|By Kathy McKimmie
Women have gussied up with earrings for thousands of years. Some men have gotten into the act, too – King Tut had pierced earlobes. The earliest earrings were a pierced hoop, and the style is popular today. Large pendants for pierced ears also were present early and have been popular throughout the ages.
In their book, Earrings from Antiquity to the Present, Thames & Hudson, 1990, Daniela Mascetti and Amanda Triossi move quickly from antiquity to the 18th century. There wasn’t much to report for hundreds of years, they write, because while other forms of jewelry thrived in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance “earrings virtually disappeared between the 11th and 16th centuries” due to hair and dress styles. A headdress may have covered the hair and ears, or the hair itself, sometimes in a braid, wrapped at the ear.
In the 1500s, plain gold earrings with pearl drops appeared, and the pearls got larger through the next century. The girandole style with three drops (the middle typically larger) hanging from a central decorative piece at the earlobe, was the rage in the 1600s and 1700s, and got larger and more elaborate.
To alleviate the weight problem, Mascetti and Triossi wrote that methods were devised, including a ribbon in the hair attached to the earring, to hold some of the load. The mid-1700s brought a new etiquette – earrings with diamonds were for evening, those with garnets and other semi-precious stones or pastes were for daytime.
By the mid-1800s, thin sheets of gold were used in designs, allowing earrings to be large and long and yet lightweight and those unadorned with important gems were affordable. The late 1800s saw revivals of classical styles and whimsical and nature-inspired designs. By 1900 earrings had turned simpler again. If diamonds were used they were now set in platinum to show them off, rather than silver.
20th century styles
Earring styles whipsawed throughout the 20th century, and fashions overlap decades and vary widely with the age, taste and economic status of the wearer. By the end of the century, an “anything goes” culture from vintage (or repro vintage) to fine to following the current fashion trend was well in place.
The biggest change in the 20th century was the move away from pierced ears. Screw-on earrings were gaining popularity before World War I, and clip-ons gained a foothold in the 1930s.
By the 1940s, nearly all new earrings were either clip or screw. Pierced ears were not only unfashionable, they were considered by some to be a barbaric mutilation of the body, and worse, to show a lack of moral character in the wearer.
Pierced earrings made a comeback in America in the 1960s and 1970s – when long, dangly, “hippie” style earrings became fashionable. Although some sought the help of a doctor or nurse to make the hole in the lobe, many young people turned to their friends to apply ice to deaden the pain before inserting a needle and thread, the thread left in. Others prolonged their pain by using “sleepers,” a small ring with tension and a sharp point on one end that slowly worked its way through the ear. That method didn’t last long, as stores offered to pierce ears with a “gun” inserting a starter stud. At least it was fast.
Not everyone switched to pierced earrings, of course. Many of the big, plastic Pop earrings of the 1960s were clips (and clips were getting more comfortable), as were many of the long swinging earrings of the 1970s and the glamorous pieces from the 1980s.
But the trend toward piercing continued; and when women who had been holding out couldn’t find what they wanted in clips, they bit the bullet and were glad they did. Fashion earrings were easily accessible and cheap, but gold earrings began to flourish for the masses in the 1970s and diamond studs landed on Christmas lists.
Daughters urged their mothers to pierce, and they were glad they did, too. They wanted to be trendy, and it was safer to buy expensive earrings without fear of losing one.
But let’s back up to those screw-on and early clip days. The Depression dispensed with showy jewelry, but Hollywood glam of the 1930s brought it right back. Austerity returned during World War II, but the later 1940s brought rhinestones galore and that sparkly trend intensified in the 1950s.
Laura Shearer, who with her husband, Ernie, owns Antiques on the Corner in Indianapolis, had some 20-something buyers last year looking for colorful vintage rhinestone earrings at good price points.
“They put them in their bridal bouquet,” she said. Not the one she throws; the one she keeps. “New rhinestones don’t have the sparkle,” she added. “They don’t look the same.”
The polar opposite of the rhinestone craze, but happening simultaneously, was the advent of the modern jewelry designer using silver and copper, with shops springing up in New York and California. An expert on the era, Marbeth Schon, Natchez, Miss., provides a wealth of information on her website, mschon.com, and in her Modern Silver magazine at modernsilver.com.
Particularly interesting is her article titled The Wearable Art Movement, Part I, in which she discusses the exhibition Modern Jewelry Under Fifty Dollars at the trend-setting Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, that showcased the work of 32 established and emerging artists in 1948, including Alexander Calder, Jacques Lipchitz, Margaret De Patta, Sam Kramer, Art Smith and Harry Bertoia.
There are many good jewelry texts, but two for both inspiration and information are: 20th Century Jewelry, The Complete Sourcebook, by John Peacock, Thames & Hudson, 2002, and Christie’s Twentieth-Century Jewelry, by Sally Everitt and David Lancaster, Watson-Guptill, 2002.
The first has numerous images by decade and type (pins, necklaces, earrings); the latter, while not offering as much detail on earrings, offers clues on how top designers have changed the tastes of the masses.