The dazzling accessories of a pirate’s costume stamp their colorful character on the popular imagination: bandanas, eyepatches, and earrings express the baroque charms and gothic waywardness of their libertine spirit. But are these embellishments fictive or historically accurate?
Pirates may or may not have worn earrings. Various sources claim that pirates wore earrings for their practical monetary value, to honor superstitious beliefs, or as a mark of social rebellion. Others claim depictions of pirates wearing earrings arose out of fiction.
This article will examine some of the explanations given for pirates wearing jewelry. It will also explain the social context that gave rise to what is known as the “Golden Age” of piracy and explores the claim that depictions of pirates wearing earrings—like much else known about them—are based on fiction rather than fact.
Reasons Pirates May Have Worn Jewelry
There is no evidence confirming or denying if historical pirates wore earrings. So, the lack of clarity on why they might have done so is understandable. Of course, pirates may have worn earrings for more than one reason.
Practical Reasons Pirates Might Have Worn Earrings
One of the primary reasons people from different cultures throughout human history have worn jewelry is for its material value.
Especially when made of precious metals like gold or silver, jewelry items like earrings are an excellent store of value. They can be converted relatively quickly to cash and are great for situations whenever the wearer decides.
Perpetually on the run from the law and known to keep dubious company, pirates would have had plenty of practical reasons for stashing some of their wealth in the form of jewelry.
A pair of solid gold earrings procured under duress at knifepoint would have been easier to stash away. Equally conveniently, such items would have been easy to carry when fleeing at short notice and would find takers in whatever strange port a pirate might find themselves.
For the same reasons, pirates also used to drill holes in coins and string them into necklaces they could wear. 
Superstitious Beliefs That Encouraged Pirates To Wear Jewelry
For a cutthroat bunch, pirates widely held various superstitious beliefs ranging from the outrageously whimsical to the touchingly naive:
- Protection from harm. A pirate expected his earrings to offer protection against various occupational hazards, including seasickness, bad eyesight, and hearing loss. They also hoped their earrings to be good luck charms offering protection against drowning. 
- Earrings as payment for burial. One of the most incredible pirate beliefs was the understanding that—if their bodies washed ashore upon drowning at sea—a stranger might use the money from selling a pair of earrings to conduct a proper Christian burial.
- To provide their hometown location. In line with this belief, pirates would have the names of their hometowns engraved into their earrings. They believed this inscription to work as a forwarding address for their mortal remains.
Such sentiments might be easier to understand in people whose job descriptions didn’t involve raiding, looting, and killing. But, perhaps the pirates were optimists who believed other people were more conscientious than they were.
More likely, their fears were overwhelming enough to supersede their rationality.
Social Signaling as an Explanation for Pirate Accessorizing
Although pirates were more unruly and less hierarchical than most other sailors, they would undoubtedly have had differences in status based on wealth and rank.
Every crew would have had its captain and experienced hands. Moreover, on average, veterans would be wealthier and have higher status than novices.
Like people everywhere, pirates are likely to have used accessories to indicate their status and express their personalities.
Moreover, pirates were also distinct from other social groups. As rebels and outlaws, who did not conform to the norms of their day, they would have been on the fringes of polite society. Accessories—including jewelry, such as earrings—would have been a significant visual marker of their separateness from mainstream cultures.
The following section will explain how pirates found themselves on the margins of society by describing the social forces that gave rise to the Golden Age of Piracy.
The Golden Age of Piracy
Raiding at sea has been a part of humankind for as long as people set seafaring, and pirates existed in classical Greece and China. Famously, the Vikings of early medieval Europe were infamous for their raiding activity.
However, contemporary impressions of a pirate are primarily rooted in the Golden Age of Piracy. This iconic age was between the mid-17th and 18th centuries when thousands of pirates sailed the seas at any time. 
Many small farmers lost their land in Europe, and many traders lost business. The lack of jobs for this new predicament lured many people to the sea. But life on merchant’s vessels was brutally hierarchical and poorly paid, so some sailors took to piracy in search of better fortune.
Beyond the law and on the fringes of mainstream society, pirates were the rebels of their day. Inevitably, a pirate would have wanted to flaunt their outsider status. Since only royalty and nobility usually wore ostentatious jewelry, earrings may have been a prominent advertisement for the pirate’s outlaw status.
The Image of the Pirate in Fiction
Because of their social status and the nature of their job, pirates tended not to be the most literate of men. So there are no known records maintained by the pirates themselves available to us that might clarify questions such as if they wore earrings.
However, lack of information has not stopped authors from attempting to document pirate life. And, where detail is lacking, fiction has often stepped in. But literature and movies have romanticized the figure of the pirate—so it’s hard to tell fact from fiction anymore.
For instance, while a few pirates may have made captives “walk the plank,” the practice would likely have taken too much effort to have been widespread. Like other stereotypes, depictions of pirates in fiction are motivated more by dramatic potential than a need for historical accuracy. 
Author Angus Konstam, for instance, claims that pirate earrings and bandanas derive from the whims of the 19th-century American illustrator Howard Pyle. According to Konstam, Pyle took these details from earlier drawings of Spanish bandits. 
It’s possible pirates only wear earrings in books and movies.