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Earrings in History

King Ashurbanipal hunting a lion - ReliefCoeval with the dawn of time, one of the first activities which preoccupied humankind was the enterprise of self-adornment. While it would take another thirty thousand years for the invention of metallurgy, skills needed to make jewelry from such metals as gold, silver or bronze. The materials that were first used were readily available: animal teeth and bones, shells which had been perforated for hanging on a string of some sort, wood shaped into beads and stones. Hunter-gatherers were clearly preliterate and our knowledge comes from archeologist's discoveries of burial places.

The naturally occurring material was organic (except for stones) and much has slipped into the mists of time.

While we cannot know the definitive reasons why people wanted to enhance their appearance, we can hypothesize about the wearing of jewelry, whether for ritual reasons, for status reasons or for more whimsical reasons--they are the same reasons we would give today!

If we examine the most prevalent types of jewelry we have a glimpse of the past which reveals current styles still familiar to us.

Both men and women wore earrings. In 7th century BC Mesopotamia, wall reliefs from Assyria, show King Ashurbanipal wearing earrings that demonstrate the presence of metal-work and extensive trade in natural resources from different parts of the world.

In Egypt, too, the pharaoh known as Tutankhamen confirms his avant-garde taste by wearing ear plugs--still avant-garde today!

For men, sometimes the wearing of earrings had a more practical side. Sailors wore gold earrings, so that if they perished, their funeral would be paid for. Some even believed that if an earring was worn in the left earlobe, his eyesight would be improved!

So What About the Ladies?

Today, probably 99% of all earrings sold are bought by women for themselves. Women's fashion is the driving force behind earring styles seen everywhere. In the grave sites, archeologists have shown that the grave goods, accompanying the deceased into the next life, reveal the same types of earring fashions we see now.

Vintage Earrings With Amethyst Diamonds And SapphiresIn Mesopotamia, the true "Cradle of Civilization," Sumerian graves have revealed golden hoop earrings in the burial of Queen Pu-Abi, dating from 2600 BC.

While technology has advanced beyond what was achieved in the past, these earring designs are still popular today.

Earrings do come in many different shapes and designs. Here are gold Hellenistic earrings from Greece: they are precious and decorative. We also know that they were valued because they were buried with their owner. They can be favorably compared with modern dangling earrings such as these in gold with amethysts and yellow sapphires.

Lest we believe that our fashions are cutting edge, the tomb of Tutankhamen reveals ear plugs in the boy-king's ears. That was the height of fashion then, and is the ne plus ultra today!

While we may not want to wear ear plugs, we do wear earrings which do not dangle: we call them studs.

Many ancient examples of the jeweler's art can be found throughout history. The styles of the past are still with us today. In some decades we like one particular kind of earring, and in others, our tastes change. Is anything really ever new?

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