The pain of wearing screw-back earrings
Several years ago, on a whim, I bought a pair of screw-back earrings with butterscotch stones. The auctioneer was trying mightily to sell them – they’re sterling, he mentioned – and no one wanted to pay the price he was asking.
I took a closer look at them and decided to bid on them. I loved the dark patina (they were no longer gleaming silver) and the color that also reminded me of a ripe persimmon. I didn’t necessarily like that they were screw-back earrings from another era, but I figured they couldn’t be that bad.
I’m sure I’ve worn screw-backs before. That’s probably why I hesitated to buy these because my consciousness remembered the pain that came with screwing them too tight to keep them from slipping off. I have even worse memories of the clip-ons that could not be adjusted. They dug so deep into your delicate earlobe that they would leave a scar along with excruciating pain.
The earrings have been in my jewelry case ever since. I’ve never worn them.
I was at an auction over the weekend where I came across several pairs of screw-backs in the shape of tiny balls. They were still on their original cardboard imprinted with the manufacturer’s name “NEMO” and the word “Featherweight.”
Seeing them got me to thinking about the evolution of earrings. Had they started with screw-backs? When did clip-ons come into being? How did ear piercings get started? I actually had my ears pierced after I became an adult, and had two piercings in one ear. At some point, I stopped using the top piercing and it closed.
Body piercings go back more than 5,000 years, whether through the ear, nose, nipple or wherever. People in many cultures throughout the world and the centuries are connected with the practice.
Earrings were around during Biblical times, and they were said to have first been worn by men. By the time of the Roman Empire, wealthy men and women wore them for status. Julius Caesar was said to have worn them. During the 16th century, Shakespeare and Sir Walter Raleigh wore them in their pierced ears. And we’ve all seen TV shows and movies of pirates sporting them.
Their appearance in the 1800s was said to have coincided with women’s hairstyles. If the hair was swept up and the ears were revealed, earrings became popular, as in the early part of that century. By mid-century, earring-wearing subsided as hairstyles covered the ears. A decade later, hairstyles moved up on the head again, and earrings in various styles were reborn. Diamond solitary earrings were said be the most fashionable (for those who could afford them, I’m sure).
Pierced ears were common late in the 19th century, and screw-backs were invented around that time, allowing women to wear them over their piercings. Having a hole put in your ear fell out of style in the 1920s, replaced by clip-ons, which arrived in the 1920s or 1930s (depending on who you read). They were the norm until around the 1950s and 1960s when piercings became common again (most of the early piercings were done at home).
Googling, I found several pairs of Nemo screw-backs that were said to be from the 1950s, likely from the same period as the ones at auction. The pair was likely made by the Brier Manufacturing Company of Rhode Island, which manufactured the Little Nemo line of jewelry starting in 1913 (the company closed in 1978). The company used the NEMO logo in block letters starting in 1955. Most of its jewelry is said to be unmarked, with the name printed only on the card accompanying it.
The Little Nemo name came from a cartoon strip titled “Little Nemo in Slumberland,” which appeared in two New York newspapers from 1905 to 1926. It told the story of adventures taken by a young boy in his dreams.
The company also produced pieces for Helen Rubenstein and Revlon.