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All Ears

Ear piercing has been around for thousands of years. Why, and how, do we still do it?

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Do you remember getting your ears pierced? For a preteen girl, it's one of those Judy Blume moments, like wearing your first pair of shoes with the slightest hint of heel, or living through that presentation you get in 4th grade about your first period, that marked a transition. Things were changing. Soon you'd be a woman. Sure, you look back on it now and see how young you were, but at the time, you thought you were on your way to maturity. Adulthood, thy name is an itsy-bitsy hole in each of my earlobes.

How did it take on this meaning in the first place? Having pierced ears is pretty bizarre when you think about it. Puncturing your ear so you can stick something pretty in it? God, humans are weird. And yet you probably wouldn't give yours up for the world. For anyone who had to beg their parents to get them or wait until they were considered old enough, that goes double. In the same way the clothes you love become part of your story, so do your piercings.

But whether the experience of getting your ears pierced left an indelible mark on you or you skipped the whole thing altogether, your earlobes are part of a larger story of ear piercing in America.

It's hard to find reliable information about who exactly has their ears pierced. One statistic that's floating around the internet asserts that 83 percent of people have pierced ears. A 2005 Chicago Tribune article about ear piercing holdouts said that "estimates place the percentage of US women without pierced ears at 10 percent to 20 percent." No industry professionals contacted in the course of reporting this story could point to definitive numbers.

The same is true for the size of the ear piercing industry and the amount of money it generates annually. "That's a holy grail number that nobody's ever been able to compile," says Miro Hernandez, who works for the Association of Professional Piercers, or the APP. The business comprises disparate parts, from huge jewelry store chains like Claire's at one end of the spectrum to independent tattoo and piercing shops, where ear piercing is just one service offered among a full menu of body modifications, at the other. Yet if it's something even half of all women do, that's a not-insignificant chunk of the population. Maybe no one has bothered to find conclusive numbers because having pierced ears is pretty uncontroversial. But that wasn't always the case.

People have pierced their ears for millennia. The ancient Egyptians, both male and female, did it; earrings are referenced in the Bible. "Human beings wear jewelry. It's just natural to put something around your neck, put something on your wrist or your finger, and then to put something through your ear," New York-based jewelry designer Anna Sheffield posits.

In their book I Love Those Earrings: A Popular History From Ancient to Modern, Jane Merrill and Chris Filstrup write that the ancient Celts and Dacians wore earrings, and though styles and materials evolved over time, they were important signifiers up through the Victorian era. Then in the late 1800s into the early part of the 20th century, earrings didn't exactly fall out of fashion, but piercing one's ears did. Screw back and clip-on earrings, which could be worn without getting pierced, gained widespread popularity. "I pleaded with my mother to have my ears pierced," Cheryl Ireland Cooper recalls in a passage from I Love Those Earrings, "but she said no. It was the early 1950s, and there was a different ‘ear aesthetic' if you will — think clip-ons and screw backs." (Ever wonder why so many vintage earrings seem to be clip-ons? There's your answer.)

According to Antique Week, at this time, "Pierced ears were not only unfashionable, they were considered by some to be a barbaric mutilation of the body, and worse, to show a lack of moral character in the wearer." In The Fashionable Ear: A History of Ear-Piercing Trends for Men and Women, Ronald D. Steinbach explains, "Although females in all parts of the world had pierced their ears for many thousands of years, the custom gradually died out in the United States beginning around 1880. Woman wanted the right to vote, to wear pants, and be freed of wearing impractical clothing, and of barbarous customs such as ear piercing (which males did not have to undergo)."

It was only in the late 1950s and the '60s that pierced ears began to make a comeback. A 1965 New York Times article headline, "Pierced Ears: Distinction...or Just a Hole in the Head?" announced the resurrected trend. "Girls are collecting pierced-ear jewelry as avidly as they hoard Beatles records," the paper sniffed. "A decade or two ago the pierced earlobe was the mark of the foreign born or first-generation Americans of either Latin or Eastern European descent." Who knew tiny holes could inspire such xenophobia?

