During a session of Magpie Therapy (i.e. going through my jewellery box on a rainy afternoon) I found this little pendant that I haven’t seen or thought of for ages. As far as I know it’s made with a butterfly wing and while I have never seen a butterly like this I can’t dispute that this is what it is. It made me wonder about butterfly wing jewellery – well, jewellery using insects at all actually.
It seemed to me that butterfly wing jewellery would really appeal to the Victorians who could be quite eccentric in their tastes and very adventurous too, to their credit, and I was right. By about 1863, in a direct reaction to the industrial boom and the move away from nature, insect jewellery had reached fever pitch. Ladies dotted their hairdos with fireflies or leashed beetles to a pin and let them roam over their clothes; moths were perched on hairpins and beetles were made into earrings, and they even made brooches out of taxidermied sunbird heads (ugh). There’s a lovely story about a Mrs DeJones who, apparently, strapped a diamond to the back of a beetle and trained it to fly round her neck like a living necklace. I’d love to see a trained beetle – good luck with that – so clearly it’s just a wonderful story, but it shows the level of obsession that the Victorians reached in their passion for insect jewellery. Wearing live instects didn’t last as a fashion for very long, unsurprisingly, but in the 1870s a man called Thomas L Mott started making jewellery using real butterfly wings, and it became really popular. Interestingly, not much Victorian butterfly wing jewellery has survived and this is probably because the pendants made from the wings were not sealed properly and the wings inside decayed or got damp and lost their irridescence. Fast forward to the 1920s and once again butterfly wing jewellery became really popular, so much so that butterfly farms were built in this country to save importing butterfly wings from South America which is where this wonderful blue wing comes from. Now, though, the jewellery was more carefully made, and there’s no doubt by the detail on my little pendant that this is from the 1920s. Thomas Mott took this medium even further and perfected the art of painting on the underside of the glass in the pendant, usually in silhouette, and placing this over a butterfly wing to create miniature scene.
The other insect jewellery with which we’re all familiar, of course, is Egyptian scarab jewelley, but this doesn’t really count after all because real beetles weren’t used in the jewellery, they were just copied in carvings. It was interesting to read, though, that the scarab was so revered in Egypt because in ancient Egyptian religion the sun god Ra rolled across the sky, pushing the sun before him, transforming the bodies and souls on earth. The scarab beetle – or dung beetle – rolls a ball of dung into which it lays its eggs so when the young hatch they are surrounded by food and they stay in the ball eating and growing, and emerge transformed. So it’s easy to see how this beetle became so important. Although the Egyptians didn’t use real scarabs the Victorians did, and some amazing pieces still survive today – which shows how strong the exoskeleton of sacarb beetles are!
But I wanted to know about using real insects, and it wasn’t a big journey from the scarab to other beetle wing jewellery which has a long history all of its own. Using beetle wings to embelish textiles, art and jewellery was common in ancient Asian cultures. The beetle of preference was the wood boring beetle Sternocera which has bright shiny emerald wings. Its life span is only 1 – 3 weeks so dead beetles were collected and used because the irridescene doesn’t fade from the wings. In fact textiles embelished with beetle wings in the 19th Century have faded and disintegrated, leaving the wings as bright and strong as they were the day they were sewn on. Most famous for this beetle wing embelishment is Thailand, and Queen Sirikit, the Queen Consort of Thailand, has actively encouraged the art of beetle wing embelishement in an effort to prevent the art dying out. Beetle wing jewellery is still made all over the world with the beetle wings coming from Thailand and interestingly, one contemporary jeweller famed for her beetle wing jewellery, Bibi Van De Veld, talks about her jewellery as being made from scarab wings, but in fact they’re made from the Thai bora beetle. I’m confused by this misnomer, but I have to admit that Scarab Jewellery sounds much better than Bora Beetle Wing Jewellery… 🙂
I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone wearing beetle wing jewellery because if I had my keen magpie eye would have seen and remembered, but I’ll keep a good look out because their jewel bright colour is astonishing – and magpies love beetles, anyway.
P.S. I’ve just discovered that live beetle jewellery is still a thing in Mexico! Well that’s a whole other story then.