Mayan Flares, Ancient and Today
Author: Jared Karnes, Onetribe LLC
The ears had immense significance to the Maya. They were believed to be conduits for spiritual energy, and thus ear flares had considerable value and importance in culture. Forms of obsidian, shell, ceramic and stone were worn in ear perforations. Some designs for daily wear are similar to standard solid plugs or thin tunnels of today, but the most prolific reminders of Maya body modification are the large ear flares shown in sculpture and craft.
The traditional Mayan flared piece consists of an exceptionally larger front face than a standard double flared piece of jewelry in the same size. There is no standard ratio of saddle to face size for these pieces, and often times size was a result of the limitations of the size and shape of river pebbles or small stones of jadeite. There is, however, a particular concept which should be adhered to in the modern production and classification of these pieces: the original design was meant to resemble a flower. That is, the front face must be significantly larger than the wearable area so as to present a wide view of the face and general “trumpet” or “funnel” shape of either the face itself or the visual lines from front flare to rear edge of the piece upon side view.
Although later pieces sometimes included precious metals, the majority of the pieces now in existence are ancient pieces made of ceramics and sacred green stones, jadeite being of the most value and highest regard. The pieces varied greatly in size and shape, and were not always worn in the ear lobe - archeological and anthropological research suggests that large flares were often attached to belts, and strands of beads as neckwear. Pieces were also kept as heirlooms and re-utilized in many ways by family members, and even later cultures, as with Maya inscriptions on Olmec artifacts. This cultural reappropriation could aid in the explanation of the excessive drilling along the surface of some flares discovered. Many made specifically for burial rites or ritual purposes were incredibly large - the famous “Pomona” flare exhibits a front face of seven inches and an internal hollow area of over three inches in diameter. This immensely large piece is also curious in that it has four groupings of glyphs etched into the face. Other pieces sometimes have etched designs or incised lines adorning the faces, and in some cases pieces are literally carved to resembled flower petals.
Although pieces varied stylistically throughout Maya history, with some being more angled, others trumpet shaped and a few known being squared in shape, the majority retained the characteristic large front face and flower profile.
Many pieces contained strands of beads or tufts of fiber thread which protruded from the face. Of particularly creative nature were the true “flower flares,” those pieces which exhibit a series of inner flares and protruding beads, sometimes several inches long, through which strands of natural fiber were attached to a counterweight at the rear to hold the entire assemblage together in the lobe. In traditional Maya ear spool work, the large flare symbolizes the calyx of the flower, and the protruding front bead the pistil.
Complete sets of this nature are very rare as the fiber thread has long since degraded and pieces become separated very easily during digging, especially in the case of grave robbery or farm tillage which uproots burials and ruins containing these items. Some sets we have seen have been reassembled with beads and other parts that were most certainly not original to the set, but it is not unheard of for the Maya to recycle and reuse greenstone crafts because jadeite was an extremely valuable resource and was never wasted. As a result, the verification of originality when speaking of these sets is difficult to achieve.
The Onetribe Museum collection contains several fine examples of traditional Maya ear flares of varying sizes, mostly of jadeite but also from other fine greenstones present in Mesoamerica.
We have chosen select pieces and conducted a study of the shape and measurements of these pieces using a grid measurement system. The results of one such study are shown below. The system may seem a little confusing at first - these were never meant to be public, but I figured they would be interesting for assessing the scale of traditional pieces.
We were curious to analyze these ancient works in an effort to define what exactly constitutes a historically correct version of this style. Due to the changes in the style of jewelry over the years, jewelry we are making today is much more versatile and wearable than pieces from antiquity. We have relatively standardized our flare sizes and we regulate our front flare sizes for production items. The traditional style was very front heavy with all of the embellishments, and a counterweight was necessary - something we needn’t do today because our modern production methods of grinding stone allow us greater freedom in shaping pieces and adding an accurately sized rear flare to hold the piece in. Production of these styles requires more thought and engineering than standard jewelry due to the added front side weight.
You will find many beautiful examples of traditional ear flares in museums, but it is very hard to have a tactile cultural experience through glass. Onetribe is committed to the preservation and presentation of cultural information as it relates to modern body modification practices. The “Mayan flared” design is a favorite of ours here at Onetribe and we will continue to create both traditionally accurate and original modern versions of this classic style. It is our hope that this document will serve as a brief educational primer to our readers, but if nothing else, as simply a reminder of the rich history of body modifying cultures to come before us. We must respect and cherish the knowledge of those before to truly appreciate where we are now, and where we are going as we write our own history. (Edit: As of 2013 we have discontinued the name "Mayan" flare in our product line, replacing it with "Trumpet" flare.)
*Note* For the sake of simplification, in this document we refer to the entirety of the Maya ethnic group as simply “Maya” or “Mayan,” although the term itself is not indicative of the vast number of distinctly different cultures, settlements and languages which existed during the Pre-Classic and Classic Maya time periods.
Digby, Adrian. Maya Jades. Revised ed. Oxford: University Press, 1972.
Lange, Frederick [Ed]. Precolumbian Jade. Salt Lake City: Univ. of Utah Press, 1993.
Grube, Nikolai [Ed]. Maya: Divine Kings Of The Rain Forest. Germany: Konemann, 2006.
This text ©2009-2015 Onetribe LLC. You may link to this text, and you may reproduce it only in full and with copyright notices intact. Antique ear flare measurement illustrations and antique photographs are ©2008-2015 Onetribe LLC & Mike Moses. Plate photographs and multi-piece flare illustration obtained from the texts listed in the references, and are the property of their respective authors.
The physical printed references used for this document and/or the actual antique pieces of jewelry documented may be viewed by appointment. Call 804.230.4480 for more information.