A few years ago, Sarah Slutsky found an online photo of a delicate gold hoop pierced midway through the ear cartilage. “I kept looking at it,” she said. “I was an assistant at Vogue at the time, and after one stressful day, I said, ‘I’m going for it.’ ” She took a friend along to get the piercing. “That was 2011,” said Slutsky, who is now a fashion stylist. “I felt like we were pioneers.”
It was a surprising move for her. In the 1990s, when she was growing up, piercings, she said, “were a statement: ‘Hear me roar. I have something to say.’ Now multiple piercings feel modern. It’s all about personal mementos and secret little jewels – so small people might not see them.”
If having a piercing was once an in-your-face roar, the new vogue is a whisper. Dainty piercings in areas once reserved for the bold – through the upper ear or the septum – have taken off with the fashion crowd. Elaborate jewelry going up the ear has appeared on the runway at Givenchy and Chanel.
Piercing has trickled toward celebrities as well. Actress Emma Watson, who is one of Slutsky’s clients, has been photographed with piercings through her cartilage. Earlier in July, Rihanna showed up to a nightclub with a ring in her septum, though there was much speculation on the Internet that it was merely a clip-on.
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Actresses Julianne Moore, Zoe Kravitz and Scarlett Johansson, fashion models like Candice Swanepoel and Erin Wasson, and Emily Weiss of the beauty site Into the Gloss have had piercings. And they have all sought out J. Colby Smith at New York Adorned, who has become a kind of guru of the fashion piercing.
Smith, 37, has been piercing since 1999. He grew up in a Jehovah’s Witness family in Utah, and rebellion took the form of skateboarding and listening to industrial and hard-core music. Being pierced and learning to pierce were rites of passage. Now he sees about 30 clients a day.
Smith is known for a delicate aesthetic, placing small hoops or studs along the ear, often in rose gold or black diamonds. “The trick is a couple of nice subtle pieces,” he said. For a long time it was something ugly, but jewelry is catching up with refined, simple, high-quality pieces.
On a recent Friday night in Smith’s small piercing room at the back of New York Adorned, John Arthur Peetz, 27, was getting a second piercing in his right ear, and his friend Carmen Garcia Durazo, 25, was getting a gold hoop put into her conch piercing, which goes around the middle of the ear cartilage. As music from the Cure and the Velvet Underground played in the background, Garcia Durazo, who had her ears pierced for the first time “when I was a few hours old,” talked about pain management. “I like to squeal and hold someone’s hand,” she said.
“I know your type,” Smith said with a smile. He’s blessed with a calm but slightly cheeky bedside manner.
“You immediately have a crush on him,” said Elizabeth Brockway, 24, a freelance photo researcher for Vogue.com. “He is so not threatening, even though it’s this intimidating East Village piercing and tattoo parlor.” She has gone to Smith for seven of the nine holes in her ears. “It definitely sounds like a ton,” she said, “but they are all delicate rose gold jewelry, so it doesn’t look that wild.”
She also has her septum pierced, but, she added: “I don’t wear it in front of my parents. And I haven’t yet worn it to Vogue, but I’m sure I could.”
The septum, Smith said, is “an aggressive piercing meant to look intimidating,” but he has sought out pretty, stylish girls to try it out, fitting small rings so close to the septum that you barely notice them until you’re close up.
Some piercings, like the tongue, eyebrow, lips and gauges that punch large holes through the ears are considered demode: The look is too reminiscent of girls gone wild or simply not subtle enough to be considered cool.
“Piercings work with a girlie look, as a contrast, but also for the minimalist Jil Sander vibe that’s coming back,” said Ilaria Urbinati, a fashion stylist who works with actresses Shailene Woodley and Lizzy Caplan. As far as getting her own piercings, Urbinati thinks she has hesitated too long. “At my last three dinner parties, guests brought up wanting to get pierced,” she said. “I was going to do it, but now it feels like too much of a trend.”
Trends come and go – unlike tattoos, say. If you grow tired of your piercings, you don’t have to keep them.
“Being able to pierce your ears all over feels like something you’ve chosen to do,” Slutsky said. “It’s sophisticated and ladylike and office appropriate. You’re not raging against the machine.”