A Very Brief History of Earrings

We humans do love to hang things off our bodies; it's fun, and it makes us feel good. Earrings, then, were a natural invention; they probably came just behind necklaces and bracelets in the history of the jewelry, because earlobes are pretty obvious places to put things. (After all, what else are they good for?) The oldest known earrings are found in that part of Western Asia called the Middle East -- specifically Mesopotamia, the ancestral Land Between the Rivers. Archeologists have unearthed beautiful bejeweled earrings in the royal graves of Ur, one of the world's first advanced societies, in what is now Iraq. These were earrings for pierced ears, of course -- clip-ons wouldn't become popular for another 5,000 years.

The Mediterranean residents of Crete (later a part of Greece) were wearing hoop earrings by about 4,000 years ago. Later on, the Egyptians wore ear spools -- round, grooved stones that were forced into huge holes in the earlobes. The elongated, perforated ears that resulted are clearly visible in the best representational Egyptian art of the period, including King Tutankhamun's gold death mask. It seems that everything old really does become new again, considering that ear spools have recently regained their popularity (talk about your retro styles). Interestingly, ear spools were also worn by some Native American groups, from thousands of years ago right on up until modern times.

On down the line

Not a lot is known about the evolution of earrings from that point until about 700 B.C., when designs in gold and other precious metals, apparently preserved by metalsmiths for hundreds of years, began to reappear in Greece. Bird earrings made of glass paste were popular in Greece after 200 B.C. The inclusion of jewels as well as precious metals in earrings first became common during the sway of the Roman Empire, when wearers found it necessary to show off their wealth in less-than-subtle ways.

Earrings fell out of favor for about a thousand years thereafter, replaced by elaborate headdresses, hair ornaments and hairdos. As women began to wear their hair up again in the last decades of the Renaissance, there came a renaissance in the wearing of earrings as well, and styles proliferated in a frenzy of creativity. Eventually, it was decided that piercing was uncivilized, and so in the 20th century first screw-on and then clip-on earrings became popular. However, by the 1970s people began to give in to the inevitable, and piercing came back into style. It's been with us since.

Types of earrings

Earrings can take several forms, with pendants, hoops, studs, balls, and spools being the most common. Although earrings are often made of precious metals and gems, this isn't always the case; in fact, they can be made of just about any material that can be worked. Non-precious metals (e.g., steel or copper), plastic, Bakelite, wood, ceramics, rhinestones, crystal, cloth, and many other types of material have been used to make earrings. Jewelers would probably even be willing to make earrings from dinosaur bones and Moon rocks, if they could ahold of get some.

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