History of Earrings

A History of Earrings

Men as well as women have adorned their ears for centuries. Earrings have been a sign of wealth and power as well as a decorative accessory since before the beginning of recorded history. Archaeological evidence, pointing to the use of earrings in the most ancient of cultures speaks to the longstanding popularity of earrings as both a symbol of wealth and power and a fashion accessory.

Earrings in Ancient Egypt
X-Ray photographs of mummies in the Cairo museum in Egypt show mummies with the elongated earlobes that are caused by the wearing of heavy earrings beginning in childhood. It is thought that earrings in Egypt gained popularity at about the time of Tutankhamun (1334-1325BC), a legacy from the Hyskos invaders who brought them from Western Asia where they had been worn for centuries. Earrings were found in a tomb at Thebes from around 1580 BC; these earliest earbobs were worn only by women, both members of the nobility and the women who served them.

The first Egyptian king whose mummy showed evidence of pierced earlobes was Thutmose IV (1419-1386). After that, earrings for men grew in popularity so that many later royal mummies showed evidence of pierced ears. Possibly the most famous Egyptian earring wearing King was Tutankhamun, whose exquisitely wrought gold death mask displays clear evidence of pierced earlobes.

Earrings for Men
Earrings remained fashionable for both men and women and their use spread throughout the ancient world, including depictions of Persian soldiers adorned with earrings on the walls of Perspolis, dating to about 500BC. The use of earrings as a sign of both wealth and power spread throughout the rest of the world.

Earrings for Sailors & Buccaneers
Sailors the world over adopted earrings out of superstitions as well as the more traditional symbol of wealth. Some ancient peoples believed that piercing the earlobe improved the vision, and as few skills are more important to a sea farer, sailors soon took up the habit of ear piercing. Some sailors wore earrings to indicate that they had survived a shipwreck, circumnavigated the globe, or crossed the equator. Pirates are also known to have worn earrings. Some believe this was due to their deeply superstitious and wild, spendthrift natures. As their share of booty slipped swiftly through their fingers, a buccaneer with a gold earring in his earlobe always had the cost of a proper burial on his person. It was expected that anyone coming upon the corpse with an earring would provide a Christian burial and take the earring for his or her trouble.

Earrings for Women
Fashion is nothing if not fickle, and while use of earrings as a fashion accessory for women spread from the ancient world to Europe, it tapered off during the middle ages as hair and ears were concealed with elaborate headcoverings and hairstyles. Finally, however, ears emerged once again in the 17th century, as ladies began decorating them once again. Specific styles of earring have changed over the centuries, dependant as they are upon the prevailing fashions for necklines and hairstyles.

Earrings continue to be a popular accessory worn by a large majority of women around the world, for purposes both fashionable and economic, and a smaller percentage of men for reasons aesthetic as well as identity and image.

Reference & Further Reading

Hudson, Sara; Katherine Gilbert and Joan Holt, Editors, Treasures of Tutankhamun, 1976 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

Garland, Christie; “Earrings: Lobes of Opportunity for Collectors”, Antique Week, April 13, 2009, Vol 41, Issue no 2074.

-by p4A Contributing Editor Susan Cramer.

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