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Victorian Jewelry: A Bug Obsession

The Victorian era was a time of great change: colonization, exploration, inventions, and new scientific discoveries were changing what British people knew about the world, and new findings and interests were often reflected in jewelry trends of the time. The particular focus of this week's blog is...bugs. Yes, that's right, bugs; insects, those many-legged creepy crawly creatures. The Victorians went crazy for them.

A beetle parure: tiara, necklace, and earrings, all formed of dried weevils with iridescent green wing cases, mounted in gold in the Egyptian taste with lotus motifs. Made by the Phillips Brothers for Lady Granville, the beetles were a gift from the Portuguese ambassador. Interestingly this gift caused quite a political stir. Lord Granville was foreign secretary at the time (1880-1885), and in the scramble for Africa an Anglo-Portuguese treaty had been signed that angered many. Such a gift of Brazilian beetles from Portugal’s former colony indicated gratitude for the treaty, but Lord Granville would not accept the gift himself for fear it looked like bribery. Instead, his wife accepted them and he had them mounted for her

© The Trustees of the British Museum

What started the bug obsession?

In the 19th century, a love of nature was a highly respectable and almost ubiquitous sentiment. Natural history captivated the minds of the people, with scientific writings by the likes of Darwin uncovering previously unheard-of creatures from the farthest reaches of the world. In the same way that sugar, ivory, and chocolate were exotic new treats lapped up by the British as spoils from Britain's colonial expansion, so too were the irridescent images of exciting new animals and insects from distant shores.

To add to this, urbanization was increasingly separating Victorians from nature in their daily lives, and it became popular to find ways of bringing nature into the home: people grew ferns under crystal domes, had huge greenhouses built to house 'newly discovered' exotic plants, and accesorised themselves with jewelry and clothing covered in flora and fauna motifs. At first, jewelry designs often reflected more romanticized notions of the natural world, with Rococo revival pieces featuring delicate sprays of flowers and foliage, but designs soon transitioned into more naturalistic and precise depictons of vividly colored insects. By the 1860s, many Victorian women were wearing moths, butterflies, dragonflies, bees, spiders, flies, and beetles on their parasols, hats, shawls, and jewelry.

Hairpin in the form of a butterfly, brilliant-cut diamonds with a few rose-cut specimens set in silver, backed with gold, Western Europe, c.1830-40

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Brooch in the shape of a dragonfly, gold and gold filigree set with rubies and turquoise on the wings and paste stones on the body, Madras, c.1850. Although this brooch was made in India, it is not a traditional Indian ornament and shows strong European influence in its design and taste - jewelry in the shape of butterflies and dragonflies was very popular in Europe at this time. The cannetille technique used fell out fashion in Europe in the 1850s, but was used in India for much longer

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Victorian brooch depicting a garnet cabochon bug with diamond eyes resting on gold foliage with buds set with almandine garnets, England, c.1860

From @fetheray.jewels via Instagram

A Victorian bug brooch, the body with a natural baroque pearl, the legs embellished with emeralds, and the wings with faceted rubies and old-cut diamonds, the head with old-cut diamonds and cabochon-cut ruby eyes, all mounted in yellow gold with gold brooch fitting, c.1870

Via Bentley & Skinner

A pendant with florentine pietre dure mosaic of a butterfly, a fly, and a beetle, set in a silver frame with niello decoration, c.1880. Locket fitting on the reverse.

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Beautiful and rare late Victorian Pietra Dura set by 'Pierre Bazzanti Et Fils', a famous workshop in Florence that specialized in Pietro Dura and fine stonework. The set comprises earrings, a bracelet, studs, and a brooch/pendant, all featuring various insects

Antique Animal Jewelry

Gold winged insect brooch set with ruby eyes and a central old round-cut ruby encircled by eleven old Dutch-cut and old round-cut diamonds. Diamonds also encrust the wings and abdomen, and are set in the head and antenna, c.1880s

Via AC Silver

Victorian crescent moon brooch with a winged insect sitting inside it, set with gemstones, c.1880s

From @andreabalkan via Instagram

A late 19th century fly brooch, the bee set with a dementoid garnet, a ruby eye, diamond wings, and a pearl body, set in silver and gold, with a further pearl to the gold bar brooch, c.1890

Via Bentley & Skinner

Butterfly brooch set with antique paste and a pearl top, silver, c.1890

Via Lancastrian Jewellers

Gold bee, set with rose-cut diamonds and a pearl, mounted on a gold bar brooch, England, c. 1890-1900

