When I was 10 years old, my treasured birthday present was to finally get my ears pierced. It felt like a lifetime that I had yearned for this; I know I lobbied for it a full two years prior to my 10th birthday. My father was adamantly against it. My mother, as she often has on issues that were important to me, acted as the gentle and persistent persuader. My father relented. I was elated.


The task was performed at no charge by my great uncle, who was a successful Manhattan doctor. In the end it seemed so simple, a little like a wedding day after long preparations. Ice to numb the earlobes, antiseptic solution, very long needles, an antibiotic ointment on the posts, and done. Stud earrings in 14K gold, part of my birthday gift, were adorning my ears. It took minutes; I was thrilled. It was without official ceremony but a rite of passage nonetheless.

Ear piercing dates back to ancient times, signifying wealth, status or bravery, marking the entrance into puberty, or acting as protection from demons and poor eyesight. The first evidence of piercing dates to 5,000 years ago in the remains of the oldest known mummified body, found in a block of ice in Austria in 1991. The Book of Exodus relates Moses’ brother Aaron commanding the Israelites: “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives…” in order to create the golden idol they demanded. In the 16th century, sailors wore earrings allegedly to represent that they had sailed around the world and to pay for a proper burial.

One American anthropologist posits that primitive tribes pierced their ears so that demons and spirits would slip through the earlobes instead of entering where they normally could, through the ears. And in the 1960s an earring in a man’s right ear signaled he was gay; worn on the left, the man was straight. When my nieces were born, they had their ears pierced immediately, something truly foreign to me. My brother (their father) had married a woman (their mother) from Colombia, and I now know it is a common—if not requisite—practice in the worldwide Latino community. In fact, it now seems to be standard in many cultures. Proponents of early piercing argue it’s less traumatic at that young age, with less risk of infection. Opponents think the practice vulgar and barbaric, like early 20th-century American women who considered pierced ears at any age to be uncivilized. (Their distaste led to the invention of the screwback earring and caused pierced ears to fall out of favor until the latter half of the century.) Apparently the piercing debate is longstanding and universal.

Today, multiple ear piercings and even mismatched earrings are growing trends, The New York Times reported recently, especially among women in their 30s and 40s. It’s a perfect opportunity for women and jewelers alike to show personality in a multitude of ways. Perhaps this is the new rite of passage.

May 09, 2016