You shall know me by my earrings.

I wore my mother’s earrings to a party not long ago. They are clip-on earrings – heavy with twisted gold chain, fabricated pearls, and memories.

Halfway through the evening, I found myself slipping these pieces of vintage jewelry off for a moment and rubbing my earlobes. They always pinch and keep me terribly aware of their presence. And I suspect that this was not unlike much of being a woman in the 1950s, when these earrings were made and first worn. A time when women were terribly aware of their womanhood and its attendant discomforts – from fashions to societal expectations and restraints. I wondered if the weight of it all pulled on my mother – like her earrings. Perhaps they were symbolic of the way she saw herself. And I thought to myself: ah, yes … you shall know me by my earrings.

My mind drifted to the earrings that my generation wore in the 1960s and ‘70s – and I thought they were perhaps equally symbolic of the times and the mindset of the wearers – especially the lightweight golden hoops that were slipped through earlobes now pierced to hold them securely even through the night. And I remembered how we wore them as we danced in open fields and swam naked in oceans, and the earrings would tangle in our wind-wild hair. Perhaps because they were hollow and lightweight, and worn through the piercing of our ears, they expressed our desire to be free from all of life’s burdens, especially those of traditional womanhood. And perhaps they symbolized our desire for freedom from the fear of loss (like the lyrics from the song Bobby McGee: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”). A different kind of statement of self-image, I suppose. And you shall know me by my earrings.

I suspect most of us never realized that our grandmothers and great grandmothers probably also had their ears pierced – as they wore delicate drops of jewels from earlobes that barely dared to peek out from beneath hair that was confined and dressed with more care than we or our mothers would have ever considered – back in a time and place when the glimpse of the lobe of an ear was as tantalizing as skinny-dipping in the moonlit ocean was for us.

And in generations following mine, the statement of multiple piercings of the ear, and the assortment of styles of the earrings themselves, suggest an explosion of self-expression, a celebration of individuality, a delight in personal art.

Earrings are found in ancient tombs and Renaissance paintings, bog graves and prehistoric woodcarvings. They are mentioned in the Bible and other historic documents. From the beginning of humanity, as women and as men, we have decorated ourselves in so many ways and materials – fabrics and metals and inks. Each, I suspect, a form of silent communication with each other, expressing our tastes, our sense of self, our sense of hope as we wait to be noticed by one another. And, it seems to me, perhaps nowhere is it as telling as with our earrings. Generation after generation after generation … you shall know me by my earrings.

I am told that our ears have pressure points that are connected with a number of different places throughout our bodies. So perhaps it is no small coincidence that our ears are decorated with such elaborate and subtle forms of expression. Perhaps we are speaking to ourselves as much as to the rest of the world. And we shall know ourselves by our earrings.

I am particularly intrigued by the wearing of earrings by men of the sea. Pirates in particular. Some say a sailor’s earring brought protection from the dangers of the sea – including seasickness (thanks to those ear-related pressure points, perhaps). But most significantly, such earrings testified that the wearer had sailed across the equator, or around the cape, or around the world. A statement of pride and accomplishment – a recognition of brotherhood. And we shall know each other by our earrings.

And yet, there is a most poignant aspect of the seamen’s earrings as well. Typically, they were engraved inside the hoop with the man’s name and homeport. This personal identity, along with the value of the gold or silver that made up the earring itself, would ensure his return home for his final resting place – rather than a cold and lonely burial at sea or far from home on some unknown shore.

And, so, that night as I rubbed my earlobes and re-clipped my mother’s pearls and gold back into place, I pondered again about this symbol of ourselves. And I thought perhaps that like all the sailors gone before me – like a voyager traveling through time and life – you shall, indeed, know me by my earrings.