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History of Earrings – The Ancient World

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General comments: It would be convenient to draw a single time-line describing the history of antique earrings, but in reality, different cultures exhibited different fashions and technical abilities at any given time. The antique earrings in the Ancient Orient differed to those worn in the Middle East, which were  superior to anything known in Europe at the time. As men began to travel further afield, there was cultural and technical interchange and influence for what we call antique earrings.  And yet, even today, while economists speak of globalisation, there are vast differences between earrings in the West and those worn in the Far East and Africa.  Here, we will talk about some of the general trends.

 

The  Ancient  World:

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photo of antique earringsEarrings compliment out looks, but in the Ancient world, they served to show which social, political or religious group or clan you belonged to, your social status, wealth and class within the group. Antique Earrings flashed wealth or divulged your status as a slave. Today, there are clear distinctions between earring styles worn by different cultures in the non-western world. Antique earrings, both pendants and hoops, worn 7000 years in Egypt or Asia, signified that the wearer belonged to a particular class. Early cultures believed that evil spirits could enter the body via any orifice.  Earrings were seen as a means to plug up the ears and prevent such an invasion. The magical powers attributed to antique earrings are wide and varied, for example is the belief that they strengthened weak eyes. This belief persisted in France as late as the 1800’s.

 

While earrings are clearly mentioned many times in the Old Testament (stories about Moses and Abraham mention earrings to name just two), antique earrings for pierced ears were known in the Middle East from at least 3000 years ago. The oldest antique earrings were found in the royal graves in Iraq, home of the Ancient Assyrians. In 1989 the treasures of Nimrod, their capital city, considered on a par with King Tut’s tomb were excavated. About 50 kg of marvelous jewels including 8 pairs of identical earrings, owned by the Assyrian Queen were found. This intricate gold jewelry was technically superior to anything produced for many years afterwards. During the recent chaos and looting of the war in Iraq, some of these earrings landed up on the auction block in the USA and amidst much scandal, including Interpol’s swooping intervention, was finally brought back to the Iraq Museum.

 

If not clear by now, it should be pointed out that in Ancient times, jewelry was predominantly worn by men.  Some walls of the Persian ancient palace of Persepolis, c500 BC., show carved figures of soldiers wearing earrings.

 

Antique Earrings – Dress to Impress

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photo antique earrings on modelEarrings are the most popular form of antique jewelry today. While other forms of jewelry abound, it is difficult to find good quality, interesting antique jewellery earrings.

Why are antique earrings so desirable?

 

Ever since Eve adorned herself with a fig leaf, humankind has looked to jewelry as a mode of identity social standing, to identify with a cultural group, to link with the past, to impress others, to express ourselves. Mythological, religious, symbolic significance and historic links are part of it all, but the biggest reason we wear earrings, is for its wonderful aesthetic appeal.

 

Women hardly need to be persuaded that “You are what you wear”. Earrings frame our faces – the most seen and outwardly relevant part of our bodies. Simply put: they make us look good.

 

Earrings have been and are, made of every material available. We value earrings made with precious metals and set with precious stones most. Adding a designer name always helps, whether it be ‘by Appointment to ….’ or the latest wave in fashion-fundis. To me, little made today compares to the antique earring, both in design, workmanship and historic appeal. Earrings are undoubtedly, little works of art. While some great earrings are made today, nothing compares to antique earrings worn by our grand and great-grandmothers.

 

I have found surprising similarities in antique jewelry made across the continents, over the centuries in earrings imbedded with gems or simply twisted wires. We don’t need a time-machine to know that there must have been trade between Europe and India. We just need to look at their jewels to see that cultures were crossed.

 

antique earrings on modelTypes of earrings: There are many types of earring, from those that simply slip through a tiny hole in our ear-lobe, to huge entities that extend and distend the lobe over a period of years, or worn on a variety of locations up and down the outer ear. Many earrings are little ornaments suspended from wires that penetrate the earlobe. Chandeliers and Girandoles in 3 sections, so heavy that they were supported by ribbons tied to the hair.  Long pendants. Drops. Hoops. Poissarde earrings with an S-shaped wire, supposedly worn by fishwives in France and highly sought after in that country today. Studs – simple and small, worn flat on the lobe with a rigid post through the ear. Clip-ons, an innovation of the early 20th century and still in use today, come in every form and are especially useful for people without pierced ears.

 

Prior to the 20th century, most earrings were inserted in the ear back to front. Today the opposite is the norm.  Most antique earrings have replaced wires and often replaced surmounts. We really should not hold this against them. After all, the new wires are much more comfortable and easy to insert.   And, let’s be forgiving – How well have we held up over the years?

 

A whole host of more complex forms of earrings exists in societies, like India, where the earring is much more than a simple adornment. When we look at some of these creations, it’s mind-boggling to consider the extent of self-mutilation involved in wearing them.

 

Modes of Fastening: Many earrings suspended from wires have no clasp at all. The wire simply goes through the lobe and hopefully, never falls out. To avoid accidents, often a means of catching the bottom of the wire exists, usually in the form of a c-catch. Russian earrings often have a triangular catch to hold the wire. Studs are held by little gadgets called ‘butterflies’. Today, nice comfy butterflies made of plastic make pushing these tight against the back of the lobe less nasty. Clips with a variety of clasps, often called French backs or Omegas, shaped like the Greek letter. Screw-ons – a short-lived fad of the early 1900’s for masochists longing for the days of the Inquisition. Replace them with posts. Latch and lever backs are less common.

 

What should you look for when shopping for earrings?

 

example of beautiful antique earringsAesthetic appeal, craftsmanship & technical skill, condition, historic or other symbolic value, provenance, designer names, intrinsic value of materials and most of all, yet again, personal taste. I particularly love earrings with a sense of movement and sometimes, a sense of humor. Ask yourself what you want to wear: Classic or Bling? The great thing about earrings is that you can have lots of them to suit every mood and occasion.

 

“Dress to Impress”!! Clever women know the earring secret. It isn’t the outfit, but that subtle something – the earring, that truly makes the look.