A Brief History of
Body Piercing

The history of the world is littered with cultures who stuck jewelry (and non-jewelry) through their bodies, whether for spiritual reasons or just to look cool. Below, a few facts about the first known body piercings.

EARS: The earliest piercings were probably earlobe piercings, and the oldest mummified body ever found had holes in its ears; King Tut's mummy had them too. They were larger than the holes we typically see today though, at one-quarter to three-eighths of an inch.

NOSES: Moghal emperors brought nose piercing to India in the 16th century from nomadic tribes of the Middle East, though it was mentioned in The Vedas 1,500 years prior. In Ayurvedic medicine, an acupuncture point on the left nostril is associated with the female reproductive organs, so piercing was said to alleviate childbirth and period pain.

TONGUES: Mayan and Aztec people were the first to pierce their tongues, but as part of a ritual bloodletting — an offering to the gods — and not a permanent modification. The Mayans and Aztecs did, however, wear septum piercings.

LIPS: In what is modern-day Alaska, the Eskimos wore lip piercings, called labrets, to signify their social status. Tribes in what is now Mali and Ethiopia also pierced their lips for religious reasons.

NIPPLES: The first men to pierce their nipples were Native Americans belonging to the Karankawa tribe, who lived in Texas. There's some evidence that the first woman to pierce her nipples eventually became the queen of France: Isabelle of Bavaria, who was born in Germany in the 1300s.

GENITALS: One of the oldest references to genital piercing appears in the Kama Sutra, which was written in the first century A.D. Piercing the glands of the penis was said to be one method of enhancing sexual pleasure.

The trend was only deemed acceptable thanks to its embrace by the hip girls of "Greenwich Village and West Coast coffeehouses." The next year, the Chicago Tribune did a spread on "the pierced ear craze." "I think it's a barbaric custom," one doctor was quoted as saying. "If girls pierce their ears, the only logical next step is to put bones thru their noses." Yikes. Jane Merrill, author of I Love Those Earrings, recalled that getting your ears pierced was banned at her prep school in the 1960s. Years later, the Times would summarize: "Not so long ago, pierced ears were associated with immigrants or with people like gypsies and pirates. It was not until the 1960s, when all kinds of customs began changing, that more American women began piercing their ears."

In The Fashionable Ear, Mia Farrow is singled out as having been an especially influential pierced-ear pioneer. Novelist and essayist Laura Wallencheck is quoted as explaining, "The sight of those really cool, really darling little pearl studs Farrow wore as the perpetually dazed, fawn-like Allison MacKenzie on TV's Peyton Place sent young girls in the 1960s stampeding off in conspiratorial pairs in search of cork, needle, thread, ice, matches, and rubbing alcohol: ‘You do mine and, if I don't die or anything, I'll do yours.'"

Why all the supplies? At the time, there weren't many commercial avenues for getting your ears pierced — mall chains came later, in the late '60s and '70s — so people did it themselves, using the old needle-and-potato method. (You held the potato behind your ear to catch the needle, apparently; you could also use cork. Either way, you'd use ice to numb your lobes.) If you look online, you can find women's accounts of their amateur piercings: "I pierced my own ears just before Christmas in 1964," one woman wrote on a forum. "I sterilized a safety pin by holding it in the flame of a match and then cleaning both the pin and my ears with rubbing alcohol. I tried using an ice cube behind my ear, but found that with only two hands I could not control the safety pin, the ice cube and my ear all at the same time, so I dropped the ice cube into the sink and just shoved the safety pin through my ear."

Or we can let Grease do the illustrating. Remember the sleepover scene? Frenchie asks Sandy to let her pierce her ears for her. "Isn't that awfully dangerous?" Sandy responds. She's a good girl, and piercing your ears is something only bad girls like the Pink Ladies would do in 1959, when the movie is set. Sandy protests that her father won't like it before Frenchie drags her into the bathroom with Marty's virgin pin (a circular pin girls wore in the '50s to signify that they were either "spoken for" or still virgins or both), so as not to get blood on the carpet. At the end of the movie, when Sandy shows up to the carnival post-makeover in a skintight black getup, you better believe she has hoops in her ears.

