The Art of of Beetles

Beetle wings have been used for centuries as jewelry or embellishment on clothing and decorative objects. Beetles have two pairs of wings: the tough, chitinous forward pair, the elytra, fold down over most of the beetle’s body forming a protective case over the more fragile flight wings. In flight, they are held open and angled to create additional aerodynamic lift as the flight wings function. Durable, virtually weightless, and spectacular in color, beetle elytra are ideal natural jewels.

The most extensive use of beetle elytra in textiles was in the Mogul culture of Jaipur in India. Existing samples of clothing and accessories embellished with beetle wings date back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The emerald green eleytra were worked onto fabrics with metallic thread in a method similar to the way a cabochon stone is secured in a bezel setting. Beetle eleytra as a commodity were were harvested by the millions in the hardwood forests of Burma for export to India. In the rainy season the beetles swarm in search of mates. After mating has occurred and the eggs have been laid, the adult beetles die, making the harvesting of the wings a simple matter of gathering up the dead insects. In the nineteenth century a new export market developed for textiles with beetle wing decoration. Victorian England had a fascination for exotic goods from the far flung corners of the Empire and so an industry developed with Indian artisans producing textiles, fans, and other decorative accessories for export to England and the rest of Europe.

The Victorian taste for the exotic intersected with the heightened interest in the natural sciences inspired by the investigations of Charles Darwin and Sir Alfred Russel Wallace. The collecting of minerals, plants, and exotic insect specimens became common pastimes. No Victorian parlor was complete without a collection of beautiful tropical butterflies or beetles, mounted under glass. Victorian ladies took up the fashion of wearing live jewel beetles tethered by tiny golden chains. Jewelry was made which incorporated beetle elytra or from the entire bodies of buprestid or chrysomelid beetles.

Ornaments incorporating beetle elytra, femurs, horns, and mandibles are worn in aboriginal societies throughout the Amazon Basin, in New Guinea, and among the hill tribes in Thailand and Burma. All of these ornaments, in addition to their obvious beauty, are thought to possess some of the beetle’s spiritual energy. More elaborate ritual ornaments are fashioned as objects of power to be worn only by certain members of the society in the performance of ceremonies designed to attract and "possess" the magical attributes of the beetle. Such objects and garments are handled with extreme care, as their misuse has the potential to bring about disaster.

In some areas of India and Sri Lanka the jewel buprestid Chrysochroa ocellata does double duty as a pet and as a brooch. Large, at about four centimeters in length, and metallic green with coppery red flashes, Chrysochroa is worn as jewelry on festive occasions. The beetle is tethered to a tiny chain pinned to the clothing. Beads, rhinestones, and bits of chain are glued to the shells of live zopherid beetles native to Mexico and Central America, and they too, are worn as living jewels.

The Louvre in Paris possesses a vast collection of Egyptian antiquities, thanks, in large part to Napoleon’s Egyptian campaigns at the end of the eighteenth century. The early nineteenth century was the beginning of the widespread use of ancient Egyptian motifs in modern Western fashion and design. Egyptian-inspired furniture, textiles, and jewelry bore somewhat Europeanized versions of sphinxes, representations of the goddess Isis, the stylized lotus, and, of course, the scarab. Nineteenth-century archaeological expeditions in the Mediterranean and Near East and the construction of the Suez Canal from 1859-1869 kept European and American fascination for the region alive.

The sheer abundance of their production in the ancient world left multitudes of scarabs to be found. In addition to those of Egyptian origin, the popularity of the scarab in ancient Carthage led to the establishment of workshops in Sardinia devoted solely to their manufacture. Scarabs of Minoan origin bore the favorite design motif of Crete, the spiral, engraved on their reverse surface. Many nineteenth-century jewels incorporate authentic antique scarabs.

In 1922 the archeologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of King Tutankhamun. In the year that elapsed between the initial opening of the tomb and the discovery of the chamber containing the King’s golden sarcophagus, ancient Egyptian symbols and motifs had, once again, become the reigning fad and fashion in Europe and America, and the inspiration for yet another generation of artists and designers.

Scarabs have been rendered in fine gold and precious stones, enamels, art glass and hardstone by all the major jewelry designers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Louis C. Tiffany’s personal collection of ancient scarabs was the inspiration for his scarabs of iridescent glass. Many of Cartier’s jewels incorporated antique Egyptian scarabs. The stylized geometry of the ancient scarabs was equally at home set within the sinuous curves of Art Nouveau or set off by the sophisticated geometry of the Art Deco style.

The scarab possesses an irresistible charisma, even to the modern imagination.  Whenever an important collection of Egyptian antiquities is assembled for an international touring exhibition, the world of design experiences another Egyptian revival, and the scarab rises again.