When a lot of people think of earrings from before our time, they immediately think of clip-on or screw back earrings. Since clip-on earrings were popular for decades beginning in the 1930s and piercing your ears was not nearly as common back then, many people just assume that this was always the case – that pierced ears are a recent occurrence. It seems so obvious though that piercing your ears is not a new idea. Just think back to the ancient Egyptians and all the images we have of them with various body and ear piercings. Yet somehow many people are still surprised to see pierced earrings that are over 100 years old. I know this well because it seems every time I show clients earrings from the Victorian Era or earlier that are pierced, they ask “they had pierced ears back then?” They are shocked when I reply, “Yes, of course!” In fact, pierced ears date back as far back as 2500 BC. We not only have documentation of this, we actually have physical proof of the elaborate hoops and pendant earrings found on King Tutankhamen and dug up all across the ancient world.
From their spectacular golden beginnings, earrings’ place in history has ebbed and flowed depending on the wealth of any given civilization. During the Dark Ages, metal was scarce and so were earrings. During Roman times, earrings were a sign of wealth and status.
Sometimes it wasn’t just the wealth of a civilization that determined the popularity of earrings, but also the fashions. If hairstyles were elaborate and headdresses were common, earrings would not be widely used. It seems every few hundred years, just as earrings begin to fade out an existence, they make a strong and important comeback.
Screw Back Earrings
It wasn’t until the early 20th century that screwback earrings were invented. The thought was that this new invention would eliminate the need to pierce your ears altogether. These screw back earrings became so popular that women started to find the idea of piercing one’s ears very barbaric. This sentiment didn’t fully catch on until the 1930s. After WWI, women started chopping off their hair and dazzling themselves with 1920’s flapper fashion. The short hair made earrings, pierced and screw back alike, the perfect accessory to cover the bare space between the neck and shoulders. This was a very extravagant time, and the earrings were nothing short of spectacular.
Clip On Earrings
Many women were still piercing their ears even after the invention of the screw back because screw back earrings were not very secure, especially with the heavier Art Deco designs. By the 1930s, the clip on earring was invented. Since clip-on earrings were able to hold the earring very snuggly to the ear, pierced earrings faded into the background. This is where many of us today get the idea that pierced ears never existed prior to the last couple of decades because pierced ears again became a thing of the past.
Pierced Earring Comeback
In the 1970s, pierced ears started making a come back as fashions started to broaden, and women began to push the boundaries with what was socially acceptable to wear. Piercing one’s ears has really come full circle, and not just for the first time. Today both men and women freely pierce their ears. It is hard to find a woman nowadays that doesn’t have her ears pierced, and it is perfectly acceptable to bring a baby or young child to get their ears pierced. What was once deemed fifty years ago to be barbaric and cruel is again just another form of self-expression.
- 6th Century BC: Disc earrings, from Cetona (Tuscany). Etruscan civilization, 6th Century BC.
- 3rd Century BC: Earrings, gold, from the Hellenistic tomb, Calabria, Italy, Goldsmith art, Greek civilization
- The 1600’s: Goldsmith’s art, 17th century, Italy, Milan, Museo Poldi Pezzoli
- The 1830’s: Goldsmith’s enamel art, 19th century, 1830-1840
- The 1860’s: Roman mosaic pendant and earrings, 1860.
- The 1890’s: Etruscan Revival gold and black enamel earrings, c. 1890.
- The 1940’s: Briolette-cut rock crystal earrings with gold and silver decorations, by Mario Buccellati, 1940s.