Another good way to learn about the history of ear piercing in America is to ask your mom. I'm serious. My own mother went to the doctor to get her ears pierced in the early '70s, along with her sister and her mother, my aunt and grandmother. My grandmother, like many grown women at the time, hadn't had her ears pierced yet.

Though my mom recalls piercing guns existed and you could get your ears pierced at the mall by then thanks to piercing's rise, her family was cautious and requested that the family doctor do it. This isn't uncommon. Many doctors used to do ear piercing, though they weren't trained in it (piercing certainly wasn't covered in med school), and this frequently resulted in the kind of crooked angles that befell my mom's ear piercings. It wasn't until about 25 years later that she got her ears re-pierced — with me, at a special ear-piercing clinic, still too cautious for the mall — and became the earring fiend she is today.

You could also look to Hillary Clinton and Chelsea Clinton as examples of the 20th century's piercing mores. Like Sandy, Hillary had been a good girl growing up: "When she got to high school, she rejected offers to have her ears pierced with a needle and potato, according to her best friends, didn't smoke in the bathroom, didn't make out with boys in ‘The Pit' at [her high school's] library, didn't even wear black turtlenecks," the Washington Post reported in 1993.

"I was 100 percent sure they were going to make me look so grown-up and fancy. I don't think I was so wrong. Earrings can really change your face and your general vibe a lot."

As of that year, Hillary's ears were still unpierced, but her daughter Chelsea was begging to get hers done. "We've agreed not to talk about it until her 13th birthday," Hillary said on the 1992 campaign trail. Somewhere between then and now, it seems like both female Clintons took the plunge — "seems" because even though Hillary wears a lot of earrings, there's precious little information out there about when she may have gotten them pierced, and it's theoretically possible that they're all clip-ons (speaking as someone who recently went on a Google Images deep dive of Hill's ears). Don't tell Donald Trump that, though.

Hillary's hope that Chelsea would do what she did — "I don't have pierced ears, and her grandmothers don't," she said in 1992 — is striking. In ear piercing, there's a tendency, probably frequently broken, but a tendency nonetheless, to do what your mom did. If your mom got her ears pierced as a baby, you probably did too. If she didn't, you probably didn't either. And if you have a daughter, you might just keep the tradition going. "I got my ears pierced on my 10th birthday, and I think I counted down the days for more than a year," remembers Rony Vardi, founder and co-creative director of Catbird. "I was 100 percent sure they were going to make me look so grown-up and fancy. I don't think I was so wrong. Earrings can really change your face and your general vibe a lot. Now my daughter is getting her ears pierced for her 10th birthday next month, and I can see how she is as excited as I was."

Some girls see getting their ears pierced as a rubicon to be crossed. Anna Sheffield, the proprietor of an eponymous jewelry brand as well as another line called Bing Bang, couldn't wait to hurl herself over it. "I was pretty young, but I absolutely demanded to be allowed to get my ears pierced, because I wanted to be like Wonder Woman," Sheffield says. She was all of 4 or 5. "At the time — I was born in the '70s — Lynda Carter was Wonder Woman on TV. She had this amazing '70s outfit and part of it was these big, red plastic stud earrings." (We'll take a momentary pause here so you can check 'em out.)

"I basically begged and cried and pleaded, and my mom kept telling me, ‘It's gonna hurt,' and I was like, ‘I don't care, I wanna be like Wonder Woman,'" Sheffield remembers. "So she took me to get my ears pierced, and of course they don't pierce your ears with giant plastic Wonder Woman studs. So I started out with two little fake garnet studs that were my mini Wonder Woman stand-ins until I could get the big plastic ones."

