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An earring is an ornament that is worn in the ear. Earrings are often made out of metal but can also be made out of bone or similar hard material. Earrings are worn by both genders, although they are generally more commonly worn by women.

Earrings are attached to the ear through a piercing in the earlobe or some other external part of the ear, except in the case of a clip earring, which clips onto the lobe. 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 (see Ear Piercing and Pierced Ears).

Pairs of earrings for sale at a roadside stand in Costa Rica.
Pairs of earrings for sale at a roadside stand in Costa Rica.

Earring components can be made out of any number of materials, including metal, glass, precious stones and beads. Earring designs can range from small loops or studs to large plates or dangling items. Earring size is generally limited by the physical capacity of the earlobe to hold the earring without tearing. People who habitually wear heavy earrings may find that over time, the earlobe and piercing stretch.

Earrings are worn around the world in most cultures, both currently and historically. Whereas most earrings worn in the Western world are designed to be removed and changed, permanent (non-removable) earrings have been used as a mark of slavery or ownership (e.g., see Ex.21:2-6). Permanent earrings have made a come-back in the form of larger gauge rings which are difficult or impossible for the wearer to remove without assistance. Occasionally, hoop earrings are permanently installed by the use of solder. Although yielding an effective result, this practice is dangerous due to the heat involved while soldering in close proximity to the skin, the toxicity of the heavy metals used in solder, and the conduction of heat by the metalic earrings into the nearby body tissue. Besides permanent installations, locking earrings are occasionally worn by people of both genders, due to their personal symbolism or erotic value.


Types of Earrings

Modern Standard Pierced Earrings

Regardless of the type, modern standard pierced earrings have two primary means of attachment: posts and wires.

  • Stud earrings - The main characteristic of stud earrings is the appearance of floating on the ear or earlobe without a visible (from the front) point of connection. Studs are invariably constructed 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. Occasionally, the stud earring is constructed so that the post is threaded, allowing a screw back to securely hold the earring in place. This is useful in preventing the loss of expensive earrings containing precious stones or made of precious metals.

  • Hoop earrings - hoop earrings are circular or semi-circular in design, and look very similar to a ring. They are often constructed of metal tubing, with a thin wire attachment penetrating the ear. The hollow tubing is permanently attached to the wire at the front of the ear, and slips into the tube at the back. The entire device is held together by tension between the wire and the tube. Other hoop designs do not complete the circle, but penetrate through the ear in a post, using the same attachment techniques that apply to stud earrings. A variation is the continuous hoop earring. In this design, the earring is constructed of a continuous piece of solid metal, which penetrates through the ear and can be rotated almost 360o. 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. One special type of hoop earring is the sleeper earring. This is a very small continuous piece of (typically) gold wire which essentially hugs the base of the earlobe with the ends connecting in the back. Because their small size makes them comfortable, sleepers are sometimes worn at night to keep an ear piercing from closing.
  • Dangle earrings - Dangle 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. 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. A variation is the French hook design, which merely hangs from the earlobe without closure, although small plastic retainers are sometimes used on ends of French hooks. Rarely, dangle earrings use the post attachment design.
  • Slave earrings - A rarely seen type of earring is the slave earring, in which a stud is connected by a delicate chain to an ear cuff (see below) or a cartilage pierce worn higher on the ear.

Body Piercing Jewelry Used as Earrings

Body piercing jewelry is often used for ear piercings, and is selected for a variety of reasons including the availability of larger gauges, better piercing techniques, and a disdain for mainstream jewelry.

  • Ball closure rings - Ball closure rings, also known as captive bead rings, or CBRs, are a style of body piercing jewelry that is an almost 360o ring with a small gap for insertion through the ear. The gap is closed with a small bead that is held in place by the ring's tension. Larger gauge ball closure rings exhibit considerable tension, and require ring expanding pliers for insertion and removal of the bead.
  • Barbells - Barbells are comprised of a straight piece of metal, with a bead permanently fixed to one end. The other end is threaded, either externally or tapped with an internal thread, and the other bead is screwed into place after the barbell is inserted through the ear. Since the threads on externally threaded barbells tend to irriate the piercing, internal threads have become the most common variety.
  • Circular rings - Circular rings are similar to ball closure rings, except that they have a larger gap, and have a permanently attached bead at one end, and a threaded bead at the other, like barbells. This allows for much easier insertion and removal than with ball closure rings, but at the loss of a continuous look.

Clip-on and Other Non-Pierced Earrings

Several varieties of non-pierced earrings have been invented over the years, presumably so that the wearers could avoid the discomfort of having their ears pierced.

