Please Bug Me!

[Janet Zapata is a decorative arts historian who specializes in American jewelry and silver. She is a consultant to Christie’s auction house, the Newark Museum and the Louis C. Tiffany Museum in Nagoya, Japan. She also lectures in the graduate program at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York City, writes for several antiques magazines and is the author of the book The Jewelry and Enamels of Louis C. Tiffany (Harry N. Abrams, New York City, 1993).]

Jewelry with insect motifs has been popular throughout most of history, starting as early as the Middle Kingdom in ancient Egypt when amuletic scarabs were worn for protection. Until the 18th century, their role was chiefly symbolic. Thus when the Barberinis of Italy and the Bonapartes of France wished to represent the attributes of activity, diligence and hard work on their family crests, they showed a bee, which symbolizes these qualities.

Insects are small air-breathing arthropods with an external skeleton and jointed legs. They have symmetrical bodies divided into three parts (head, thorax and abdomen); three pairs of legs; articulated appendices; and usually two pairs of wings. Insects exist everywhere — in the air and in water, upon the surface of the earth and beneath it.

Once accepted as a design source, insects became fascinating studies for jewelry designers, who readily adapted them into small, yet richly varied formats. A 1904 article in The Craftsman explained their appeal: “The singular appearance of insects results not only from the tools and accessories with which they bristle, but also from the immobility of their countenances, from the absence of all expression in their faces. They are knights clothed in armor, with their visors perpetually lowered. But they are knights who have arrayed themselves in their most splendid vestments. Nothing is too beautiful for them: velvet and silk, precious stones and rare metals, superb enamels, laces, brocades, are lavishly used in their garments. Emeralds, rubies and pearls, golds dull and burnished, polished silver, mother-of-pearl mingle, chord, or contrast with one another. They create the sweetest harmonies and the most daring dissonances.”(1)

The 18th century acceptance of insects in jewelry reflected a romantic interest in naturalism. Once this fashion waned, another hundred years lapsed before insects reemerged in jewelry designs. Bejeweled beetles, wood lice, earwigs and grasshoppers began to crawl over veils and hats during the 1860s. Houseflies were captured in crystal pendants or incorporated into lockets, while mosaics of butterflies formed brooches or necklaces.

Europe imported dried scarabs from Brazil and mounted them in brooches, bracelets and earrings.(2) Otherwise, actual insects were avoided; instead they were rendered in gold, silver and horn enhanced with gemstones and enameling. As The Art of Beauty by fashion critic Mrs. H.R. Haweis noted in 1883, a butterfly, “though beautiful in itself, would not be beautiful for you — as a headdress…Whilst leaning against a cushion, the wings would crush and shatter…thus, a butterfly should always be treated conventionally and in an absolutely different material, such as metal.”(3)

A lifelike insect could comprise the entire design in brooches and lace pins. The American firm George W. Shiebler & Co. applied small insects to the surface of silver leaves (photo 9). Flies, spiders and beetles crawl across leaves of silver or, for color contrast, silver gilt. These pieces reflect the continued interest in naturalism as seen in Japanese art available during the latter half of the 19th century.

Insects in Art Nouveau: The depiction of insects in Art Nouveau jewelry bordered on an art form as bodies of opal, demantoid garnet, pearl and other gemstones joined plique-a-jour enamel wings. Three-dimensional dragonflies, butterflies, moths and cicadas were replicated in their entirety; they could be large or small, depending upon the species.

An insect’s wing is an outgrowth of the body, almost like a pocket turned inside out. Usually thin and transparent, like cellophane, it is strengthened by a framework of little tubes called veins. In jeweled insects, wing veins of gold or silver provide cell walls to which enameling adheres. After firing, the backing is removed; when you hold a piece up to the light, you see the resulting gossamer effect reminiscent of a real wing. In the cicada in photo 8, blue plique-a-jour enameling in some sections shades to green, with the color repeated in blue sapphires on the body. This piece bears an indistinct mark, but is attributed to Frederic Boucheron.

Phillippe Wolfers’ moth (photo 7) is a tour de force of design and execution. It is difficult to determine where one color begins and the next ends on the wings of plique-a-jour enamel in graduated tints. Delicate manipulation of color in the top section of the lower wings reflects the rubies above. Joseph Sataloff notes, “It appears as if the diffraction spectrum of the rubies on the edge of the upper wing has been simulated in the lower wing, making it seem as though sunlight is being transmitted downward.”(4) Faceted rubies, pierced and set with a gold prong, adorn the ends of the upper wings. Diamonds line the antennae and are spotted on the thorax, while graduated pearls form the abdomen. This is truly a superb piece of jewelry.

Of all the insects depicted in jewelry, the dragonfly may be the most popular. After Admiral Oliver Hazard Perry opened Japan to the rest of the world, Japanese art was imported into Europe and the United States, bringing new forms and motifs that fascinated artists and designers. They took naturalistic images of fish, flowering branches, ferns and insects from Japanese design books and wood block prints.

Translated into a western idiom, such insect images as dragonflies appeared first on silver and then, by the late 1870s, on jewelry. Originally they were applied to the surface. But in the 1880s, they took off and were flying on their own. By the Art Nouveau period, dragonflies had evolved into magnificent, naturalistic gem-set creatures with plique-a-jour enameling or imaginative abstractions (see the Fouquet example in photo 4).

