In the '80s, a single ear piercing wouldn't do
. Those little holes climbed up the lobes, filled with a variety of acid-bright hoops, crosses and safety pins. But as the years passed and the raves died down, many left the cheap plastic earrings behind and embraced more modest, elegant jewellery instead.
In the last couple of years, however, the trend for multiple ear piercings has crept back into the mainstream. It's popular with starlets like Emma Watson, Zoë Kravitz and Miley Cyrus, though it's not just a young woman's game: Charlize Theron (pictured above) stepped out for her latest premiere with a whole constellation adorning her ears, while Courteney Cox and Gwyneth Paltrow are fans, too. And it's cropped up on the catwalks - Alexander McQueen mixed classical with punk as veteran model Stella Tennant strutted out in sharp check tailoring, sporting an earful of gold and silver hoops.
The craze for intricate piercings in unusual places has been dubbed the "curated ear". One of the earliest champions of the look was Maria Tash, a New Yorker who has worked with the likes of Scarlett Johansson, Rihanna and Blake Lively. Maria now has stores around the world, including in Brown Thomas Dublin, and she describes the curated ear as "a precise and deliberate layering of jewellery on the ear, so that it maximises the beauty and personal aesthetic of the wearer".
That means taking into consideration the wearer's complexion - those with olive skin tones will look best in yellow gold, she notes, while pink and white golds suit fair skins - and any scars or imperfections they may wish to divert attention from.
"For example, if you have an imperfection on your face, with a well-placed piece of jewellery, instead of the eye being drawn to the imperfection, it will be drawn to the jewellery," Maria explains.
"When people have stretched out earlobes, and their jewellery hangs very low down, you can pierce high above the stretched out lobe and it creates a look that looks deliberate, or it can help hide the stretched out tissue below it."
Maria started piercing in the 1990s, and notes that the multiple piercings that ruled that decade were a far cry from what we're seeing now.
"The jewellery wasn't so great; it was heavy and thick and the angles weren't as well thought-out," she recalls. "Then the jewellery got better, and the piercing tools and art of piercing got better. Now people come in, and they fall in love with a little thing and they say, 'Where should I put this?'"
Today, women of all ages wear Maria's earrings in their own individual way, ranging from dainty, delicate looks to a more grungy feel.
For her 54th birthday last year, project manager Patricia Masetti-Nolan, from Monkstown, Co Dublin, celebrated with a shopping trip, and was struck by the designs in Brown Thomas.
"I had two normal piercings done when I was a child in Brazil, but when I saw the stuff in Maria Tash and the possibility of getting a whole load done, it was amazing. I got completely addicted to it," says Patricia, who now has 11 ear piercings, including the daith (the innermost cartilage fold), tragus (the small flap of cartilage at the front where the ear joins your head) and tash rook (the flat plane at the top).
"I went in and had two done, and then I kept coming back. I think I've had enough now, but I love it. I love jewellery, so it's another place to stick jewellery, and I love the way you can have a whole design in your ear."
Maria points out that the healing period varies - a stacked lobe takes about two months, but cartilage is a different matter.
"Cartilage doesn't have as great blood flow as the lobe, so it takes longer to heal. How much longer? It's a big scale. Usually we say between six and 12 months. It sounds like a long time, but it's not like it's hurting during that period; you just have to be mindful not to touch it with dirty hands and clean it twice a day. It really becomes part of your day: you get up, you brush your teeth, you clean your ear, you take a shower," she says.
Patricia affirms that cleaning and maintenance have become part of her routine - she dries her ears with a hairdryer after showering, and sleeps on a U-shaped travel pillow to keep her ears elevated.
"Thank God, I didn't have an infection, but it is sore. If somebody gives you an enthusiastic hug and they squeeze your ear, it's like, 'Ahhh!'" she cries.
Alberto Navalon, resident piercer at Cork's Smiley Dogg Tattoo Studio, emphasises that good hygiene is crucial, as infected cartilage can be a lot more painful than a lobe.
