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Earscape trend

These Glossier-style Gen Z piercing studios are steering the earscape trend

Forget the chair at Claire’s – the ear piercing experience has evolved with nurse hotlines, an emphasis on self-expression, and building a community

Since the beginning of time, humans have been piercing their ears. “In primitive tribes the purpose was to ward off superstition, it was also tied to religious reasons as cited in old Hindu texts,” says Hallie Spradlin, accessories director at Fashion Snoops. “Not only did kings, queens, and supreme rulers from King Tut to Julius Caesar adorn their ears, but sailors and other ‘common’ workers would too as insurance in case anything happened to them (the earrings would be used to pay for their funerals according to some accounts).”

While multiple piercings have become fairly normalised in the last few decades (for example, when I was 10 in 1999, I had double holes and I was raised in a conservative Jewish home), nowadays ear piercings aren’t just random. In fact, ears have become a new body part that can be styled with intention – the new “arm party”. People are thoughtfully considering where on their ears they should get pierced and how each earring will look together in a recent phenomenon called “earscapes”. 

A wave of new spaces are starting to cater to this growing interest. For example, in recent seasons, Spradlin has been seeing mini earscapes pop up at trade shows and brand events. But the most recent brands she’s noticed include the debut of the Studs, Merjuri's piercing studio, and direct to consumer brand Stone & Strand.

According to the Studs’ website, the company considers earscapes to be the “combined art and science of decorating one’s ear with personalised piercings and earrings, resulting in a form of extreme self-expression.” Started in November 2019 with its first IRL store in New York, the company has been dubbed the “Glossier of piercing studios” by Vogue and visited by Kaia Gerber and Euphoria stars Zendaya and Jacob Elordi. 

With neon signage, tons of mirrors, and a curated selection of earrings designed by Studs and other popular brands, the shop is a new, cool alternative to underground piercing places, piercing pagodas at shopping malls, and of course, the iconic Claire’s. Plus, its catchy slogans like “Hey, Stud” and “Hole New You” that are emblazoned on the store walls along with Gen Z yellow accents make it the perfect place for young people to kick back and get some cool piercings.

Lisa Bubbers, Studs’ co-founder and CMO, was inspired to launch the company with her co-founder Anna Harman, after going to a tattoo parlour with Harman when Harman wanted to get pierced. “While the piercing was healthy and safe, we noticed several things about the experience from the assortment, to the environment, to the price point and digital experience that were not catering to customer needs,” she explains. So they banded together to create something that focuses on a customer-first experience with safe needle piercing, a wide range of earring options with accessible price points, and of course, an inclusive brand that stands for bold self-expression. Similar to Glossier, the company has grown rapidly popular with consumers by focusing its marketing on building community.

“Piercings are technically considered a body modification, and we are in such a time of cultural unrest and turmoil, there's solace in owning the right to one's image and having control over one's body. Sure it's not a completely radical act, but almost a form of self-care in a way, which would explain the demand for a safer and more luxurious experience” – Hallie Spradlin, accessories director, Fashion Snoops 

In addition to Toronto-based Mejuri, a jewellery brand with stores that double as piercing studios with three physical spaces and pieces ranging from $29 to $2000, there’s Rowan, which caters to an even younger demographic. Offering earring boxes featuring earrings and a “collectible conversation card with a meaningful symbol and thought-provoking questions,” the company partners with registered nurses across the US to create safe piercing experiences for tween girls. “At our core, we want to help girls feel heard and celebrated as they grow up, which has been overlooked for so long,” founder Louisa Schneider says regarding the company’s mission. 

According to her, ear piercing is exactly that: a significant and transformative moment that she believes has not been cherished as it should be. Through the brand, she aims to inspire self-confidence in girls whether it’s their first piercing or their tenth. Moreover, Schneider agrees that piercings have become an outlet for self-expression, and says this is especially important for young girls. “We believe in allowing tweens to mix and match earrings to create something that is uniquely theirs.”

While creative expression is a priority for these companies, safety is also a top concern since, after all, a piercing is a small medical procedure and piercing infections are incredibly common. With this in mind, Studs piercers prep and pierce customers with an autoclave-sterilised single-use needle. According to its website, this process is “leaps and bounds better than piercing guns”, while all of its piercing jewellery is made of implant-grade metals, with flat-back labrets. The website also offers after-care and healing tips, and answers to common piercing questions. Plus you can sign up to receive tips via text message when you get your piercing.

Rowan, on the other hand, works with a network of nurses to provide the best care for its customers before, during, and after a piercing. “Rowan nurses follow up – we have a nurse hotline, and we can come back and teach her how to change out her earrings (with Rowan-designed, made, and bespoke hypoallergenic earrings),” says Schneider. “While it’s fun to get lots of holes, the most important thing is to make sure that first piercing is done right and that it heals properly.” According to her, it’s hard to guarantee sterility when not using sterile starter studs, while most piercing establishments don’t ensure that a medical expert is available for the piercing and for questions and care afterwards.

So, why is this trend happening? “Piercings are technically considered a body modification, and we are in such a time of cultural unrest and turmoil, there's solace in owning the right to one's image and having control over one's body,” Spradlin believes. “Sure it's not a completely radical act, but almost a form of self-care in a way, which would explain the demand for a safer and more luxurious experience.” 

Bubbers believes that presentation norms have changed, and Gen Z and millennials are looking for ways to uniquely express their identities. “Ear piercings are no longer simply decorative, but are now looked at as a way to say something about yourself that can easily change over time, unlike a tattoo.” While the way we feel and who we want to be might change from day-to-day, Studs believes jewellery is a simple way to express yourself in a non-permanent way, which is why an accessible price point is integral to its DNA.

There’s also the fact that younger people are obsessed with 90s and early 00s nostalgia. “I'd like to give them props on bringing back this mall-favourite activity despite the demise of the mall itself,” says Spradlin. Moving forward, the trend forecaster can see the idea of earscapes continuing and becoming more brand-integrated from a retail perspective and even more community-focused. “Retail today needs more than just product, and inviting customers into a space that doubles as an experience is integral to building a brand to last.”