Although they’re being touted as the ‘latest trend’ by designers from Marc Jacobs to Michael Kors, hoop earrings are almost as old as jewellery itself, and have cultural significance across the globe. Since there are some hoops in my new collection, so I thought it was about time to dive into some of the history and culture of hoop earrings that high fashion designers have glossed over…
The first ever hoops?
Some of the most ancient hoop earrings surviving today are these elegant, gold, Sumerian hoops dating from 2600-2500 BCE, discovered in modern-day Iraq:
Hoops across space and time
As we saw above, hoop earrings were popular among the Middle Eastern Sumerians as early as 2600BCE, and this Neo-Assyrian bust demonstrates that they were still popular in the region by the 8th century BCE:
And hoop earrings remain popular across the Asia of today. They’re a significant accessory, for example, amongst the Hmong women of Vietnam and Laos, whose earrings are always made in silver because of its association with wealth, prosperity and health. Hmong silversmiths are among the most highly-regarded in the world, and genuine, antique silver Hmong jewellery commands a high price amongst collectors.
Elsewhere in Asia, the Gadaba women of Northern India traditionally favour larger hoops than their Hmong counterparts, and wear them, unusually, through the upper or middle part of the ear. Multiple hoops in each ear are also popular:
Hoops are so wildly popular amongst the diverse cultures of North and South America that it seems a little ridiculous to squish both continents into one section, but with such a broad history, it’s no wonder hoop earrings can be a loaded accessory in this part of the world (particularly in the US).
Nobody is saying that any group ‘invented’ hoop earrings but, as with any issue of cultural appropriation, the key issue here is a privileged group taking credit for styles they would judge or scorn on the marginalised groups who popularised them. So, let’s skip praising white designers for being ‘edgy’ (heavy air quotes there), and take a brief look at the American history of hoops…
Many Native American groups have made beautiful hoops in both metal and beadwork for centuries:
In Puerto Rico, gold hoop earrings are a traditional gift for a newborn baby girl, whilst in Mexico, silver is equally popular.
As well as being popular in Mexico and other Central American countries, filigree is also found in Peru:
At the bottom of the Americas, in Chile and Southern Argentina, we have my favourite hoops so far in this post: the unusually-shaped traditional hoops of the Mapuche people, which have a distinctive, half-moon shape:
Like many things, it would seem, hoop earrings were first popularised in Europe by the Ancient Greeks.
Some of you may also remember this filigree example which popped up in my previous post about Ephesus:
Fast foward a few hundred years, and became associated with pirates in the 17th century. But why did the swashbucklers of old favour this style? Well, legend has it that it was so that if pirates were shipwrecked or otherwise drowned, and their bodies washed up on some unfamiliar shore, they would be guaranteed a proper burial, paid for by the gold in their ears…
Another – more convincing – suggestion is that sumptuary laws in England during the ‘golden age’ of piracy (17th-18th centuries) stipulated that men couldn’t wear jewellery; a decree to which pirates promptly gave two fingers. They may have been horrendous people, but you have to give them a veeeeery tiny bit of credit for challenging gender-normative and classist fashion rules…*
Flying over to the other side of the globe, hoop earrings seem to be historically less popular than on other continents. In some places, such as Samoa, wooden and shell hoop earrings are often hung from the ear rather than through it, painted in bright colours and floral designs:
Over in the Africa of the past, the Ancient Egyptians were big fans of gold hoops, and put them on their cat statues as a symbol of sacredness. They also wore them themselves, often adorned with the ankh (the symbol of life), or animal heads representing various deities.
Further west, in Mali, the most famous hoops today are those traditionally worn by Fulani women. These ornate hoops, known as Kwoteneye, can weigh up to 300 grams each! Due to their size and weight, they are sometimes supported by an additional cord passing over the head of the wearer. They are made from sheets of beaten gold, twisted into leaf-like shapes, and often partially wrapped in red thread.
Finally, moving south into Kenya, Maasai tribespeople make beautiful beadwork hoops to wrap through their deliberately-stretched earlobes:
Why are hoops so popular?
Hoops are a old as earrings themselves, and mean so many different things to different people. They’re simultaneously hugely different and endlessly derivative across the globe.
That’s the main part of the timeless appeal of hoops, I think: they are so simple but have so much potential as a means of self-expression. You can take an instantly recognisable earring shape and fashion it in a vast range of sizes, shapes, and materials, as well as adding extra adornments or wearing multiple hoops. The lightning run-down of global and historical hoops above (which, by the way, is not meant to be a complete history of hoop earrings by any stretch!) demonstrates the enormous variety this seemingly simple item of jewellery can offer.
If you’re brave enough to go big and bold, there are thousands of gorgeous hoops out there – a personal favourite is this pair from fellow Etsy seller Otis Jaxon:
If you unfortunately work in an office with the aforementioned prejudice against large hoop earrings, or you just like your jewellery dainty, check out my new range of delicate charm hoops at Tiding of Magpies…
*Obviously I don’t support piracy, before anyone takes that the wrong way…