JANUARY
1990

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

01-25-90

Beetle Brooches And Diamond Dragonflies

 

Many people have “worn" insects under protest, as the little creatures look for a resting place during their travels. Other people choose to wear insects . . . in the form of jewelry, that is. Our chief ecological competitors are used in almost all societies to create articles of adornment.

Many beetle species, with their brilliant colors, are a popular motif in jewelry, appearing as necklaces, pins, earrings and the like. But while most of these items are a mere facsimile, a few are the genuine article. In fact, the idea of wearing live insects as jewelry probably inspired the insect designs found in the jewelry made of precious metals and gems.

Live jewelry can still be found today. Some beetles are extremely hardy and do not feed in the adult stage. Such insects are commonly collected in Mexico and, with rhinestones and a delicate chain, cemented to a wingcover to become a living brooch. Tourists who purchase such a piece of jewelry seldom get to show it to the relatives back home though. Federal law prohibits importing live insects into this country without a permit. Consequently, live-beetle brooches are confiscated at border inspection stations.

Probably the first insects to be used as jewelry were the scarab beetles of ancient Egypt. These dung beetles were thought to have magical powers and were worn by soldiers into battle for protection. The scarab is still a common motif for jewelry. Indeed, many high-society ladies decked out in the finest of designer clothing have attended a gala affair wearing none other than a jeweled dung beetle.

Another popular beetle, the common lady beetle, has been used as a cover for a fine, Swiss, pendant watch. When the antennae of the insect were compressed, its wings spread to expose the face of the watch.

Of course, beetles are not the only insects to show up in jewelry. Butterflies, bees, and dragonflies are commonly depicted in jewelry. And termites and flies have dangled from human earlobes under the guise of jewelry.

Insect jewelry was common during the Victorian era, when there was a great, popular interest in insects and other products of nature. Some of the finest examples of Victorian insect jewelry were included in the sale of the late Dr. Moser Lyon Stadiem of New Orleans in 1969. Some of his brooches were described in the sale brochure as "bizarre rarities with wings that seemed to fly on their hidden coil springs at the slightest movement." Most items sold for a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, but one item -- an 1890 diamond dragonfly brooch -- brought $27,500.

The use of insects as jewelry would probably come as no surprise to many children who grew up in areas where cicadas are common. Many kids have attached to their clothing the newly emerged cicadas or their shells. In most people's minds, cicadas make a first-class brooch . . . well, at least they would in comparison to dung beetles.

 

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Carol McGrew