earrings + culture + craft: a historical view

earrings + culture + craft: a historical view

Culture and craft have influenced each other since time immemorial. The process of making, and the practice of wearing jewellery, including earrings, cannot be divorced from culture, nor from localized craftsmanship. This blog post goes through a brief historical account of this truth, looking specifically at earrings. It seeks to point out the relationship between earrings + culture + craft in different eras as evidence of this pointed reality. 

CULTURE → influences → CRAFT
CRAFT → influences → CULTURE

Ancient Times (5000 BC – 5th century)
In Ancient times, earrings were primarily worn to indicate class, social status and/or to associate oneself with a particular religion, as well as for adornment. A first example of a people wearing earrings is in 7000 BC in Ancient Egypt, where royalty and nobility wore earrings made of gold and gemstones to indicate their position in society. The practice of royalty, or a ruling class, wearing jewellery made from high-value mediums would permeate history and is still in practice today. The British, Ottoman and Persian Empires evidence royalty commissioning craftspeople to make jewellery to be worn as part of their cultural (class-based) roles. Then, as now, what the ruling elite wear, and the meaning they may attach to it influences culture. In another time and space, earrings were worn to signify another type of social status. Both slaves in ancient Rome and prostitutes in ancient Greece wore earrings (not always by choice) to indicate their socio-economic status. 

In major ancient civilizations such as the Egyptian, Persian, Roman and Greek, there is ample evidence of the use of jewellery for religious or spiritual purposes. A common shared belief in this era was that the universe was ruled by a pantheon of demi-gods that worked in the realm of good and evil. One response to this belief was that, in all ranks of society, individuals would wear jewellery in relation to their faith for the purpose of worship, protection or as identity markers. A practice including wearing earrings with specific symbols or inscriptions intended to prevent evil spirits from entering into the wearers’ ears. In these cases, earrings were not worn simply for adornment, but had a practical and spiritual purpose.

An extraordinary example of the cultural use of earrings comes from Ancient Persia, a civilization that is historically deeply connected with art and craft. Extensive wall art dating back to 550-330 BCE shows the Persian Immortals, an elite infantry troop, in their full military gear – which included hoop earrings. This army was responsible for conquering much of the known world at different points in history. For most, it would be inconceivable for a nation to send their army into battle wearing hoop earrings as part of their uniform, but 2500 years ago, for this particular culture, it wasn’t just normal – it was commissioned by the state. 

The craft of making earrings flourished in ancient times, with makers honing the different forms of casting, hammering and sculpting. Across the historical geographic board in this era, there is evidence of jewellery making expanding in scope, creativity, purpose and design. It may be argued that during this time cultural norms played a stronger role in influencing craft, at least in the mainstream. Of course, creatives have been around since time immemorial and were obviously active in these times – likely just playing less visible and less documented roles.

Medieval to the Renaissance (5th century – 17th century)
The craft sector, and particularly jewellery making, continued to flourish around the world in medieval times. The meaning attached to the earrings also continued to ebb and flow. It is said that in medieval Europe, jewellery as an indicator of social status was a deeply entrenched norm related to daily attire. Royalty exclusively wore precious metals and gemstones, and the ‘lower classes’ of society wore jewellery made primarily from base metals such as copper. In the 13th century, the Catholic church – which was an enormous cultural influencer – banned the practice of wearing earrings. On one hand, this resulted in a significant decrease in both men and women wearing earrings in Europe. On the other hand, it had the effect of popularizing the use of earrings among rebels, criminals, and the ‘underclass’ of the time; earrings loosely became a symbol associated with rebellion. At this time, seamen also notably wore earrings for a variety of purposes, such as to indicate they had crossed the equator, or for the earring to be used as payment for their funeral if they perished at sea. In this era, like all others, earrings were worn intentionally and whether known or not, had associated meanings. 

The Renaissance era in Europe (14th to 17th century) prompted waves in the world of art and craft, and also triggered deeper discussions on ‘meaning’ and ‘value’ in this sector.  It was around this time that earrings slowly came back into fashion. Arguably, it was also in this era that craft started to have more of an influence on culture. There is evidence of many wearing earrings as an act of self-expression. A notable character who may have used earrings to influence culture was Shakespeare; historical portraits show him wearing a gold hoop in one ear (although, this point is debated). This era appears to have marked the beginning of a wider shift in the way we engaged with body adornment.

From ancient times to the Renaissance – it is observed that cultural norms influenced craft in a greater capacity, perhaps due to access to material, affordability, tools and knowledge, but also due to deeply enforced social norms that dictated who could wear what and when. As time progressed, we see the emergence of the use of craft playing a greater role in influencing culture. 

 Industrial Revolution (17th and 18th centuries)
The first industrial revolution saw the rise of factories mass producing common items (as opposed to everything being hand-made) and the emergence of a wider middle class; it changed the make-up of society in profound ways, especially in the realm of the meaning we attached to objects. Jewellery became mass-produced and this paved the way for high-quality and fashionable jewellery to become available to all. It wasn’t long after that the mass production of fake gemstones, gold and other precious materials proliferated. As the materials, tools and knowledge associated with crafting jewellery became tremendously accessible, our relationship with the ‘meaning’ jewellery, shifted as well. The idea of viewing jewellery style and design through the lens of social classes began to dissolve, and at the same time, there began to be a release of deeply held notions of what was ‘normal’ to wear. This sector opened up for wider demographics to be included in both making the jewellery, and engaging with it – which in turn, bolstered the shift of craft playing a larger role in influencing culture

Modern day
The use of wearing earrings as self-expression, for general adornment, a marker of culture, and/or an indicator of status still plays as much of a role today as it did 7000 years ago – although this is largely shaped by where one is in the world. Several modern day tribes in Africa continue to use specific earrings to indicate a role the community; certain faith based groups continue to wear earrings with religious significance; individuals active in subcultures might use earrings to showcase their approval or disdain for social norms; hip hop artists wearing earrings in North America shaped culture; and there are thousands of jewellery making institutions that may have radically different conceptual understandings of the relationship between craft and present day culture. 

At a local level, the discussion on craft + culture includes the topic of cultural appropriation, gender and emerging technologies. Additionally, as creatives include plastics, paper, textiles and other non-precious materials in their pieces, the conceptual basis of what constitutes traditional jewellery continues to be pushed.

It is impossible to divorce earrings from culture. We live (in B.C.) in a time and space where we have the freedom to highlight the creativity of craftspeople and celebrate the diverse backgrounds of all that went into crafting the earrings (technique, design, conceptual background, etc.). We become aware that wearing earrings is culturally significant when we recognize that at different points in history, they were rigidly associated with social class, used for religious purposes or to mark one’s socioeconomic status. We have been making earrings for at least 7000 years, but the meaning we as a society attach to them continues to ebb and flow. The Council’s 2023 Earring Show is thrilled to exhibit work from all around the world that illuminates the significant connection between earrings + craft + culture.

author’s note: This list of historical examples in this post are clearly not exhaustive; what was happening in Renaissance Europe in the world of art and craft would have been different than what was happening in central Africa, for example.

image sources (in order of appearance)
Persian Immortals image – wikipedia
Girl with the Pearl Earring – wikipedia
‘Modern day’ earrings by Mihaela Coman – Craft Council of B.C.’s 2022 Earring Show
Louise Perrone’s ‘COVID test’ earrings – Craft Council of BC’s 2022 Earring Show