Hoop hoop hooray!

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:

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Source: The Met

Hoops across space and time

Asia

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:

DP110585.jpgAnd 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:

The Americas

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:

Europe

Like many things, it would seem, hoop earrings were first popularised in Europe by the Ancient Greeks.

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Wall painting from Ancient Thera (Source: Pinterest)

Some of you may also remember this filigree example which popped up in my previous post about Ephesus:

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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…

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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…*

Australasia

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:

Africa

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:

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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…

 

Letter From The Ephesians

I recently got back from a Mediterranean trip, and things took a surprisingly jewellery-themed turn (even for me) everywhere we went, so a few historical/travel-themed posts are on the way.

One of the highlights of the trip was undoubtedly the ancient city of Ephesus in Turkey. A historic centre of jewellery-making, Ephesus is famous for its Temple of Artemis – one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – where worshippers left beautiful jewellery as votive offerings:

Artemis of Ephesus was a cross between the Greek Artemis and the Anatolian mother goddess Cybele, and she’s been getting giggles from schoolchildren (and probably some adults) for centuries:

Laughing at her many bosoms might not be the wisest idea, though, since she was the guardian of all civilisation, and ruler of all nature. Oh, and she was the queen of bees – a literal queen bee – which is why bees feature so heavily in the gold and silver offerings to her, and even in Ephesian coinage:

Other symbols incorporated into jewellery dedicated to Artemis of Ephesus included crescent shapes (Artemis was goddess of the moon), sparrowhawks, rosettes, and double-headed axes.

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The first mint and gold refinery in Anatolia was founded in the seventh century BCE. In fact, some scholars argue that the first metal coins ever issued were used in in Ephesus around 650. With the amount of metalworking activity going on at Ephesus, it’s little wonder that the vast majority of surviving jewellery in the Eastern Greek style during this period comes from the repository found at the Temple of Artemis – jewellery which is made even more interesting by its Oriental and Mycaenean influences.

Later, around 53CE, Ephesus was made famous for a different reason by St Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. St Paul, misogynist and killjoy extraordinaire, spent some time in Ephesus in the mid-1st century CE, and was not impressed with what he perceived as the excessive covetousness of the locals. Obviously this didn’t go down too well with Ephesian silversmiths, who relied on the cult of Artemis for their livelihood, and a mob apparently dragged some of Paul’s pals to the theatre. Paul himself decided not to go and face an angry mob made up of people who were presumably good with small, pointy tools (probably wise), but luckily for him, the group eventually broke up.

Unfortunately, the silversmiths turned out to be right about the spread of Christianity killing their trade in Artemisian offerings, and the whole episode highlights the importance of Ephesus as a seat of early Christianity. Supposedly the Virgin Mary died there – not really surprising that a cult of Artemis morphed into a cult of the Virgin Mary. It’s quite a sweet little house, actually:

Sadly, our archaeologist guide, Hakan, confirmed that it’s a 6th-7th century church, so definitely not the house of the Mother of God (shocker).

We opted to visit Ancient Ephesus (with its Terraced Houses) and Didyma instead, and I think we made the right choice. (Side note: we went on a private tour with Meander Travel, and it was incredibly interesting as well as being amazing value for money – I’d definitely recommend Meander if any of you visit Turkey (they do tours all over the country, including in Istanbul). We were able to design our own tour to suit our interests and everyone at the company was lovely, helpful and knowledgeable. And no, I’m not being paid to write this – that’s how good they were!)

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The base of an enormous column at Didyma (Florence for scale!)
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Library of Celsus at Ephesus
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The theatre at Ephesus (minus angry mob)

Kusadasi, the port city near Ephesus, continues to ply the jewellery trade into the 21st century. In fact, Turkey as a whole is a major player in gold and silversmithing today, processing 400 tons of gold and 300 tons of silver annually and employing 300,000 people. Unfortunate geopolitical circumstances at the moment meant the sites were incredibly quiet, which was great for us tourists but terrible for the Turkish tourism industry. It’s a real shame, because Kusadasi and the surrounding sites are some of the safest and most stunning in Turkey – definitely recommend a visit if you’re thinking of heading to the Eastern Med!

