The Jewelry Diva: The History of Earrings Part I

Notes from the Lane is pleased to announce our new monthly column ‘The Jewelry Diva’ by Ruby Lane shop owner Cindy Amirkhan - A Twinkle in Time. Cindy opened her shop in 2002 and has sold many beautiful and unique pieces of jewelry over the years, and she continues to dazzle her customers with new items and quality service. Cindy  shares her extensive knowledge of vintage and costume jewelry with you, including historical information, styles, designers and more. We are certain you will enjoy her monthly column as much as we do.  The Editors of Notes from the Lane.

The History of Earrings Part I

There is something magical about earrings – they are unique and move with a life of their own. Women desire earrings more than any other piece of jewelry, and have done so for the last decade. It is a fact that most women possess many, many pairs of earrings and claim to “feel naked” without them!

Earrings evolved dramatically in shape, size, and design since their origin in 3000 B.C. Pierced earrings are different from most types of jewelry because they penetrate the body, assuming an identity close in nature to aural (piercing) acupuncture. As technology improved so did the process of piercing an individual’s ear; today ear piercing is virtually painless, unlike ear piercing of the past, and in some areas of the world the act of piercing ones ear has evolved to the level of an art form.

There is evidence prehistoric people wore earrings and history tells us the first discovery of earrings took place when the graves of royalty in the Middle East were unearthed. In the ancient Egyptian culture, the wearing of precious metal earrings by women was so fashionable that the trend spread throughout the Mediterranean to Mycenae, to the Roman, Hellenistic and  Byzantium empires.

In some cultures earrings were symbolic of ones race, tribe or status, and men also wore earrings! Compared to the past, the style of earrings worn by men today is very simple; usually consisting of a solitary diamond or a small gold hoop. Women on the other hand wear many styles and sizes, with endless design options to to choose from.

Although the Middle Ages and the Renaissance are particularly rich periods for jewelry in general, the role of earrings is so minor that one can say they virtually disappeared from the 11th to the 16th century. The reason is found in the hair and dress fashions of the time: elaborate hairstyles partially to almost completely covered the ears, while headdresses and bonnets obscured the ears totally, and high collared costumes left very little room for earrings to hang freely.

In the 1600's large, matching pearl drop earrings were a favorite. They were highly prized because the two pearl teardrops matched perfectly. Around 1660 the ‘Girandole’ style was a very popular earring form. It consists of two main elements: a ribbon bowknot surmount, which supports three pear shaped drops of diamonds or other precious gemstones and emphasizes width rather than length. Some jewelers added different colors of enamels to further enhance the gems.

The gemstone settings were a consequence of the gem-cutting techniques of the time. The stones are set in ‘closed’ back settings, which does not allow the light to pass through the stone and illuminate its beauty. The closed back style of setting also adds weight to the earring. While doing research I often view photographs of women from this era with elongated ear lobes, which are obviously stretched from wearing long and extremely heavy earrings.

During this time women wore their hair pulled back and pinned up, away from their face, allowing them to show off their dainty ears and favorite earrings! Another style that was popular is the ‘Pendeloque’ style of earrings, which are very long (3 inches long or longer) and elaborate. The center usually consists of a free swinging gemstone with a marquis shaped surmount. This elongated style balanced out the hairstyles of the period, which are extremely high.

In the early 18th century, women wore bonnets with wide ribbons covering their ears and chins and once again, earrings became obsolete. However, later in the century, woman’s hairstyles went back up and once again, earrings were popular. It is clear the clothing fashions and hairstyles of the century dictated whether a woman could wear a pair of earrings or not.

During the early 1800’s, the jewelers of France dominated the jewelry scene with superior jewelry designs. This was largely due to Napoleon’s enthusiasm and support for the development of the arts and technology in France. He considered the luxuriousness of his court to be of utmost importance and not at all a frivolous matter; it was an indication of the court’s prestige and a matter of honor for the French.

The popularity of cameo earrings was a consequence of Napoleon’s interest in carved and engraved gems. He brought back cameos from Italy and then opened a school in Paris to train individuals to carve and engrave gemstones for cameos. The school turned out many students, which boosted cameo production, especially cameos of classical inspiration. It was not until the eighteenth century that the techniques for cutting colored gemstones and diamonds improved and began to be perfected, allowing earring designs to evolve and become more stylish and glamorous. This was great news, as jewelers were now able to set precious gemstones in open backed settings, which meant earrings were lighter and more comfortable to wear. The lighter weight earrings no longer pulled a woman’s ear lobes down to her knees, and the gemstones sparkled as never before.

In next months column we will continue to discuss the evolution of the earring and the different styles women wore from the 1800’s to the fabulous 1920’s and on through to the 1950’s Glam Period.

Remember, “Life is Too Short Not to Sparkle” – wear a piece of jewelry everyday and add color and sparkle to your world.

Cindy Amirhan

Take a moment and visit  Cindy's Ruby Lane Shop -  A Twinkle in Time


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