All in all, "It was kind of an amazing day, because of course it hurt, but I felt like it was this amazing rite of passage to becoming a super person, like a superhero." To this day, Sheffield says she still gravitates toward some iteration of "Wonder Woman studs" in her personal earring selection.

In the '70s, Sheffield was an outlier to get her ears pierced at 4 or 5, and though that's still on the young side, it's not uncommon for elementary school-aged girls to get pierced these days. If it seems quaint that Hillary and Bill were trying to delay Chelsea's ear piercing until teenagedom, it goes to show how much times have changed since the early '90s and how much the Clinton parents stuck to the conventional wisdom they'd grown up with.

But their worry that ear piercing meant something more than that Chelsea would have holes in her ears, that it somehow went along with growing up, wasn't completely unfounded. They certainly weren't the first parents to make their daughter wait. Maybe it goes back to that association with bad girls, but getting your ears pierced marks the beginning of something — soon you'll be wearing makeup, shaving your legs, going to school dances, having crushes — and maybe it's the beginning of the end of childhood. If you want to be high-minded about it, maybe it even fits into Leslie Jamison's "Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain." Isn't suffering for beauty a particularly female kind of suffering?

This mainstreaming of ear piercing, from fast-girl marker to everygirl aspiration, has echoes in the trajectory tattoos and body piercings have followed in more recent years: Once they were controversial and even extreme, but now nearly anything goes. And we haven't even gotten into earrings for men and the lost salience of earrings among gay men! Piercing: It's more than meets the eye (or ear).

Claire's, which bills itself as the world's top piercer, has been in the ear piercing business since 1978, right on schedule for ear piercing's '70s boom. The store started a few years before that, in the 1960s (it sold wigs initially, Lauren Sherman recently reported in her history of Claire's for Lenny), and by 1992, there were over 1,000 stores in the US, many of them in the malls that sprung up throughout suburbia over the previous decades. Now, there are more than 3,000 stores in the world. As the company has expanded internationally, "Claire's has become stronger and stronger in ear piercing, and we've invested more and more in that area," says Hind Palmer, Claire's global communications director.

The chain does 3 million piercings a year, and its global piercing number recently hit 94 million.

Claire's takes pride in being known as the place to get your ears pierced, and it makes sense. Of course it wants girls to think of it as that place where you can do something as supercool and grown-up as getting your ears pierced. Of course they expect that positive association to result in increased loyalty and sales.

Its piercing stats are appropriately staggering: The chain does 3 million piercings a year, and its global piercing number recently hit 94 million. It's a volume business — if you visit your local Claire's, there's probably someone getting pierced right now. And it's also one they have down to a science. Pick your stud, sit down in the chair, get pierced with a gun, admire it in the mirror, and then pay at the cash register. It can all be done in less than 15 minutes.

In the Lenny piece, Sherman wrote that the company's heyday was in the '90s and that "sales really haven't grown much since the company was acquired a decade ago." Just last week, its CEO Beatrice Lafon resigned and was replaced by Ron Marshall, a board member and former CEO of A&P and Borders. For years, the company has had trouble living up to its past successes, and at this point, it is also "significantly" in debt.

While in charge, Lafon had been mulling ways to capitalize on the company's status as a top ear piercer, the Chicago Tribune reported: "So famous is Claire's for its ear piercing that the accessories retailer historically hasn't done much to promote the service, CEO Beatrice Lafon said — and that's one of the things she's changing as she works to right the company's rocky fortunes." It remains to be seen what changes Marshall will make. For 2015, Claire's reported revenues of $1.4 billion. Palmer declined to specify how much of that comes from piercing.

In contrast, Piercing Pagoda, Claire's most visible national competitor, was founded in 1969 and is now owned by the Signet group of jewelers. It has 610 locations and sales of $210 million, down from 930 locations and sales of $300 million in 2000.