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Gold, garnets and glass

Whenever people come and stay with us in Brum, we try and take them to at least one of the city’s impressive museums. The Museum of the Jewellery Quarter is my all-time favourite, but for sheer scale and calibre, the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery comes a very close second. As well as its fantastic collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, the museum is home to a decent chunk of the Staffordshire Hoard, the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found.

The interpretation in the Staffordshire Hoard Gallery is fantastic (you can take the girl out of heritage…), with audiovisual stimuli, interactive digital and analogue activities, and all sorts of hidden gems (pun intended). For a jewellery maker, the sections on Anglo-Saxon goldsmithing techniques are particularly fascinating; I didn’t actually really know what cloisonné was until I went to the exhibition the first time.

The exhibition as a whole is so interesting that it’s hard to hone in on just one stand-out gold artefact. However, I’ve taken one for the team and given it my best shot. My favourite piece (or rather pieces) is a pair of gold and garnet fixings shaped like birds of prey:

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Staffordshire Hoard Flickr
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Staffordshire Hoard Flickr

Why this piece out of the thousands discovered? Well, three main reasons:

  1. The lines. My God, the lines. Look at those curves and corners and that elegant beak. I mean, please. The hoard contains thousands of elegant and intricate pieces, but for sheer style, these bird fittings are hands-down my favourite.
  2. Mixed media. Many of the artefacts contain both gold and garnet, but this pair is one of the few designs to include glass as well. The birds’ tiny glass eyes are a beautiful example of the potential working with a range of materials can offer.
  3. There are two of them. I know, I know, and the Pope shits in the woods… But seriously, having two of the same design in different conditions is so unusual and so interesting. The similarity of the two birds even in their varying states of damage is also a massive testament to the skill of the Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths.

I’ll probably write some more about the hoard as I invariably take everyone I know there over the next few years, so if anybody reading this has a favourite artefact or two, let me know and I might dig into it (pun always intended) in another post . For now, though, I’m off to watch Detectorists, because all this talk of metal-detecting and hoards has put me in the mood for a bit of Toby Jones and Mackenzie Crook.

Spotlight on: haematite

If you’ve browsed my Etsy store for more than a few seconds, you may have noticed that haematite is by far my favourite semi-precious stone to work with. It’s relatively unusual in 21st century jewellery design, gives strength to delicate designs, and evokes centuries of jewellery without seeming dated.

Haematite is also one of the most melodramatic minerals, because it’s formed near rivers, streams and volcanoes, and when polished up it looks like mercury. Oh, and its name comes from the Greek word for ‘blood’ (haema) because inside is a red pigment that has been used to write and draw for thousands of years. The association with blood is also the reason it was so popular with the Ancient Egyptians, carved into amulets and other trinkets.

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Haematite amulet, c.664-620 BCE. Christie’s.
Haematite amulet, c.1859 – 1648 BCE. Cleveland Museum of Art.

Haematite’s association with blood, and the belief that it soaked up blood and/or formed at the site of battlefields, meant that unpolished haematite remained popular in Egypt through the Byzantine period.

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Coptic amulet, 6th – 7th century CE. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Haematite as we know it today had a major moment in the UK during the Victorian period, where the national fetish for performative mourning hit an all-time high. Not only was it a dark, gunmetal grey, it was harder than flaky, black jet and perfect for carving into cameos – the Victorian dream!

Victorian haematite ring, Etsy
Victorian cameo brooch, Etsy.
Victorian Mourning Ring 10k black hematite by LuceesTreasureChest:
Haematite mourning ring, Etsy.
9ct gold Antique Victorian Hematite Ring Mens by NeatstuffAntiques, $155.00:
Haematite mourning ring, Etsy.

Unsurprisingly, its popularity in Europe took a bit of a tumble in the inter-war years, finding a niche later in the century once Victorian nostalgia and steampunk became a thing.

Black venetian lace choker necklace with hematite stone and drops (gothic, goth, jewelry, romantic, women, bib, renaissance, victorian):
Victorian revival haematite choker, Etsy.

I love a good revival, but I think only using haematite in replica pieces is a waste of its potential as a part of modern designs. The lustre of haematite beads really highlights delicate silverwork and emphasises curved lines. Haematite can get hidden amongst fussy, Victoriana designs, but it pops beautifully in clean, modern settings.

Slinkygems, Etsy
Blackberry Lane Studio, Etsy
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Tiding of Magpies, Etsy
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Tiding of Magpies, Etsy