"You have to keep it clean - don't touch it, don't turn it. A long time ago, people were told to turn it, but that's actually so bad, because you're moving the piece, you're breaking the skin," he explains, adding that the most popular way to clean it is with a saline solution spray they sell in the shop that must be applied to the ear twice a day.
When Alberto started piercing in 2017, he says he was already seeing high demand for multiple piercings, and that the look has only grown in popularity since.
"Every day, I have between five and 15 piercings. Most of them would be one or two piercings. I don't do more than two or three because it's risky for infection," he says.
"Some people show me a picture, and say, 'This is what I want.' But every ear is different. You always have to check the ear. The most important thing is the anatomy - some people can't get certain piercings because their body is gonna reject it. It's all about the shape of the ear," he explains, noting that the right ear is different from the left, so a piercing that works on one ear won't necessarily work on the other.
As we've moved on from haphazardly punched steel spikes, many modern piercers consider their work an art, and take great care in curating the ear.
"A skilled piercer can work around the unique curves and bends of each ear and decorate with the proper combination of fine jewellery," says Piercer Charlie (real name Efstratios Karanikolis), the owner and head piercer at Piercer Charlie's Creations, which has shops in Tallaght and Temple Bar.
"When we talk about the curated ear, we're talking about a complete project. It's our job, and duty, to guide the client towards the perfect match, as an improper choice can result in a problematic piercing that might never heal and can leave a permanent scar."
Charlie, who has been in the piercing industry for 20 years, adds that the emphasis is on quality, not quantity: "A curated ear needs the proper jewellery in the proper places."
Maria advises considering your earrings an investment - if you change your mind about a piece, you can always get it converted into a pendant or stud.
"You wear it almost all the time. Most people change out hole number one or even two, but you leave in the rest, so it becomes like a second skin. That's why it's very important that you have high-quality piercings in good-looking places. It's really got to be part of you and complement you," she says.
On top of that, we tend to form an attachment to our piercings, which Maria believes is part of the appeal.
"If you have to conquer your fear of getting something done, it makes it less disposable," she says. "And you have to nurse it to health - you have to clean it twice a day and it becomes part of your ritual."
It's not just women in their 20s and 30s curating their ears, but women in their 50s and above, too. Alberto observes that women who come in with their daughters often find themselves smitten with the jewellery. Patricia explains that she went to get some of her piercings with her 19-year-old daughter.
"She thinks it's great on me. I love it. Just go for it, you only live once!" she says.
"This is the time of life where you can do stuff for yourself. You generally have money of your own, and you can do what you want," says Maria. "It's a wonderful feeling - I love the fact that I don't have to answer to or worry about other people, I think I know pretty well what's good and what's beautiful.
"Also, people in their 50s have gone through the era of the '80s and new wave. At that time I was doing multiple earlobe piercings, and I have reopened piercings I got in the '80s. It not only reminds me of who I was, but I can put beautiful pieces in now that I didn't have access to then."
Patricia adds: "I find very, very elegant women have multiple piercings. Some of my friends see mine and go, 'Oh my God, I want some!' After your friend does it, you think it's OK for you to do it as well, and some of my friends have gone and done it. I just think, why not?"
⬤ Maria Tash: Brown Thomas Dublin
⬤ Piercer Charlie's Creations: Temple Bar and Tallaght
⬤ Smiley Dogg Tattoo Studio: North Main Street, Cork
⬤ Love Hate Social Club: French Church Street, Cork
⬤ Victor's Tattoo and Body Piercing Studio: Lower Abbeygate Street, Galway
⬤ Accessorize: Grafton Street, Dublin; Dundrum Town Centre; Mahon Point Shopping Centre, Cork; and Williamsgate Street, Galway.
Costs: Non-traditional ear piercings tend to start from €20, with most around €35, but this does not include the price of jewellery. Accessorize offers free piercings with the purchase of selected earrings. Piercer Charlie says for a curated ear, you'd be starting at €150, with the price increasing if the client wants bespoke jewellery with precious gemstones. At Maria Tash's (pictured) store, a single earring can cost anywhere from €115 up to €4,165.