Palmer cited Claire's jewelry selection as one of the main things that sets it apart from its peers. "You lose yourself," she said of the store's famous earring towers. "Me personally, having worked for Claire's for six years, you can't ask me to choose a pair of earrings." The company is also pushing its proprietary "Rapid Ear Piercing After Care," a cleanser that allows the earring holes to heal in just three weeks, as opposed to the usual six to eight.

Lately it seems like celebrities have been a focus for the Claire's brand, and Palmer was quick to point out that Brooklyn Beckham, Kaley Cuoco, and Vanessa Hudgens, among others, have all recently gotten piercings at Claire's. Some celebrity visits are arranged in advance, but others are impromptu. "They don't need to close the store. Like Victoria and David Beckham, they went to our store, they shopped in our store. We didn't want to make a big deal out of it, we didn't want to promote it," Palmer says. "If they want to talk about it and put it on Instagram, great." Her dream celebrity ear-piercing customer? Justin Bieber.

On a store visit to a midtown Manhattan Claire's in March, it was clear that the company's reputation as a piercing destination remains strong. Amrit Rattan, 28, had been wanting to get her cartilage pierced for years, but had always stopped short of actually doing it. "I was walking past, I saw Claire's, and I thought, ‘Let me just go in and get it done,'" she said. Katie Clark, 21, works nearby at Macy's Herald Square and also made a spur-of-the-moment decision to come in. Two college students on spring break from schools in California, 20-year-old Rhea Handa and 19-year-old Manka Garg, cheered each other on through the addition of new holes. "If we can get through midterms, we can get through this," Garg said.

"I liked it. It didn't hurt that much. It just hurt like a little pinch."

The only girls who seemed to be disappointed were two 17-year-olds named Sidney and Emma, who were in New York on a school trip from Virginia and hoping to get second holes in their ears. According to Claire's rules, you have to be 18 or have a parent or guardian with you to get a piercing. ("Notice: If you were born after today's date in 1998, your parent or legal guardian must provide their photo ID & complete the registry giving their consent for your ear piercing," a sign reads in the store.) "She said, ‘I'm just gonna do it myself,'" Emma said of her friend. "I do that kind of stuff sometimes," Sidney shrugged, saying she would look up instructions "on WikiHow or something." DIY culture lives.

The most exciting customer of the day was Emmie Bankston. On vacation with her family from Knoxville, Tennessee, Emmie managed to convince her parents to let her get her ears pierced. They had been wanting her to wait until her 10th birthday at the end of April, but they caved a month early. Not knowing where to go, her mother Julie said, "We Googled. We were like, ‘I don't even know where you would get your ears pierced in New York City.'" Before they thought of the world's number one ear piercer, of course, and made their way to the Midtown location. "I liked it. It didn't hurt that much. It just hurt like a little pinch," Emmie beamed afterward, as her three younger siblings looked on. One of her little sisters had just gotten her doll's ears pierced at the American Girl store earlier that day.

All Claire’s store associates are trained in the art of piercing. They watch in-house training videos and shadow more experienced piercers, but they also start piercing very soon after they begin working at the chain. Piercing is way different more personal, more permanent — than the selling and customer service responsibilities of a typical retail gig, and employees have to deal with a wide range of customer reactions to the act. Some cry, some scream, some curse, some reach for the stuffed animal that Claire’s provides for comfort.

Palmer declined to discuss the procedure for when something goes wrong with a piercing, but added, "Every matter is unique and we treat it that way."

The Claire's experience is easy and convenient, but it's not for everyone. Rachel Smith opened up Clinical Ear Piercing in Soho in 2014 to serve babies and children, and has been surprised that many adults seek her out as well. Similar private clinics run by people with medical backgrounds can be found throughout the country.

Smith is a registered nurse, and it's more expensive to get one's ears pierced with her than it is at Claire's, where piercing is free with the purchase of a piercing starter kit, which includes the ear-piercing cleanser ($20 for the three-week solution) and your choice of studs (options range from a 3mm titanium ball in purple or cobalt for $18.99 to the "diamond collection" set in 14-karat yellow gold for $99.99). Starting at $130, Clinical Ear Piercing charges more than twice what the average Claire's piercing costs, and Smith said her business has done well enough that she's been able to make it her full-time job. Most patients seem to come to her after doing their research online; much of the time, they're picking her over getting a piercing at a place like Claire's. Claire's is kind of the elephant in the room when it comes to piercing: Even when you don't go there, it still looms large over your decision.