  • Clip-on earrings - Clip-on earrings have been in existence longer than any other variety of non-pierced earrings. They are designed with a tension clip that attaches them to the body by pinching the earlobe. Once extremely popular with American women, they began to fade with the rising popularity of pierced earrings in the 1960s and 1970s, and are now relatively rare.
  • Ear cuff - An ear cuff is a curved band of metal that is pressed onto the helix of the ear. It stays on by pinching the ear.
  • Magnetic earrings - Magnetic earrings simulate the look of a (pierced) stud earring by attaching to the earlobe with a magnetic back that hold the earring in place on by magnetic force.
  • Stick-on earrings -- Stick-on earrings are nothing more than adhesive stickers which adhere to the earlobe and simulate the look of a (pierced) stud earring. They are considered a novelty item.

Ear Piercing and Pierced Ears

Pierced ears are earlobes or the cartilage portion of the external ears which have had one or more holes created in them for the wearing of earrings. The holes may be permanent or temporary. The holes become permanent when a flesh tunnel is created by scar tissue forming around the initial earring.

Pierced ears were popular in the United States through the early 1920s, then fell into disfavor among women due to the rising popularity of clip-on earrings. There continued to be a small male following, however, particularly among sailors, where a pierced earlobe often meant that the wearer had sailed around the world or had crossed the equator. There was also the long-held belief that puncturing the earlobe was beneficial to increasing the accuity of eyesight (see acupuncture).

Ear piercing continued to be practiced by Western women of various cultures, e.g., Hispanic, but was virtually unheard of in Anglo-based cultures until the 1960s. At that time, the practice re-emerged, but since there did not exist a commercial market, most ear piercings were done at home using ice as a local anesthetic, a sewing needle as a puncture instrument, a burning match and rubbing alcohol for sterilization, and a semi-soft object, such as a potato, cork, or rubber eraser, as a push point. Often, thread drawn through the piercing and tied, as a device for keeping the piercing open during the healing process. Alternatively, a gold stud or wire earring was directly inserted into the fresh piercing as the initial retaining device. 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, where Sandy (Olivia Newton-John), the leading lady, is pierced by her friends.

Soon, ear piercing was available in physician offices. In this setting, the procedure was not much different than the home version, except that medical grade equipment was used, and the stud earrings and piercing tools were usually autoclaved prior to insertion. Eventually, medical equipment manufacturers created the ear piercing instrument, sometimes called an ear piercing gun, which was originally available only to physicans.

Another popular method for piercing ears was the use of sharpened spring-loaded earrings known as self-piercers, which gradually pushed through the earlobe. However, the use of self piercers for ear piercing was far from perfect, because they would tend to slip from their initial placement position, would often result in more discomfort, and many times, would not go all the way through the earlobe without additional pressure being applied.

Some of the earliest commercial, non-medical locations for getting an ear piercing appeared in the 1960s at Manhattan jewelry stores, although the overall commercial market was still in its infancy. By the 1970s, ear piercing was common among many females, thus creating a broader market for the procedure. Department stores throughout the country would hold ear piercing events, sponsored by earring manufacturers, where a nurse would push a sharpened and sterilized starter earring through the earlobe by hand. This ultimately led to the modification of the ear piercing instrument so that it could be easily used by non-physicians. Today, most people in the Western world have their ears pierced with an ear piercing instrument in specialty jewelry or accessory stores, or at home using disposable ear piercing instruments.

An alternative and growing practice is to use a hollow piercing needle, as is used for body piercing. This technique is similar to the early sewing needle approach, but when done by a professional body piercer is extremely safe, less painful than an instrument piercing, and produces a piercing with faster healing time. This procedure is available at body piercing shops, and often also at tattoo shops that also offer body piercing.

In primitive cultures and among some body piercing enthusiasts, the piercing is made using other tools, such as bone spurs.

In the late 1960s, ear piercing began to make inroads into the male population through the hippie and gay communities. By the 1980s, the trend for male popular music performers and athletes to have pierced ears anchored a fashion for men that continues to grow in popularity. In the early part of the decade, American male celebrities would tend to pierce only one ear, even though British male celebrities often pierced both ears. After a few years, the piercing of both ears was popularized by such figures as Mr. T and George Michael of Wham!.

Multiple ear piercings first emerged to mainstream America in the 1970s. Initially, the trend was for females to wear a second set of earrings in the earlobes. Asymmetric styles with more and more piercings became popular, eventually leading to the cartilage piercing trend.

A variety of specialized cartilage piercings have become popular. These include the tragus piercing, antitragus piercing , rook piercing , industrial piercing, helix piercing, orbital piercing , daith piercing , and conch piercing. In addition, earlobe stretching, while common in primitive cultures for thousands of years, started to appear in Western civilization in the 1990s, and is now a fairly common sight.

