Earrings are ear ornaments usually suspended by a curved hook through a hole pierced in the earlobe. Many present-day earrings are made for unpierced lobes and are held in place by a spring clip or a screw device. Earrings have been made since prehistoric times, and, except in parts of the Orient, they have been almost exclusively a form of feminine adornment. In addition to earrings there have been other types of ear ornamentation; for example, some primitive tribes use earplugs to distend the lobes.
One of the earliest records of earrings, in Genesis, indicates that the earrings belonging to Jacob's family were valued as a talisman or amulet. The earliest surviving earrings, discovered at Ur in Mesopotamia and dating to about 3500 B.C., are large hollow tapered hoops. Egyptian earrings of this time were made of gold and silver combined with such stones as amethyst, turquoise, garnet, and jasper. The hoop earring also appeared in the earliest Greek period (2500-1600 B.C.). During the late Mi-noan and Mycenaean periods (1600-1100 B.C.) the ends of the earrings were wound into spirals, which came to represent horns when a conical addition transformed the ring into the shape of a bull's head. A more elaborate form was a crescent with a scalloped edge and granular decoration.
In the great age of Greece (600-475 B.C.), when gold was plentiful, workmanship became increasingly expert, with the result that there were many different shapes and considerable elaboration. For example, the plain boat shape of earlier earrings assumed the form of a real boat containing a human figure or various animals. The pendant earring, popular in late classical times (475-330 B.C.), consisted of complex shoulder-length objects with dangling chains, rosettes, or other forms suspended from a large decorated disk. Studlike earrings were formed by disks on either side of the lobe connected by an interlinking tube.
The Etruscans (7th to 5th centuries B.C.) made gold earrings with delicate filigree work often inlaid with stones. A style introduced late in the period consisted of a tubular ring with an animal-head finial. Roman jewelry derived from Etruscan and Hellenistic prototypes. Plain hoop earrings continued to be worn, as did those with animal finials, but more typical was a ball type- a hemisphere suspended on a hook. This was later superseded by a pendant earring consisting of a bezel-set stone suspended from another stone, or a stone set above a horizontal bar holding pendant stones.
Byzantine and Medieval Types
Byzantine earrings were basically Roman styles in a much elaborated form: cascades of flashing gems in long pendants are typical of the Byzantine love of ostentation. During the medieval period in northern Europe earrings were rarely more than a simple metal ring, perhaps with a bead of colored glass attached. Earrings disappeared during the later medieval period when women wore their hair in long braids or covered their heads.
Renaissance and Later Types
The renewed interest in antiquity during the Renaissance brought earrings into favor once more as a form of personal adornment. However, extreme elaboration was concentrated mainly upon such pieces as necklaces, brooches, and belts, and earrings were usually simple pendants of gold occasionally enriched with enamel or with drop pearls. The complexity of contemporary headdresses probably hindered any elaboration, and throughout the 17th century (and well into the 18th century) the drop pearl was by far the most popular earring. It was also a popular male adornment (worn singly); that worn by Charles I of England when he went to the scaffold still survives.
The 18th century saw the development of girandole earrings, large stones having from three to five pendants of diamonds, or of the increasingly popular artificial gems called "pastes." By the end of the century the settings had become extremely refined and elegant. The size and style of 18th century earrings were wholly dependent upon the dictates of fashion that in 1774 positively prohibited the wearing of earrings. In the early 19th century, earrings of enamel, facet-cut steel, and Wedgwood cameos were followed by simple gold earrings set with pearls, cabochon stones, or diamonds in such naturalistic settings as flowers or birds.
The Victorian period was one of endless search for novelty, and all manner of materials (jet, coral, hair) and subject matter (locomotives, horseshoes) were used. Copies of medieval and Renaissance jewels and imposing suites of large, brightly colored stones were replaced in the 1880's by diamonds and pearls in simple silver settings or by earrings of carved jet or ivory. Further simplicity was encouraged by the aesthetic movement at the end of the Victorian period, and most earrings were small and discreet.
The disappearance of the craftsman goldsmith and the emergence of the designer resulted in the introduction of new and imaginative techniques and styles for earrings, particularly in mass-produced costume jewelry, much of which was made for unpierced ears. The 20th century also saw the introduction of platinum as a setting for precious gems. During the 1920's, long pendant earrings reflected an Oriental influence. In the 1930's, clips of cultured pearls (or imitation pearls) enjoyed a long popularity.
The development of plastics after World War II gave unlimited scope to the inventiveness of earring designers, who created brightly colored earrings of all shapes and sizes. Also, ear piercing, which had lost popularity after World War I, returned to favor.
Large circular earrings of both bronze and gold were made in India before the 1st century B.C. Later styles include intricate gold filigree earrings of the pendant type and drops composed of pearls and precious gems. A Chinese painting of the 7th century a.d. shows women wearing hoop earrings, and the pendant type, ornamented with pearls and stones after the Indian fashion, were worn during the T'ang dynasty (618-906 A.D.).
Central and South American Indians of the pre-Columbian period made ear ornaments of pure gold, using anthropomorphic and zoomorphic forms, at times combined, for example, when divinities with human figures and animal heads were represented. The Pre-Columbians also made disk-type earplugs of such materials as shell inlaid with turquoise, attached to the earlobe by a wooden rod.