Judy, an 8-year-old from Brooklyn, got her ears pierced one Saturday in March at Clinical Ear Piercing. "She earned it," her mother, Claudia, explained. Judy had just completed an important performance for piano school, and she had asked to get her ears pierced after the concert. At first, "my dad didn't really agree," Judy mentioned. Claudia piped up, "He actually said, ‘Oh no, my little girl.' But he's fine now. She's the first of three girls."

Of course, ear piercing doesn't have to be some big decision, and for the many people who get their ears pierced as babies, it isn't. For some cultural groups in the US — Latinos and Indians among them — piercing infant girls' ears is the norm. If you're looking for controversy in the ear-piercing world, this is one of the few sources of it. You can find endless internet debates over whether the babies should be able to decide for themselves.

Alice, a 2-month-old, was one of several infants to get her ears pierced that same day at Clinical Ear Piercing. Her parents, Priscilla and Taiago, are Brazilians living in Manhattan, and they were getting her ears pierced so everyone knows she's a girl. "We think of girls like dolls," Priscilla said. "You have little dresses, you have little bows, and the earrings just complement the look."

Still, she had been scared for Alice to get it done. "I wouldn't hold her. I didn't want to even see it," she said. "I think it's better to do it now when they are younger and I knew she would cry and everything, at the back of my mind, it's always the question, ‘Is it worth letting her go through this just because of a pair of earrings, just to look nice?'" Priscilla seemed happy with the end result. "Even babies have the right to accessorize," Alice's father, Taiago, added with a smile.

"We think of girls like dolls. You have little dresses, you have little bows, and the earrings just complement the look."

Another couple brought in their 7-month-old that day. She screamed like an opera singer when the piercing gun snapped, but a few minutes later was good as new. "You look so pretty!" her mother cooed. The mother was Indian-American, and the father was white (they didn't want to use their names), and they wanted to get her ears pierced in time to see family for Easter.

His family, the mother explained, "were like, ‘No, wait until she's 8. It's her rite of passage.' And I'm like, ‘No, it's not.' She got a pair of earrings as her birthday present when she was born. We like that tradition." The mother had gotten her ears pierced as a baby and wanted her daughter to do the same, even if she didn't have a particularly specific argument for it. "I don't really know why they do that, but every Indian baby girl gets her ears pierced. Piercings in India, jewelry, it's sort of a sign of wealth."

"It's pretty much all the same story with the babies," Smith summarized. "That's a very cultural thing. Normally African Americans and anybody of Latin descent, they bring their babies in, and it's gender identification."

Sandra Gutierrez, 27, was in New York from Washington, D.C. for the weekend, and came to Clinical Ear Piercing to look at its selection of medical-grade earrings because she has sensitive ears. Her husband, Carlos Fernandez, also 27, decided to get his ears pierced while they were in the office. "Oh wow. It hurts less than when you pop my pimples," he said to Gutierrez afterward. For him, it definitely wasn't a rite of passage: "It has no other meaning except how it looks."

Gutierrez, though, remembered a time when her earrings made her stand out. She had her ears pierced as a baby in Peru, but grew to resent them when she was growing up in Texas. "I do remember one time when I was really little, I thought that it was unfair that my parents had done it for me without me asking for it," Gutierrez said. "There was one or two years where it was such a big deal that I took out my earrings and put on the stickers that other girls were wearing, because I just didn't want people messing with my ears anymore. Do not touch them, do not point out to your parents that I have them. I didn't like feeling different."

"People come in from out of town for the 10th birthday, go to the Plaza, they have a little party and ear piercing. Ten, I find, is really the big celebration age of ear piercing."

