The "Earring Tour of Baltimore" was born on a sultry Saturday afternoon, when I asked two old friends from Texas what they wanted to see in my hometown.
We had done a driving tour, starting out from the tree-lined streets of North Baltimore then heading downtown. They had seen Fell's Point and the Inner Harbor, eaten crab cakes and gelato. It seemed only polite to let them choose their next destination.
"Show us where you buy your earrings," Pam said promptly.
Among my friends I am known for my earrings, a reputation born by default. Bracelets bang computer keyboards, necklaces itch, rings look best on dainty, well-kept hands. Pins require that mysterious genetic gift known as the ability to accessorize. Bolos are passe.
A Pikesville jeweler pierced my ears almost 20 years ago, but until I moved to Texas in the 1980s, I never dared to wear anything larger than a pearl stud. A man scoffed at my small gold hoops -- "Those would be fine for a weekend at the ranch" -- and, using his large gold-and-diamond ring, showed me how a big earring would look. I was converted.
But big wasn't enough. I wanted weird -- asymmetrical pairings, neon pink fishing lures, cactuses, converted key rings. San Antonio, with its abundant supply of Mexican silver earrings, fed my habit. I wasn't sure Baltimore could match it.
It turns out my hometown can easily -- and conveniently -- satiate anyone's earring lust. The path of stores on which I led my friends is a route I negotiate almost every day, from home to work to lunch and back. The same route can be wrapped around a basic Baltimore tour.
Start at the Inner Harbor. On a bad day, I go there to eat pizza. On a really bad day, I browse for earrings at Amaryllis. This Gallery store, which also has an Owings Mill branch, has a sign touting prices as low as $10. Perhaps, but those cruising for earrings will have more success in the $20-$40 range.
The store is perhaps best known for its Lucy Isaacs earrings, strange mixes of fruit, charms, hearts and mythical creatures, displayed with this claim: "Lucy [a New York designer] has been designing jewelry since her Egyptian Incarnation in 2580 B.C. . . . All are magical and will protect and transform the wearer."
Such promises don't come cheap. Isaacs' earrings start at $30 and reach almost $100. Tiny bunches of grapes cost almost $50, for example. But I can vouch for the transformation part, although I won't divulge any details.
From the Harbor, our impromptu tour headed north, to Nouveau on Charles Street. Sightseers can pause to glance at the Washington Monument before climbing the steps to this shop crammed with art deco everything and, of course, earrings.
The deco-inspired designs here do not have retro prices, but are worth an occasional splurge.
Nouveau also has excellent examples of an important development in earring technology -- huge-yet-weightless clip-ons and dusters. Amy Jo, a New York company, specializes in unabashedly fake gems. They won't fool anyone, but they make excellent conversation pieces.
Tomlinson Craft Collections was our next destination, but not the one on Charles. The Rotunda Tomlinson has a wider earring JTC selection. It also has a wide range of prices. On our visit, I saw tiny paper kimonos at $12 a pair and a beautiful abstract design of gold wire and jewels, for $750.
But I like Tomlinson's for weird earrings, some of which are quite reasonable. (Look for the "under $30" display case.) A friend gave me a pair featuring likenesses of Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev.
Across the hall at the Rotunda, the Bead carries a distinctive line by Anne Hellman. The Bead is also good for bargain hunters. I found purple-streaked constellations of six-pointed stars for $8.
Fell's Point was not included on the inaugural earring tour of Baltimore because of time limitations. My favorite earring haunt, Cowboy Buddha, is no longer there, although I think some of their stock has been resurrected at a new shop, Venus Envy.
And it's only a matter of time before I break down and buy a pair of dice earrings at Retro, also on lower Broadway. Or should I use my earring money for those dangling fish I saw at the beach last month? Then again, I don't have anything with Boris Yeltsin on it . . . not yet.