And now, everyone has their ears pierced and everyone wears earrings.
What about you? Do you wear earrings every day? What’s your favorite style? Let me know in the comments below.
This post has been edited and updated since it was originally published on August 23, 2018.