Collecting antique insect jewellery
We explore the beguiling history behind Victorian insect jewellery and explain how you can buy a piece of your own
From brooches and bracelets, to necklaces and rings, sparkling Victorian antique insect jewellery is currently popular among modern buyers. But what was is that encouraged the fashion-forward Victorians to design and create so many glittering insect designs? Here we reveal all...
Who was the first to collect insect jewellery?
The Victorians were obsessed with the natural world,’ explains Melanie Saleem FGA DGA, a jewellery specialist at auction house Elstob & Elstob. ‘As a backlash to the Industrial Revolution, they longed to reconnect with nature.’ A series of crazes took hold of Victorian society – for fossils, rocks, ferns, flowers, seaweed, shells, butterflies and moths. Prosperous families’ parlours were filled with collections of all kinds, such as butterflies under glass domes, wooden cabinets of shells and coral, and cases of stuffed animals.
If pressing flowers or sketching seaweed didn’t appeal, the amateur naturalist keen to get some hands-on experience might cultivate ferns in a glass case, breed frogs in a vivarium, or even try a spot of taxidermy.
Melanie thinks it’s no surprise that the Victorian enthusiasm for nature extended to jewellery: ‘The Victorians were very sentimental. They loved to give and receive jewellery; it was deeply meaningful to them. It’s well-known that the Victorians attached complex symbolism to flowers, but they also found meaning in the insect world. At auction we come across butterflies most frequently. Of course, butterflies are very beautiful, and that makes them popular with buyers today, but to the Victorians they represented the soul.’
Which insects were depicted as jewellery?
Although a delicate butterfly was the perfect accessory for a romantically minded Victorian lady, entomological jewellery didn’t just comprise the elegant or pretty. Examples of beetles, bees, spiders and other creepy-crawlies are also regularly found at auction. Each represented something important – beetles were associated with longevity, bees with industry, and spiders with skill and perseverance. The transformation of the dragonfly from egg, to nymph, to adult – and its ability to move between water, land and air – was also deeply appealing to the Victorian psyche, as it represented spiritual growth and rebirth. Even insects that nowadays we might consider repugnant, such as flies, were incorporated into fashionable pieces – flies represented humility. ‘Some insects, like bees and flies, are more unusual now, but it’s hard to know whether fewer were made or, because tastes have changed over the years, if they’re more likely to have been broken up and the gems recycled,’ says Melanie.
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Some of the designs were entomologically accurate, others much more fanciful, their glittering wings incorporating a range of prettily coloured gems. As most jewellery was made in small workshops, pieces were often highly individual and designed around the beauty of a particular stone. For maximum impact, brooches and hairpins might be designed en tremblant, set on tiny springs so that when the person wearing them moved, the creature would quiver as if actually alive.
The use of insects could also be literal. From the 1860s onwards, scarab beetles – commonly known as dung beetles – were incorporated into necklaces, bracelets, brooches and earrings. Scarabs were valued not only for their iridescent exoskeletons, but also their association with Ancient Egypt; they were a powerful symbol of the sun god Ra and emblematic of everlasting life.
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Egyptian motifs first found their way into jewellery after Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt in the late 18th century. The building of the Suez Canal between 1859 and 1869, which connected the Mediterranean and Red Seas and enabled faster trade with India, renewed public interest in Egyptology. Archaeological discoveries, such as the jewellery of Queen Ahhotep, also added to the appetite for all things Egyptian, with beetles increasingly incorporated into fashionable costume. Celebrated actress Ellen Terry famously wore a gown encrusted with glittering beetle wing cases to play Lady Macbeth. Some daring high-society ladies apparently took the trend even further, and let live beetles encrusted with gems roam over their bodices, much to the amusement of satirists of the time. ‘Today, scarab jewellery divides opinion,’ believes Melanie. ‘Some people love it, others hate it. But it’s actually quite rare, and collectors will pay a premium at auction to acquire good pieces.’
Subsequent generations approach the legacy of Empire differently, but when Victorian explorers unearthed exotic new specimens, their far-flung finds were reported excitedly in the newspapers of the day. Opened in 1881, the British Museum of Natural History (now the Natural History Museum) exhibited animal, vegetable and mineral wonders from the far reaches of the Empire to people of all classes, with free entry. ‘Wearing insect jewellery was also a way of boasting about Empire, whether it was a scarab piece, or an exotic insect made from a material like coral,’ says Melanie. ‘You might never have left England, but wearing jewellery like this showed that you were worldly and fashionable.’
Who made insect jewellery?
Some of the most stunning examples of insect jewellery were made by René Lalique, a pioneer of turn-of-the-century Art Nouveau style. Much of his work incorporated naturalistic dragonflies, sometimes combined with sylph-like female forms to produce hybrid mythical creatures, like the magnificent example held in the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon. Lalique’s signature technique expertly incorporated plique-à-jour (translucent enamelwork) to create the effect of the insects’ lustrous wings. The name Lalique, the exceptional craftsmanship and the rarity of these pieces (Lalique spent most of his career working in glass) mean that on the rare occasion they are offered on the open market, they command high prices: a four-dragonfly brooch set in gold sold in Paris in December 2020 for €230,000. London jeweller Bentley & Skinner is currently offering a fabulous Lalique dragonfly pendant for £195,000.
Lalique’s extraordinary creations were targeted at a very wealthy clientele, but bugs of all kinds were retailed to customers across the social spectrum. Melanie describes how, at the beginning of the 1800s, jewellery was the preserve of the privileged: ‘Over the course of the century it gradually became more affordable. The discovery of gold in California and Australia, the opening of the African diamond mines, the mechanisation of some aspects of the jewellery-making process… all these things meant that jewellery became more accessible to people of all classes. Women also started working outside the home in greater numbers, meaning they had a little money to spend on jewellery of their own.’
How much is antique insect jewellery worth?
Today there are pieces to suit all budgets. ‘At the top end the sky’s the limit, but simple silver and enamel brooches, for example by Charles Horner, the kind that would have been worn by women with tighter budgets, are really affordable and you can wear them today without worrying. Condition is an important factor, as enamel is very expensive to repair, but they would be sold at auction from £80 upwards,’ says Melanie.
In 2014, master jeweller Glenn Spiro created a spectacular ‘papillon’ or butterfly ring for international pop icon Beyoncé. Perched on the back of the finger as if poised for flight, a hidden spring system enables the green tsavorite-encrusted wings to flutter with the movement of the wearer’s hand – much like the Victorian pieces that were set en tremblant. It is now held by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Might exciting new commissions like this lead to a revival in insect jewellery? ‘Like the Victorians, I think we are still largely disconnected from the natural world,’ concludes Melanie. ‘Over lockdown many people rediscovered the great outdoors and developed a new love of nature and the countryside. Who knows, this might make insect jewellery all the more popular.’ Whether you’re captivated by a colourful butterfly or fall in love with a shimmering dragonfly, collecting Victorian insect jewellery might be the perfect way to mark our gradual emergence from what has been a turbulent time.
Where to buy antique insect jewellery
Where to see antique insect jewellery
Words: Emma Longstaff
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