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Victorian brooch of a winged insect perched on a spray of leaves and flowers. Set with rose-cut diamonds, four natural pearls, and cabochon-cut ruby eyes; all fashioned in silver backed in gold, c.1900

From @theantiquejewellerygroup via Instagram

Victorian bug brooch with citrine and amethyst, hinge pin and C clasp

From @bloomsbury_antiques via Instagram

Late Victorian flying bug brooch in silver and gold with diamond encrusted wings, ruby set eyes, a sapphire head, and a pearl body

Via Wharfedale Antiques

Victorian pinchbeck pendant/brooch with deep red Vauxhall glass fly

Antique Animal Jewelry

Victorian bug brooch in silver and gold, with blue tiger's eye, diamonds, and rubies

From @piccadillyvaults via Instagram

Late Victorian moth brooch set with diamonds, emeralds, a large opal, and and aquamarine in the centre

Via 1stdibs

That Green Sheen

The other thing that may have lent a hand in the rise of the popularity of insect motifs in Victorian Britain is the discovery and popularity of several types of green gemstone. Firstly, there was peridot, which was a very popular gemstone from the mid 1800s through to the reign of Edward VII, who described it as his favorite gemstone. Used by the Pre-Raphaelites, the Arts and Crafts movement, Art Nouveau, and Edwardian jewelers alike, many pieces from this period feature at least one sparkling green peridot. Secondly, in 1853 a green type of garnet called the demantoid garnet was discovered in the Russian Urals, which soon became hugely sought-after across Europe. The green hues of these gemstones were perfect for insect designs, offering just the right kind of irridescent sheen to capture their likeness.

Dragonfly brooch, the body of a step-cut demantoid garnet, the tail of nine round demantoid garnets, the wings set with old brilliant-cut diamonds, with ruby set eyes and antennae, all in silver, c.1890

Via Bentley & Skinner

A late Victorian demantoid garnet and diamond butterfly brooch, the wings and body encrusted with old-cut and rose-cut diamonds, highlighted with demantoid garnets, with ruby eyes, set in silver, c.1890

Via Bentley & Skinner

A Victorian bar style brooch centering a dragonfly with polished gold legs. The body is comprised of bright green demantoid garnets, the wings are bead set throughout by rose cut diamonds, the eyes are round ruby cabochon accents, c.1900

Via 1stdibs

A Victorian gold and peridot spider brooch

Via Antiques Centre York

A Victorian emerald and diamond fly scatter-pin brooch, each pin in the form of a fly, set with an emerald-cut emerald and old-cut diamond cluster body, with emerald-set middle body, old-cut diamond-set wigs and cabochon ruby eyes, connected with a gold trace-chain, suspended by a gold safety pin set with a rectangular-cut emerald, c.1880

Via Bentley & Skinner

An Art Nouveau necklace designed as two enamel insects centering on a peridot and set with diamond accents, suspended from a contemporary peridot bead necklace, possibly made by Eugène Feuillâtre

Via Christie's

Beatles and Bees: A Trade Abuzz with Insects

The Victorian insect jewelry craze included many different insects, but particularly popular was the beetle. Not only had a specific type of bright green jewel beetle been brought back from South America, inspiring wonder in all those who saw it, but there was also a revival of interest in Egyptian styles and fashions underway. In the 1860s, with the opening of the Suez Canal, and with Britain assuming power in Egypt in 1883, there was a renewed mania for all things Egyptian. This made the beetle, particularly the scarab beetle which was used by Ancient Egyptians as a common motif and symbol of good luck, hugely popular in jewelry designs in the late 19th century.

Turquoise scarab with brilliant-cut diamond surround, set on a twisted band of textured gold, c.1850-1900

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Victorian bug (beetle?) brooch and earrings carved by hand from natural sodalite stone⁠

From @oxfordjewel via Instagram

Late 19th century gold necklace and pendant with a woven 'Milanese' chain of hollow elliptical section with three carved jasper and two carved agate scarab pendants in gold bordered with ropework and triangles of beading A representation of a frog, in relief, is on the box-clasp. Made by Giacinto Melillo

© The Trustees of the British Museum

19th century beetle brooch, the body of the beetle is set with an oval cabochon-cut garnet carbuncle, the head is set with rose-cut diamonds, mounted in silver on gold

Via Bonhams

Antique labradorite, ruby, and diamond beetle ring

Antique Animal Jewelry

Antique chunky garnet and pearl bug conversion ring, with a rose cut diamond on the head

Antique Animal Jewelry

Around the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, bees were also a particularly popular motif in insect jewelry. This is mainly thought to be because bees were the emblem of Prince Napoléon Victor Bonaparte of France (known by supporters as Napoléon V), and were worn across Europe to show support for his claim, but bees were also generally well-loved and vibrant insects.