In the Western world, it is very rare to find an adult woman who has not had her ears pierced. In many cultures, it is common to pierce the ears of young girls soon after birth. This has become somewhat controversial because of its involuntary nature, similar to, but much less severe than circumcision.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Does it hurt? This varies varies from person to person, and also by technique. Generally speaking, an earlobe piercing performed with an ear piercing instrument is often described as feeling similar to being snapped by a rubber band. As might be expected, cartilage piercings tend to be more painful.
  • How long do I have to wait before I can change my starter earrings? Although this is very specific to each individual, typical healing time for an earlobe piercing performed with an ear piercing instrument is 6-8 weeks. At that time, the starter earrings can be removed and changed, but the wearer should continue to wear earrings in the newly pierced ears for at least 6 months, and sometimes even a full year is recommended. Cartilage piercings will usually require more healing time than earlobe piercings, sometimes 2-3 times as long.
  • Does it make any difference if a man pierces his left earlobe or his right earlobe? There persists an unfortunate urban legend to the effect that a man's choice of pierced ear indicates his sexual orientation, with a pierced right ear designating a gay man, and the left ear, a straight man. (compare hanky code). Although this concept was never actually true, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, some people in the general population latched onto the idea, and it persists today because a small number of people still believe it (see the deviant's dictionary: Codes and Symbols). Even today, it is reinforced because far more men in the United States with a single ear piercing have the piercing done in the left ear than in the right ear. However, both straight and gay men have pierced either or both ears throughout recorded history, and single or multiple lobe or cartilage piercings, in either or both ears, are now common with men and women of all sexual orientations and across all walks of life.
  • If I stop wearing earrings will the holes close? This depends upon the individual, the length of time since the piercing was initially performed, the gauge of the piercing, and how well healed the piercing is. Usually, well healed earlobe piercings will shrink to smaller gauges in the prolonged absence of earrings, but quite often never completely disappear.
  • Are there health risks associated with ear piercing? Yes, but in the case of earlobe piercing, these risks tend to be minimal, particularly if proper technique and hygenic procedures are followed. Earlobes normally heal without incident, even when pierced with an ear piercing instrument, but sometimes the person whose ears were pierced will develop a minor infection. More commonly, the person will develop an allergic reaction to nickel which is contained in the jewellery. Cartilage piercing is a different matter altogether. Typically, the blunt force of an ear piercing instrument will traumatize the cartilage in such a way that healing is difficult. Also, because there is substantially less blood flow in ear cartilage than in the earlobe, infection is a much more serious issue. There have been several documented cases of people developing severe infections of the upper ear following piercing with an ear piercing instrument, which required courses of antibiotics and/or surgery to clear up. In order to maximize the chance of a successful cartilage piercing, the piercing should be done with a sterilized hollow piercing needle. This will minimize trauma to the tissue, and minimize the chances of contracting a bacterial infection during the procedure. Afterwards, it is important to carefully follow the aftercare instructions provided by the piercing establishment. As with any invasive procedure, there is always a risk of infection from blood borne pathogens such as hepatitis and HIV. However, modern piercing techniques make this risk extremely small (the risk being greater to the piercer than to the piercee due to the potential splash-back of blood), and it is worth noting that there has never been a documented case of HIV transmission following ear or body piercing. Earlobe tearing, during the healing period or after healing is complete, is also a concern. This risk can be minimized by not wearing earrings, especially wire-based dangle earrings, during inappropriate activities, such as while playing sports. Also, larger gauge jewellery will lessen the chance of the earring being torn out. See Body Piercing Aftercare for more information on the healing process for pierced ears.

Further Reading

Holmes, Anita Pierced and Pretty: The Complete Guide to Ear Piercing, Pierced Earrings, and How to Create Your Own, William Morrow and Co., 1988. ISBN 0688038204

Mascetti, Daniela and Triossi, Amanda, Earrings: From Antiquity to the Present, Thames and Hudson, 1999. ISBN 0500281610

McNab, Nan Body Bizarre Body Beautiful, Fireside, 2001. ISBN 0743213041

Mercury, Maureen and Haworth, Steve, Pagan Fleshworks: The Alchemy of Body Modification, Park Street Press, 2000. ISBN 0892818093

Steinbach, Ronald D., The Fashionable Ear: A History of Ear Piercing Trends for Men and Women, Vantage Press, 1995. ISBN 0533112370

Vale, V. Modern Primitives, V/Serach, 1989. ISBN 0965046931

van Cutsem, Anne, A World of Earrings: Africa, Asia, America, Skira, 2001. ISBN 8881189739

External Links

BMEZine: Ear Piercing Page

WebMDHealth Ear Piercing at the Mall

University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology: Bodies of Cultures - Piercing - A World Tour of Body Modification

Last updated: 07-30-2005 18:20:54
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