An earring is a piece of jewellery attached to the ear via a piercing in the earlobe or another external part of the ear (except in the case of clip earrings, which clip onto the lobe). Earrings are worn by both sexes, although more common among women, and have been used by different civilizations in different times.
Common locations for piercings, other than the earlobe, include the rook, tragus, and across the helix (see image at right). The simple term “ear piercing” usually refers to an earlobe piercing, whereas piercings in the upper part of the external ear are often referred to as “cartilage piercings”. Cartilage piercings are more complex to perform than earlobe piercings and take longer to heal.
Earring components may be made of any number of materials, including metal, plastic, glass, precious stone, beads, wood, bone, and other materials. Designs range from small loops and studs to large plates and dangling items. The size is ultimately limited by the physical capacity of the earlobe to hold the earring without tearing. However, heavy earrings worn over extended periods of time may lead to stretching of the earlobe and the piercing.
Ear piercing is one of the oldest known forms of body modification, with artistic and written references from cultures around the world dating back to early history. Early evidence of earrings worn by men can be seen in archeological evidence from Persepolis in ancient Persia. The carved images of soldiers of the Persian Empire, displayed on some of the surviving walls of the palace, show them wearing an earring.
Other early evidence of earring-wearing is evident in the Biblical record. In Exodus 32:1–4, it is written that while Moses was up on Mount Sinai, the Israelites demanded that Aaron make a god for them. It is written that he commanded them to bring their sons’ and daughters’ earrings (and other pieces of jewelry) to him in order that he might comply with their demand. (ca. 1500 BCE)
Earrings became fashionable among courtiers and gentlemen in the 1590s during the English Renaissance. A document published in 1577 by clergyman William Harrison, Description of England, states “Some lusty courtiers and gentlemen of courage do wear either rings of gold, stones or pearls in their ears.” Among sailors, a pierced earlobe was a symbol that the wearer had sailed around the world or had crossed the equator. In addition, it is commonly held that a gold earring was worn by sailors in payment for a proper burial in the event that they might drown at sea. Should their bodies have been washed up on shore, it was hoped that the earring would serve as payment for “a proper Christian burial”. Regardless of this expression, the practice predates Christianity and can be traced back as far as ancient Greece where the gold paid the ferryman, Charon, to provide passage across the river Styx to Hades.
Detail from Chandos portrait (1660s) ofWilliam Shakespeare; earrings were emblematic of poets at the time.
The practice of wearing earrings was a tradition for Ainu men and women, but the Government of Meiji Japan forbade Ainu men to wear earrings in the late-19th century. Earrings were also commonplace among nomadic Turkic tribes.
By the late 1950s or early 1960s, the practice re-emerged, but since a large commercial market did not exist, most ear piercings were done at home. Teenage girls were known to hold ear piercing parties, where they performed the procedure on one another. Such an event is depicted in the 1978 motion picture Grease (set in 1959), where Sandy (Olivia Newton-John), the leading lady, is pierced by her friends.
By the mid-1960s, some physicians offered ear piercing as a service. Simultaneously, Manhattan jewelry stores were some of the earliest commercial, non-medical locations for getting an ear piercing.