A pop history of collectables so often blends nostalgia and personal experience with historic research. The author falls in love with Legos, buttons, LPs, etc in his or her youth, saves up for the first or the elusive, and the rest is publishable material. I Love Those Earrings, by Jane Merrill and Chris Filstrup, is a love story to the earring. The typical pop history approach reminded me a bit of On the Button by Nina Edwards, a book I recently reviewed for Dress. But where that book is as scattered as an overturned notions jar, I Love Those Earrings is structured in its historical content and perfectly balanced in its evident admiration for the subject matter. With some dramatic exceptions, I wear the same pearl studs every day. But while reading this book I started to reconsider the costume earrings I’ve carried with me through many moves, reserving for special occasions. Maybe they would work for every day, playing queen or noblewoman on the streets of Stockholm?
As the authors, skillful and familiar storytellers, introduce us to Earring History, we learn that fashionable styles reflect available materials, advancing technology, sumptuary laws. We meet the women who made the jewels famous (and vice versa), find inferences in social mores and are reminded of the earrings worn in Pretty Woman–would you be able to conjure up the shape and size of the earrings, or just the snapping of the jewelry box on her fingers?
Paraphrasing ancient history, myths as painted by Titian, royal marriages, French revolution, and Josephine Baker’s influence, this book flows. It has a charming way of relating these stories of lust and war to their subject: “The initial object of [Henry VIII’s] ambition was Eleanora of Austria (1498-1558) who would have brought to England an extravagant collection of earrings.” (27) I enjoyed the juxtaposition that unintentionally created: Henry weighing Eleanora’s earring collection against the Spanish alliance he would gain from marriage with Catherine of Aragon–whom he eventually chose as his first wife for that reason.
The book is organized chronologically, which is logical and easy to follow. As is common for pop histories spanning huge amounts of time, the “early” chapters cover centuries and even millennia, whereas the later might discuss a two or three decades. The chapters are pleasantly organized in different manners, keeping the reader engaged: the sixteenth-century examines European depictions of famous women, the seventeenth-century chapter starts with a tour of Dutch portraits in American museums. The “Belle Époque” leads with a personal history of grandmothers and ends with “In the Colors of Feminism.” When we arrive in the twenty-first century, individual earring artists, almost all American, are given the stage. The book concludes with personal histories from women who love earrings, a short visual glossary of earring fastenings, and a bibliography.
The photographs and reproduced paintings included are museum quality, generally well edited. One drawback–perhaps a function of the image budget?–is that many paintings referenced meaningfully in the text are not included visually. But I especially appreciated the authors’ study of contemporary portraits, which gave the work a more academic feel–more than “just” a collector’s delight. As Merrill writes in her introduction,
Swirling quite carefree in culture and fun, I became drawn to earrings like a crow to a piece of silver foil. I consciously wanted to develop my sense of beauty as I had for carpets–and my pursuit became the earrings I saw in paintings, museums, fairs, expositions, and shops. …Playing detective, I would detect a whisper of pearl of pendant in a portrait, which might well not show up in a reproduction. (6-7)
Portraits are prized in this book, and the authors write short analyses of the importance and roles of these paintings in the history of earrings to augment the existence of the extant jewelry. Advancements or fashions in portrait painting as well as the skill of celebrated artists are noted for how they helped make certain types of earrings popular, proved the eminence of the portrayed figure, or highlighted the inherent beauty of stones and precious materials.
Here and there are teasers of other primary source materials, such as an eighteenth-century drawing, a design for Aigrettes housed at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, seen above. I wish there had been more of these less obvious sources for variety’s sake. Interestingly, as the decades pass in this volume, a greater portion of the jewelry photographed was courtesy jewelry dealers and private collections than museum collections. In the “Victorian Era” chapter, Merrill passes into a collectors’ state:
This brings me to my single, favorite pair of Victorian earrings, where whimsy is executed with perfect craftsmanship, resulting in utterly wearable fantasy. You see this pair of goldfish bowls that were a tour de force in rock crystal. If you’ve carried a goldfish in a bowl or plastic sack back from a country fair or amusement park, you know that the bowl sloshes and almost tips out the fish. The same giddy tension was embodied in these earrings. (101)
Her heartfelt description of “A Mother’s Jewelry Box” will be familiar to many young women (and men). This book is, after all, about (and arguably for) women. Men (or, “studs who wear them”) and jewelry fill one chapter, which also begins with a personal history: Merrill confronts her co-author–her ex-husband–with his adornment choices over the years.
From there we jump into ancient history and speed through the millennia to the seventeenth century. It is also an example of the abrupt endings found here and there in this book: that’s certainly not the end of male earring-wearing, and there is no concluding paragraph. The final line of the chapter concludes an anecdote about the Abbé de Choisy: “Even as he took on the celibate life of a clergyman, he continued to crossdress.”
While entertainingly written, there are some odd punctuation and interesting word-order choices; this may not bother other readers. The style is informal; historian Ion Grumeza personalizes his essay on ancient jewelry with the qualifying phrase, “Romania, where I grew up.” (20) And yes, you will find a few instances of the word “bling.” Sometimes the informality breaks the storytelling spell; the description of sixteenth-century collars as “his, the circus dog style; hers, the standing kind” (26) feels unnecessarily distancing. There are certainly examples of earrings here that could be conveyed as equally ridiculous.
While the visuals are strong (if relatively small), this book is meant to be read. Its value lies in the energetic storytelling, never focusing too long on one subject, time period, or style, but keeping today’s reader afloat on a river of anecdotes and examples. This is not a book from which to pull hard quotations for a term paper, but rather an admiring, playful tribute. There are no citations, and although the bibliography is good, sources quoted in the text are mysteriously not included there. There are not many books that focus on earrings and this is the most comprehensive in years. Books on “dress accessories” rarely include jewelry; books on jewelry are often focused on one designer or try to tackle All of the Jewelry That Ever Was.
The fashion historian might benefit from passages about trends in shape and material, such as how the girandoles of the eighteenth century were largely replaced by pendeloques by the turn of the nineteenth century, or why paste jewels were practical. But this is a book for the aspiring informed collector, and would be a helpful precedent for other writers working on similarly focused subjects. Like any excellent pop history, I Love Those Earrings places its object of affection meaningfully in the course of our accepted history, making that history all the more enjoyable and accessible.
Lead Image: Cover of I Love Those Earrings by Jane Merrill with Chris Filstrup. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 2014.
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Evans, Joan. A History of Jewelry 1100-1870. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 1989.
Mascetti, Daniela and Amanda Triossi. Earrings: From Antiquity to the Present. New York: Rizzoli, 1990.
Phillips, Clare. Jewelry: From Antiquity to the Present. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996.
Steinbach, Ronald. The Fashionable Ear: A History of Ear-Piercing Trends for Men and Women. Burlington, VT: Vantage Press, 1995.
Tait, Hugh, ed. 7000 Years of Jewelry. Richmond Hill, Ontario: Firefly Books, 2009.