Earrings have a long and rich history, dating back thousands of years. The most popular forms for these adornments include chandeliers, hoops, and studs. They have been decorating earlobes throughout history, not only as a glamorous fashion statement but as an expression of social status or as a matter of choice and pride. Various factors, such as economics, hairstyles, hats, and the media, have contributed to the evolution of earrings throughout history.
Earrings in Antiquity
Excavations and preserved accounts of ancient civilizations have yielded proof of the role of earrings among the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. Especially in the case of the ancient Egyptians, there were some surprising facts on how earrings were used in society.
Cleopatra on the Terraces of Philae, Frederick Arthur Bridgeman
Because ancient Egyptians were entombed with their jewelry along with other items they used in daily life, much of the information we know about the use of jewelry in ancient Egypt is documented in excavation records. If they were able to afford it, men, women, and children typically adorned themselves with jewelry as an indication of the blessings of the gods.
Earrings were a symbol of wealth and status. As a symbol of power, pharaohs wore them. However, during the time of King Tutankhamun (1332 BCE to 1323 BCE), earrings were a new item to royalty as they were probably introduced from Western Asia. Images of earrings found in the sarcophagi from Qurna, Egypt traced to Cleopatra’s era depict large gold earrings with intricate designs.
Jewelry, for the ancient Greeks, was not only used to attract attention or for beauty but also to serve as protection from evil. We are introduced to many details about ancient Greek jewelry because, like the Ancient Egyptians, jewelry accompanied the dead to their graves. The ancient Greeks used natural patterns, such as leaves, animals, and shells, for their jewelry designs.
Earring designs were, at times, unusually large. Trade with surrounding civilizations influenced earring designs as earrings took evolving shapes. Earrings with nautical designs, such as seashells and sirens, were found in excavated pieces from the 5th century BCE.
Women lavishly wore jewelry from rings, bracelets, and necklaces, to earrings. Jewelry, for women, was mainly adornments with no limits of exaggeration. On the other hand, men of power typically confined themselves to wearing rings, though torcs and bracelets were used as symbols of power and to signify valor in combat. Materials used in jewelry were a sign of the empire's reach and power, with onyx, amber, and moonstone brought in from the Persian Gulf to semiprecious stones, like emeralds, peridots, garnet, jasper, and lapis lazuli imported from Egypt. Amber was also greatly valued in the empire and was known as "The Gold of the North."
Earrings were used primarily for embellishing the face. They also served as a symbol of the woman's position in society. Amethyst, a symbol of enchantment, was one of the most prevalent materials as accents in earrings during this period.
Earrings in the Medieval Times (5th Century to the 14th Century CE)
Though jewelry, in the form of rings, brooches, lockets, and necklaces, was widespread, earrings were rare during this period. By the 13th Century, the church forbade the piercing of ears. The popularity of large hats and the era's hairstyles typically hid the ears, negating the need to wear earrings. Courtiers wore them as a display of wealth. Wearing earrings in the medieval period was typically relegated to thieves and the lower classes.
However, intricate earrings made of gold with cross patterns or bearing cameos continued to persist in the Byzantine Empire until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. As the remnants of the Roman Empire in the East waned, so did the popularity of earrings all throughout the High and Late Middle Ages. Flemish painting in the fifteenth century depicted persons from the near East and Africa indicating that wearing earrings as exotic, or something that doesn’t follow the convention of European fashions of the era. Earrings, on the other hand, began to make inroads in European fashion by the sixteenth century.
Earrings in the Renaissance (14th Century to the 17th Century CE)
Renaissance provided a fertile ground for the revival of the popularity of earrings. Designs of earrings during this period were smaller than those found in antiquity. Hairstyles, where the hair was braided to reveal the forehead, and opulent clothing meant the ears were exposed and begging for adornment. Women from the upper class wore enchanting gemstones in their ears after a long absence during the Medieval period. Pearls, especially the irregularly-shaped Baroque pearls, one of Queen Elizabeth I’s favorites, were among the most popular and seen as the highest statement of fashion. Earrings also became fashionable for gentlemen, with William Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Sir Francis Drake having been portrayed wearing earrings.
Earrings in the Georgian Era (1714 to 1837)
Portrait of the Archduchess Marie Antoinette, Martin van Meytens the Younger
The popular hairstyles during the era that favored upswept looks that fully revealed the ears made earrings embraced widely. Many earring designs today, such as chandelier earrings, were inspired by the girandole designs of the era. Girandole earrings helped define the era with their distinct design that appeared close to chandelier earrings as exemplified by the fashion exemplified by Marie Antoninette of France. These earrings have an ornate appearance heightened by intricate metalwork and small accent gems to produce a bold and extravagant look. To support the weight of the earrings, wires are looped over the top of the ear, or ribbons were wrapped into the hair. The grandiose and the sheer heft of the earrings led to examples being broken down to create smaller earrings by the 19th century. Hence, chandelier earrings as we know them today were born.
Earrings in the Victorian Era (1847 to 1901)
Queen Victoria, British School
The manner of dress and the popular hairstyles at the start of Queen Victoria’s reign made the popularity of earrings decline slightly. By the 1860s, Her Majesty wore earrings that her subjects and admirers adored. Her preference for long bejeweled earrings became fashionable across the UK and the continent as her influence on the era's fashions spread. The influential queen started the practice of wearing her wedding diamond earrings towards the middle of her reign. The discovery of substantial diamond deposits and the development of cutting techniques improved diamonds' appearance, brilliance, and fire, thereby making them popular showcase gemstones in earrings by the turn of the century.
The tumultuous events and vibrant art movements in the early 20th century greatly influenced earring designs. The seismic economic downturn of the 30s had a significant impact on earring designs, where shorter and smaller earrings, such as studs, became popular again. The Art Nouveau and Art Deco style movements ushered the appearance of angular and organic earring designs through to the 1920s. The "Roaring 20's" was an era of decadence and extravagance, which provided a fertile backdrop for the rise of drop-style and large-design earrings, such as hoops and chandeliers.
The 1960s saw the explosion of fashion where large and ostentatious earring designs, such as hoops, went well with the era's clean and straight hairstyle and fashion. The 1970s saw a more dainty and delicate look that suited more muted earring designs. By the 1980s, costume jewelry became a trend as earrings became more affordable to more people. No particular earring styles gained dominance from the 1990s to the start of the millennium. Instead, classic looks from antiquity to the mid-20th century saw updates. By the 2020s, the preference for colorful genuine gemstones and handcrafted pieces is becoming more popular.
Gothic Earrings(1970S to 2020S)
Preferred designs, like skulls, crosses, coffins, and even bats, highlighted with black or white gemstones, such as black onyx and diamonds, were reminiscent of medieval, romanesque, and renaissance elements.
As the decades wore on, the subculture spawned many subgenres, such as corporate, romantic, and steampunk gothic styles, each with various eclectic design choices.
Today, gothic earrings emphasize natural themes, with subtle sophistication provided by intricate designs inspired by sacred geometry seen in nature, vintage feminine elements, and gothic architectural concepts and elements.
Michelle Valadon, at the forefront of incorporating these elements into fine gothic jewelry, emphasizes creating pieces that work as more than mere adornments but as pieces that speak profoundly of the wearer's soul. Delicate gothic earrings take on many forms.
However, each is a consummate reflection of nature's perfection and the wearer's uniqueness.