The cultural differences continue to surprise Smith. "I have Chinese and Korean women who come to me every single weekend, lots and lots, and they're always adults. They get their first piercings always in their late teens, when they get to college, or when they're getting married or they have a corporate job. I was thinking about that this morning, how it's a different rite of passage in that culture, where it's more about sophistication." Sure enough, two NYU undergrads, both from China, come in together for first piercings that day.

"I do a lot of 10th birthdays," Smith added. "I go to the Plaza a lot. People come in from out of town for the 10th birthday, go to the Plaza, they have a little party and ear piercing. Ten, I find, is really the big celebration age of ear piercing. I did a 9th birthday the other day, but I feel like 10 is really when they take the trip to New York and go to the theater and it's a big, big celebration."

Smith offers several accommodations Claire's doesn't: She makes house calls, you can pay extra for numbing cream, plus her office is quieter and more private. Before going into nursing, she was a hairdresser, and she said that informs ear piercing as much or more than her medical background does. "I do consider this a medical procedure because you're puncturing skin, but it has a huge beauty component because there's no reason to do this. I spend so much time really looking at the shape of the ear, standing back, let's make sure, let's make sure."

Smith said she frequently fixes mall piercings gone awry. "The placement is wonky half the time. They're in a hurry." Even professional accessories designers aren't immune to this. Erica Weiner, who designs her own line of jewelry, remembers, "The first time I was 12 and got them done at the mall in New Jersey with a gun, a teenager with a piercing gun, and because of that they both are uneven and they sort of angle forward. So any earrings I wear always are sort of pointing at the ground." She loved them anyway. "I felt different walking down the street. I felt absolutely different. Nobody noticed."

Another way to set your experience apart from Claire's is to go to a tattoo shop. That's what Judy Amsalem, a 26-year-old graduate student who grew up in New York, did for her first piercing.

"Most New Yorkers still definitely get their ears pierced at Claire's. We have those even though they're not in malls," Amsalem says. "I was not one of those people. I was really afraid, actually, of getting my ears pierced, and afraid of needles. So I waited and waited until the last possible moment, which to me was six weeks to the day before my senior prom, because I wanted to be able to wear earrings to prom, and I wanted to be able to change my earrings, and you have to wait six weeks after getting your ears pierced to do that."

Her older sister took control of the situation. "She went to NYU and she lived in the Village, she's not about to take me to Claire's," Amsalem remembers. "So she took me to St. Mark's Place instead. We went into this classic St. Mark's Place piercing and tattoo joint, and the guy who pierced my ears was this huge burly dude with tattoos all over his neck and hands and he had his forehead pierced, which is really confusing. So I sit down and he's like, ‘What are we doing today?' And my sister's so excited, she's like ‘My little sister wants to get her ears pierced.' And this dude's so confused. He's like, ‘Like, for the first time?'

I'm pretty sure he had never done this before. It was a pretty hardcore place. I remember sitting in the chair, and the wall in front of where I was getting my ears pierced was covered in all these different ways to get your vagina pierced. All these vaginas and different ways to lace up your piercings on your vagina. He did actually have a piercing gun and he was very gentle because he was so excited that it was my first piercing, and he pierced my ears. And six weeks later I changed my earrings and I went to prom."

"I felt different walking down the street. I felt absolutely different. Nobody noticed."

Amsalem's not the only one to forego the mall. "We have had a huge influx of people coming in for earlobe piercings over the past couple of years," says Miro Hernandez, of the APP and a piercer himself at Dandyland in San Antonio, Texas. The increasing mainstreaming of tattoos and body piercings helps here, too. "We're getting a lot more parents who are doing their research and they're opting to bring their children into tattoo or ear piercing studios to get their ears pierced as opposed to going to Claire's or some chain in the mall."

