PJ Book Club: New Earrings


A short history of the earring as an historical method of adornment.

Nicholas Estrada’s book New Earrings features more than 500 contemporary earrings from across the world. Carolina Hornauer pens an historical introduction that sets the tone for the exploratory and informative new book.

The ear is the organ responsible for detecting sound and maintaining our balance. Since around 3,000BC, this delicate shell of cartilage has also been used to display earrings of all kinds.

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These little objects can symbolize everything from ethnic group to class, gender, personal idiosyncrasies, age and wealth. This member of the jewellery family has proven itself the most independent with regards to its wearer, as it hangs off the body and needs only a small element to fix it in place. It may even dangle away from its owner, hovering between the face and neck, a position that allows it – unlike other jewellery – to reveal both its front and rear sides. And, as if that weren’t enough, it also leaves indelible marks on our ears.

Before attaining enlightenment and gaining recognition as Shakyamuni Buddha, the young Siddhartha Gautama was an affluent Nepalese prince. According to the customs of his time and culture, men showed off their wealth by adorning their earlobes with an abundance of ornaments in precious metal and gemstones. As the story goes, the prince followed this tradition, living in a palace and upholding his position of power and noble rank from his early childhood to the age of 29. But then, curious about what lay outside his royal abode, the prince decided to leave the palace and take up life as an ascetic and, later, a monk. Though he divested himself of all of his worldly riches, his earlobes remained elongated, stretched by the weight of the heavy earrings he once wore.

For Buddhists, this physical feature embodies the wisdom and the renunciation of the material world that the followers of Gautama Buddha strive towards. These large ears allowed the Buddha to take in the sounds of a world of tears and suffering, to which he responded with boundless compassion.

Besides ranking among the oldest ornaments in human history, earrings have been regarded as capable of drawing together spirituality, the intellect and beauty.

They also ally creativity and the world of sound. Most earrings are fastened to the body through piercings in the ear. As such, they are the only piece of jewellery that, by its nature, indelibly modifies the body in order to embellish it. Just as there are large earrings that can deform or stretch the ear, so the size and design of other pieces identify the wearer with a minimalist aesthetic, verging on the imperceptible: earrings that are delicate and almost invisible, finely crafted to the point of fragility.

The myth of Buddha removing his earrings paved the way for a whole philosophy and system of symbols. For the Mapuche (an indigenous people from the south of Chile and southwestern Argentina), the ritual of putting on earrings for the first time plays the role of sealing their bond with their culture and differentiating between the genders.

At the event known as the Katan Pilun’N, or ear-piercing festival, women of the Mapuche community reinforce their kinship with the group and with Mother Earth. The ceremony begins when the Machi (a practitioner of traditional medicine and ritual) calls on the god Ngenechén to bestow prosperity, health and wisdom upon the young girl in whose honour the rite is being held. Using a silver pin, the Machi pierces the girl’s ears and sews in a thread of wool which will be removed when the wound heals. This is followed by the attachment of the first earrings, or chaway, which represent a magical system that identifies its wearer’s gender, protects her and connects her to the land of her forefathers.

As I explored these pieces, I became fully aware of the poetic potential of earrings to channel the voices of our intellect and emotions. It is therefore up to the jewellers themselves to continue making earrings that reveal a language infused with symbolism, sound and vitality. Indeed, contemporary jewellery is a privileged arena for the development of a whole host of new forms of expression, centred around these objects which, despite their humble beginnings as nothing more than small pieces of metal placed through the earlobe, can nonetheless give rise to all manner of genres and styles.

This Book Club was taken from the May issue of Professional Jeweller. To read the May issue in full online, click here.

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