Earrings, ornaments decorating the ears, have been one of the principal forms of jewelry throughout recorded history. The term usually refers to ornaments worn attached to the earlobes, though in the late twentieth century it expanded somewhat to include ornaments worn on other parts of the ear, such as ear cuffs, and is used to describe pieces of jewelry in earring form, even when they are worn through piercings in other parts of the body (for example, in the nose). The most common means of fashion earrings to the earlobes has been to pierce holes in the lobes, through which a loop or post may be passed. But a variety of other devices have also been used, including spring clips, tensioning devices such as screw backs, and, for particularly heavy earrings, loops passing over the top of the ear or attaching to the hair or headdress.
In many cultures and contexts, earrings have traditionally been worn as symbols of cultural or tribal identity, as markers of age, marital status, or rank, or because they are believed to have protective or medicinal powers. Even when they have served other purposes, however, the primary function of earrings has been a decorative one. As earrings are so prominently placed near the face, and at the juncture between costume and coiffure, they, perhaps more than any other element of jewelry, have been particularly responsive to changes in fashion; as hairstyles, hats, collars, and necklines have risen and fallen, earrings have correspondingly increased and decreased in size and prominence, and during many periods they have been instrumental in balancing and tying together the desired fashionable appearance.
In antiquity, earrings were one of the most popular forms of jewelry. The crescent-shaped gold hoops worn by Sumerian women around 2500 B.C.E. are the earliest earrings for which there is archaeological evidence. By 1000 B.C.E., tapered hoop (also known as boat-shaped) earrings, most commonly of gold but also of silver and bronze, had spread throughout the Aegean world and Western Asia. In Crete and Cyprus, earrings were embellished with twisted gold wire, clusters of beads, and pendants stamped out of thin sheet gold.
In Egypt, earrings were introduced about 1500 B.C.E. and were later worn by both men and women. Many Egyptian earrings took the form of thick, mushroom-shaped studs or plugs, which required an enlarged hole to be stretched in the earlobe; these could be of gold, with a decorated front surface, or of humbler materials such as colored glass or carved jasper. Ear studs consisting of two capped tubes that screwed together could be worn alone, but some also had elaborate pendants of gold cornflowers, or falcons with flexible tail feathers inlaid with glass.
In the first millennium B.C.E., Etruscan and Greek goldsmiths brought new refinement and artistry to earrings, which were valued as both an adornment and a sign of wealth. Variations on the hoop were the so-called leech earring, a thick tube secured by a hidden wire, and the Etruscan box-type earring, which encased the earlobe in a wide horizontal cylinder. Disk earrings, with pendants in the form of amphorae (ancient Greek jars), figures of Eros, and decorative beads and chains, were another popular form, joined about 330 B.C.E. by twisted gold hoops with animal-head finials. All of these forms were stamped out of thin sheets of gold and decorated with fine palmettes, scrolls, and flowers in twisted wire and granulation; such earrings were fairly light in weight, but gave an extremely rich effect.
Roman earrings were similar to Etruscan styles until the first century C.E., when new styles with disks and pendants mounted on s-shaped ear hooks appeared. Colored stones and pearls were favored, and earring styles proliferated to satisfy the Roman taste for ostentatious display. At its height, the Roman Empire had the effect of standardizing styles of jewelry over much of the known world; after the center of influence shifted to Byzantium (Constantinople) in C.E. 330, and Roman influence began to decline, local variations once more emerged. Characteristic Byzantine earrings were plain gold hoops with multiple pearl pendants hung on chains, and crescent-shaped 925 silver open hoop earrings.
In the 1810s and 1820s, the trend toward lighter and more delicate jewelry continued, and settings of gold filigree or elaborate wirework (known as cannetille) were very popular. In the 1820s, a romantic interest in the past also inspired jewelry designers to revive historical styles from the ancient world to the eighteenth century, and a modified version of the girandole earring returned, along with elaborate gothic tracery and rococo-revival scroll-work. As hairstyles became more elaborate in the 1830s, earrings became more prominent, with small tops and long drops reaching nearly to the shoulders. In spite of their size, these s925 silver earrings were fairly light in weight, owing to lightweight settings of gold cannetille or of repoussé (embossed relief raised from behind with a hammer), which had largely replaced cannetille by the 1840s. Earrings with long, torpedo-shaped drops of carved gemstones with applied gold filigree were also popular, many with detachable drops to allow the tops to be worn alone.
In the last two decades of the nineteenth century, large pendant earrings went out of fashion, in part because they were incompatible with the newly fashionable high dress and blouse collars, and with the elaborate "dog collar" necklaces worn for evening, which almost completely covered the neck. Small single-stone and 925 sterling silver cuba earrings, either firmly mounted to the ear wire or mounted as pendants to move and catch the light, were the most commonly worn style through the early twentieth century. The most fashionable earrings of all were diamond solitaires, which became more available after the opening of the South African diamond fields in the late 1860s. New cutting machines and open-claw settings, both of which increased the amount of light reflected by diamonds and made solitaire earrings more appealing, were developed in the 1870s. To prevent valuable diamond earrings from being lost, catches were added to secure the bottoms of the ear wires. Another innovation, first patented in 1878, was the earring cover, a small hinged sphere of gold, sometimes finished in black enamel, which could be snapped over a diamond earring to protect it from loss or theft. By the end of the century diamond ear studs (also called screws), with a threaded post passing through the ear, and held securely in back by a nut screwed onto the post, were also popular.
By the early 1920s, earrings were again almost universally worn, and the range of exotic styles had expanded to include hoop and pendant earrings of Spanish or Gypsy inspiration, Egyptian styles inspired by the discovery of King Tutankhamen's tomb in 1922, nineteenth-century antiques, and picturesque "peasant" styles from around the world. As reported by the New York Times in 1922, in the 1920s earrings could "no longer … be considered as an article of jewelry; they are the article of jewelry." With dress styles now comparatively simple, and many women bobbing their hair, earrings were considered an essential finishing touch-a means both of filling in the area between the ear and shoulder and of expressing the wearer's personality. Bold geometric pendant 925 stud earrings, made of diamonds and platinum contrasted with strongly colored materials such as onyx and lapis lazuli, were displayed at the Exposition International des Arts Décoratifs in 1925, and this style, which became known as Art Deco, remained popular for both precious and costume earrings for the remainder of the decade.