This brings us to the other site of potential controversy in the piercing world, piercing guns. "We have a no-piercing-guns stance because of all the repercussions and potential damage they can cause, the questions about sterility and the quality of jewelry, all this stuff comes into play." Rachel Smith of Clinical Ear Piercing says there is limited research on the difference between piercing with a gun or a needle, but that it is one of the most common questions she gets. She ultimately concluded that "there's no difference. The tissue damage is virtually the same."

Still, people like Hernandez take a hard line against the guns: "With a piercing gun, it's a stud that's basically loaded in a spring-load cartridge and it's forced through, and it's ripping and it's causing trauma and damage. Whereas with a piercing needle you can make a really clean, simple single incision." With the rare family doctor who still does piercings, they tend to use guns, though maybe a dermatologist — again, the rare one who actually bothers doing them — will opt for a needle.

In fashion circles, J. Colby Smith of New York Adorned has developed a reputation for being piercing's No. 1 stud. He doesn't pierce kids — "I'm past that point in my career," he says — but he sees 150 people in an average week, many of whom give him free reign to do what he thinks will look best. He favors a delicate look, not one statement earring but a smattering of smaller complementary ones that form an overall pleasing picture, customized to flatter your individual ear shape. (See this aesthetic on display on his Instagram feed.) He also spends a significant amount of time helping clients choose the jewelry that will work best with their piercings. It fits into the current vogue for all things dainty in jewelry — subtle necklaces and rings and earrings that won't look bulky or loud even if you pile three or four on top of each other.

"They're opting to bring their children into tattoo or ear piercing studios to get their ears pierced as opposed to going to Claire's or some chain in the mall."

"The piercing that's popular today, Colby's style, it's so different from how it was when I got pierced," says Wing Yau, the designer behind jewelry brand Wwake. "I think it's a lot more personal these days. Colby looks at your entire ear with a holistic perspective and thinks about how he can balance the entire look of the ear out over time. I think that's why he has such a great following, because people can come back and build their collection and have their ear be like a whole outfit in itself."

Last fall, Yau threw an ear piercing party in Brooklyn where guests could get pierced by Smith with Wwake earrings. "At least two people came who had never had theirs ears pierced. One of them was my friend and she got these two really cool constellation-style earrings in both her ears."

Designer Erica Weiner was one of the guests at the party. "I just thought it was a really different experience than what I was used to," she says. "When I was a teenager or in my early 20s in New York City, I got a lot of body piercings done. You used to always have to go into one of these scary tattoo/piercing stores. There was no in-between, approachable, fun piercing. It was either absolutely horrifying outsider piercing culture thing or the mall, that was it. Now it's much more casual, with the ear stacking."

Yau agrees. "I think when I got pierced with a piercing gun it was the way everyone, all of my girlfriends, got pierced, and we shared that common denominator of that experience, which is fun. It's definitely a lot more impersonal, both in how you're getting pierced and who's piercing you, and also the selection of jewelry was more commercial back then. People like Colby provide a more curated and special experience, not that it wasn't romantic."

Maybe the personalization of piercing is poised to spread from New York across the country. (Smith himself is bicoastal now.) "Piercings are something that sticks with you," he says. "It doesn't matter if you're 18 or you're 25 or you're 36, you always remember getting pierced. It just leaves a mark on your brain. I love that all my clients come to me through word of mouth, so somebody gets pierced, they go to dinner, they talk about it at dinner. I love that it's like I'm with them and I'm part of them. It's incredibly flattering. I very rarely can go anywhere that I don't see somebody that I've done something on. And they're just like, ‘Thank you for making it a good experience,' and I'm definitely not going to forget." He won't forget your ears, or becoming part of your story, and obviously, neither will you. Because unlike other things you wear or own, your piercings stay with you, stay on you. "It becomes part of the map of your body, like looking at a freckle or something," Weiner says.

As Anna Sheffield puts it, reflecting on her piercings, "Those little decisions when I was 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, putting more ear piercings in, and later getting tattoos, and even now, being who I am, it becomes a part of who you are and how you express yourself."

Heather Schwedel is a writer and copy editor at Slate.

Editor: Julia Rubin


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