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Earrings: History and Style Guide

Excerpt from by Susanne Kathol, Exclusively for Fire Mountain Gems and Beads®

Earrings have enjoyed a long history of being used as adornment, cultural identification and a sign of wealth and prosperity for thousands of years, dating back to 2500 B.C. Even though earring styles and popularity have fluctuated throughout time based on economic conditions, fashion and style influences and societal factors, they have always remained an important part of fashion.

Originating in Asia and the Middle East, there were two common types of earrings, the hoop and the more elaborate pendant. Earrings were used as a simple way to determine the wearer's religious, political or tribal identity. Earrings were also an indicator of the individual's social status in the community and were considered a sign of wealth and prosperity. 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 as payment for a proper burial in the event that they might drown at sea. Earrings were also worn for acupuncture purposes, commonly believed to aid eyesight and hearing.

During the Roman Empire, wealthy women used earrings to show off their rich status. By the 2nd century A.D., gemstones such as sapphires, emeralds and aquamarines were used regularly in earring designs. In the Dark Ages, poverty prevailed and metal jewelry sharply declined although designs were preserved for later use. During the Middle Ages, attention turned to elaborate hairstyles, skillfully crafted dresses and headdresses, resulting in earrings losing much of their appeal.

However, during the 16th century, high collars disappeared and hair was being worn up and away from the face, so earrings began to make a comeback. During the 1850s, earrings lost popularity once again as hair was tied behind the head, covering the ears, or bonnets and hats were worn. In addition, the religious and social sentiments of the time associated earrings with heathens, vanity and excess.

With the 1920s came the advent of the clip-on earring, causing ear piercing to fall out of favor. Many viewed clip-on earrings as being more sanitary and proper.

By the middle of the 20th century, earrings of all shapes and sizes were popular, though there was a clear distinction between more conservative earrings worn during the day, and more glamorous earrings worn in the evenings. In the 1970s, pierced earrings gained popularity and at the same time, styles merged and were no longer limited to either day or night wear.

Today we see a wide variety of earring styles, for both men and women. Here's a guide to some of the most common styles for easy identification.

Stud earrings are defined as a single gem or group of gems, set in a mounting that fits close to the earlobe. Stud earrings appear to ''float'' on the earlobe without a visible point of connection. The adornment is secured on the end of a post, which penetrates straight through the ear. The post is held in place by a removable friction back or clutch. The stud post can also be threaded, allowing a screw back to securely hold the earring in place.

Chandelier earrings closely resemble mini-chandeliers with a series of embellishments that drop down, sometimes cascading to different lengths, creating tiers. These tiers create movement and in many cases, create additional sparkle and shine.

Hoop earrings are a circle or half-circle, usually with a wire to secure one side of the hoop to the other, which passes through the ear, or with a post that is then closed using attachment techniques seen in stud earrings.

Another variation is the continuous (or endless) hoop earring, where the hoop penetrates through the ear and can be rotated almost 360 degrees. One of the ends is permanently attached to a small piece of metallic tubing or a hollow metallic bead. The other end is inserted into the tubing or bead, and is held in place by tension.

Threader earrings are a chain that slides through the ear hole and dangles (also known as an ear string). In many cases beads or other materials are added to the chain.

Dangle earrings (also known as drop earrings) are designed to flow from the bottoms of the earlobes, and are available in various lengths from a centimeter or two, all the way to brushing the shoulders (known as shoulder duster earrings). They are generally attached to the ear by the use of thin wires, which go through the earlobe and connect to themselves in a small hook at the back, also known as kidney earwires. 


A variation is the French hook design (or fishhook earwire), which merely hangs from the earlobe without closure, although small plastic retainers (also known as earwire safety sleeves) are sometimes used on ends of French hooks for added security.

The clip-on earring is a great alternative for non-pierced ears. The clip itself is a two-part piece attached to the back of an earring. The two pieces close around the earlobe, using mechanical pressure to hold the earring in place. Other types of non-pierced earrings include the spring closure and screwback closureHuggies are a popular style of non-pierced earrings where the setting actually ''hugs'' your earlobe. A hinge is located at the top of the earring that allows the post to open and close without an earring back. Many times, stones are channel set in huggy earrings.

Sleeper earrings (also known as starter earrings) are designed to be comfortable when worn for long periods of time and are generally small to prevent entanglement with bedding or hair. Because their small size makes them comfortable, sleeper earrings are sometimes worn at night to keep an ear piercing from closing. Common styles include studs with short posts or screw backs and small hoops.

An ear cuff is decorative ring designed to be pinched onto the ear without need for piercing. Ear cuffs may be pinched onto any part of the ear, not just the earlobe.

French Mermaid Collection and Bijoux JCL have been inserted into this article.

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