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.