In many cultures of the world, earrings have traditionally been worn as symbols of cultural or tribal identity, as markers of age, marital status, or rank, or because they are believed to have protective powers. Since ancient times, earrings have fluctuated in size and prominence, amidst many periods throughout history to the present time; they continue to be a very popular and important instrumental accessory in fashion.
The crescent-shaped gold hoops worn by Sumerian women around 2500 B.C.E. are the earliest earrings for which there is archaeological evidence. In Egypt, earrings were introduced about 1500 B.C.E. and were later worn by both men and women. In the Persian, Greek, Hebrew, and Roman cultures earrings were also worn by both men and women alike.
In the first millennium B.C.E., Etruscan and Greek goldsmiths brought new refinement and artistry to earrings, which were valued as both an adornment and a sign of wealth. Roman earrings were similar to Etruscan styles until the first century C.E. At its height, the Roman Empire had the effect of standardizing styles of jewelry over much of the known world; after the center of influence shifted to Byzantium (Constantinople) in C.E. 330, and Roman influence began to decline, local styles once more emerged.
The Byzantines also developed several distinct forms of jewelry. A favorite technique was enameling, in which a glassy coating was baked onto a surface, usually in a decorative pattern or figure. Men as well as women wore jewelry, and the display of abundant jewelry was a primary means of showing off wealth.
In India, men and women have been adorning their ears with earrings for ornamental or spiritual reasons. Wearing ear ornaments by married Indian women was considered auspicious, and a symbol of woman’s wealth and her status in society. Today, it is customary for women in most communities to have their ears pierced at an early age.
In Europe, earrings were considered a symbol of wealth and prosperity because only affluent women could afford the precious metals of which earrings were made. Women were too poor throughout the Dark Ages and Middle Ages. During the early part of the Middle Ages Christian monasteries were responsible for producing the better part of the world’s jewelry. Early monasteries were required to learn trades in order to support themselves financially with many turning to the jewelry craftsmanship.
In the 19th century, Queen Victoria set a trend in Europe with her long-jeweled earrings; and pierced earrings also gained popularity. By the middle of the 20th century particularly in mass-produced costume jewelry, imaginative techniques and styles for earrings were created and much of what was produced was for un-pierced ears for they had become very popular at that time.
With the rise of the 1920s and the art deco style, women wore long chandelier, angled and straight designs. By the 1930s, the clip on was invented. The clip-on earring came to substitute and improve the screw backs. Women started wearing short haircuts following World War II and earrings filled that space from hair to shoulder. In 1922, women wore jewelry inspired by the unearthing of the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamen, who lived in the fourteenth century B.C.E., and by the new art movements sweeping Europe and the United States, including cubism, art deco, and surrealism.
The creation of costume jewelry allowed women to wear bigger, bolder jewelry and to follow trends without spending a fortune. Brand names also became important during this decade. After World War II, America made its mark with what people would refer to as the Hollywood influence. Women throughout the country were in upheaval for the refreshed femininity of Dior’s “New Look.” By the 1960s, ear piercing made a comeback. During the 1970s, new trends for earrings surfaced. And, once again it became fashionable for men to wear earrings as well. A diamond stud or small hoops remain the preference in many male circles.
Today, women’s earrings come in an endless variety and choices – chandelier, hoops, buttons, studs, dangles and clip-ons, as well as in a wide variety of materials such as: silver, gold, gemstones, diamonds, pearls, plastic, metals and organic materials including horn, bone, and different kinds of woods, to name a few. After centuries of changes, earrings have found their place in fashion history as one of the most versatile and preferred pieces of adornment.