Last summer, William Travis Kukovich, owner of William Travis Jewelry in Chapel Hill, N.C., found himself skimming tiny beetle carcasses out of his backyard swimming pool. Rather than being repulsed, he marveled at their beauty and encouraged his 5-year-old son to do the same. “I said, ‘Look at how pretty and colorful their wings are,’” he says.
Little did Kukovich know that his infestation would inspire a fundraising initiative for the nearby North Carolina Museum of Art. When his son saved a pile of iridescent wings in the garden, Kukovich decided to immortalize them in silver. Around the same time, the museum unveiled a 127,000-square-foot addition, and he decided to offer the institution a collection of beetle jewels, which he dubbed the Art of the Scarab, to help boost fundraising.
Kukovich dried several carcasses on top of his Burnout oven for a couple months and made a one-of-a-kind mold for each bug in wax and plaster. Once set, he incinerated the bodies through the lost-wax casting technique and filled the cavity with silver. After polishing, the bugs—dung, rhino, and wood beetles, among others—shined up nicely, especially with sapphire, diamond, and 18k yellow gold accents.
At about 1¼ inches in size, the bugs make excellent pendants, priced $800–$1,200 with 100 percent of the profits benefiting the museum (Kukovich donates his time and materials). The money helps the museum pay for exhibitions—such as “30 Americans,” a display of works by African-American artists—and educational programs, while allowing Kukovich to flex his creative muscle and raise the profile of his store. “The scarab is the oldest piece of jewelry made, but I’ve never seen anyone make jewelry out of local beetles,” he says.
Museum officials say they couldn’t have asked for a more appropriate gift. “The Art of the Scarab plays a synergistic role in the transformative life of the Museum of Art,” says Caterri Woodrum, chief deputy director and chief financial officer, noting the scarab’s reputation as a symbol of transformation. “We are proud to partner with William Travis in this respect.”
Kukovich, who wears a rhino beetle necklace in the store, says his customers are digging the new styles; five are already on back order. His beetle crematorium currently has an inventory of 20 carcasses; he’ll offer the bugs for a limited time before initiating a new project to benefit the museum: “I’m hoping to raise $10,000 to $15,000 in 2011.”