After Georges Fouquet took control of his family’s firm, he invited talented individuals to create jewelry in the popular Art Nouveau style. Charles Desrosiers, who became a key designer for the firm, is credited with creating all its jewelry from 1898 to 1914 except those commissioned from Alphonse Mucha.(5)

The corsage ornament in photo 4 is attributed to Desrosiers. On it, he re-creates a dragonfly family flying in formation with each offspring decreasing in size. Bodies and heads

are moss agate, while the wings are formed with seaweed, flattened and stretched, in plique-a-jour enameling. A pendant baroque pearl, held in an octopus-shaped mounting, is suspended from the smallest dragonfly.

Butterflies became a common motif as early as 1860. They often were fashioned into diamond ornaments set en tremblant (on the ends of stiff, yet flexible, projecting wires that quiver at the slightest movement) or worn in the hair.(6) The butterfly, which emerges from a lowly caterpillar, came to represent the theme of metamorphosis during the Art Nouveau period. In jewelry, the body of the butterfly would take the form of a woman, yet retain its wings. This reinterpretation reflected the changing role of women in society as a result of the suffragette movement. The brooch in photo 6 by Whiteside & Blank of Newark, N.J., depicts such a metaphor. The woman’s diaphanous gown is a translucent lime green enamel, a color reiterated in the upper wings. Spiral motifs on the wings, executed in guilloche with transparent enamel, simulate the venation of the wings with plique-a-jour enameling between the sections.

The term “insect” also has come to mean any small arachnid such as a spider or tick. But while insects have six legs, spiders have eight and only two body sections (the cephalothroax and the abdomen) joined by a narrow stalk. Their heads carry simple eyes near the top, two compound eyes at the front and a pair of feelers. The life-size tarantula on the Heritage cover was created by Crane & Theurer, a relatively unknown jewelry maker from Newark, in the first decade of the 20th century. The legs, which arch upward, have been hand-engraved with hairs to resemble the live spider.

Post Art Nouveau motifs: The advent of the Art Deco period with its emphasis on geometric design drove insect motifs from favor, not to be seen again in jewelry until the 1950s. Then leading designers such as John Paul Miller, Fulco di Verdura and Joel Arthur Rosenthal reinterpreted the insect motif using gemstones and difficult jewelry-making techniques to create images that approach an art form.

When Miller began to work with granulation in the early 1950s, his first attempt was a pair of spider earrings.(7) He is credited with rediscovering this ancient technique, in which tiny gold balls are fused onto a surface. Taking inspiration from marine and insect life, Miller combined the textural richness of granulation with enameling to create masterful designs. His repertoire of insect jewelry includes beetles, moths, spiders, scorpions, bees and fly larva. Miller’s African moth (photo 5) has gold granules on the body and antennae; champleve enamel replicates the wing markings.

Jewelry design changed radically in the 1950s. Where once gemstones were subordinate to the design, now stones dictated the actual shape of a piece. Diamonds were used liberally to form insect body parts and wings; often a single stone made up an entire wing. Specially cut diamonds form the wings in two pieces designed by Fulco di Verdura in the 1960s, with marquise diamonds in the pair of flies (photo 3) and pear shapes in the bee (photo 2). For color contrast, Verdura chose a piece of coral for the bee’s body and a black onyx for its head.

Joel Rosenthal, one of the most creative designers working today, draws on past periods to create imaginative jewels. He resurrected the popular dragonfly from the turn of the century, then transformed it into a work of art (photo 1). He applied sculpted rock crystal with delicately etched gold leaf veins to gold wings and tipped the wings with triangular-cut diamonds. A diamond rondelle articulated body and tail complete the design.

Insects have been an enduring motif in jewelry design for many years. Their innocent looks are deceiving, as designers and collectors bitten by their allure will attest. And, once bitten, you are under their spell forever.

Credit: I would like to thank the following for their assistance with this article: Ulysses G. Dietz, Newark Museum; John Paul Miller; Daniel Morris and Denis Gallion, Historical Design; Gary Niederkorn; Lillian Ostergard, Verdura; Ruth and Joseph Sataloff; and Simon Teakle, Christie’s.


1. Quoted from M.P. Verneuil as translated from the French by Irene Sargent, The Craftsman Vol. 5, No. 6 (March 1904), pp. 567-68.

2. The scarab with its hard outer shell was suitable for mounting. An 1893 article in The Jewelers’ Circular and Horological Review describes the scarab, of the order of coleoptera, as “a brilliant metallic green…with longitudinal gilded stripes.” Jewelers’ Circular and Horological Review, Vol. 27, No. 7, Sept. 13, 1893, p. 33. For illustration of this type of jewelry, see Michael Poynder, The Price Guide to Jewellery 3000 B.C.- 1950 A.D., Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1988, p. 197.

3. For more information see, Mrs. H.R. Haweis, The Art of Beauty London, 1883, pp. 99-100.

4. Quoted from Joseph Sataloff, Art Nouveau Jewelry, Bryn Mawr, 1984, p. 46.

5. For more information, see Marie-Noel de Gary, “The Jewellery Firm of Fouquet,” in a catalog titled The Belle Epoque of French Jewellery 1850-1910, London, 1990, p. 66.

6. For illustration, see Nancy Armstrong, Victorian Jewelry, New York, 1976, p. 69.

7. I would like to thank John Paul Miller for providing me with this information.