Gold brooch with a reversed crystal intaglio of a bee set in gold ropework and beading with a hair compartment in the reverse. Shown alongside a bee pin and fly pin, c.1870

© The Trustees of the British Museum

A Victorian bee brooch, the thorax set with an old-cut diamond, the abdomen set with four sapphires, the wings encrusted with rose and old European-cut diamonds, with cabochon ruby eyes, all set in silver and gold, with gold detachable brooch fitting, c.1880. Insect iconography became very popular in the Victorian times and bees were considered symbolic of hard work and industry

Via Bentley & Skinner

A pair of gold lapel-studs with enamel decoration in the form of a bee with tail and legs in black enamel; the wings applied and enamelled in white and the body of each bee set with an amethyst and small green or yellow gemstones for eyes. Made by Carlo Giuliano, Piccadilly, London, c.1886-1890

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Victorian tortoiseshell brooch with gold and silver pique inlay detailing

Antique Animal Jewelry

Real Bugs

While most wearers of insect jewelry were simply inspired by descriptions of things seen overseas, and enchanted by the skilful elegance of the colorful, gem-studded jewelry produced in the shape of insects, some went a step further in their obsession. It was not just descriptions that came back from expeditions to places like South America, but many of the vivid bugs themselves were shipped back to Europe to be studied, marvelled over, and - in exceptional cases - worn.

Some Victorians were said to embroider insect wings into their clothing, while others had the irridescent shells or wings of beetles strung together into bracelets and necklaces (shimmering under candlelight these must have been a fantastic conversation starter), while others still were rumoured to have live beetles leashed to pins or kept in tiny gold cages on their clothes and live fireflies adorning their hair. There is even a story from 1891 of a Mrs. DeJones who, it is said, strapped a diamond to the back of a live beetle and trained it to fly around her neck, tracing the shape of a necklace. Whether this particular story is true or not, it certainly was true that newfound collaborations between tradesmen, taxidermists, and goldsmith-jewelers were cropping up across England. Even faux insects—made of gold and silver, rather than chitin—were often set en tremblant, with springs under their wing so that they seemed to quiver with life. Bugs were not the only taxidermy animals to be worn either - there was also a brief fashion for wearing hummingbird heads and owl's claws tipped with silver as coat-clasps.

Tortoise beetles (native to Brazil and common in jewelry) on gilded metal leaves, England, c.1850

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Gold brooch in the form of a beetle on a leaf. The beetle is decorated in green, brown, red and colourless translucent enamel on an engraved and chased ground, and in black enamel. The inner and upper edges of the wing cases are set with diamond sparks, of which the largest is rose-cut. The leaf is engraved and matted and the beetle is attached to the leaf by a screw, England, c.1880

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Stag beetle brooch, stamped and patinated copper alloy, c.1880

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

A design for a necklace made from Brazilian beetles, c.1900. Palmettes and beads alternate from the chain. The palmettes support festoons with drops, from the beads hang nine beetles of three sizes

Via Wikimedia Commons

That said, although the fashion for wearing live or stuffed insects did exist amongst the wealthy, fashionable, and educated Victorians, it wasn't a popular one. Many were critical, and were quite horrified by the idea of insects crawling over guests at upper-class events.

‘The large and gaudy insects that crawl over them are cheap and nasty to the last degree… at present, the bonnets and the brains they cover are too often not unfit companions’.

- Mrs H R Hawes, author of The Art Of Beauty (1883)

Art Nouveau Insects

Insects continued to be a powerful and favored motif in jewelry and were used freely in Art Nouveau jewelry (c. 1890-1910). Instead of being gem-encrusted miniature creatures, however, they were done in the Art Nouveau style - with free floating forms inspired by Japanese art, and an experimental use of materials combining enamel and pearls, diamonds and stained-glass style intricate detailing. From Vever and Lalique to Fouquet and Gaillard, many famous Art Nouveau jewelrs/artists drew inspiration from insects to create their works.

An Art Nouveau pendant of two dragonflies with blue and green window enamel wings perched on a branch surrounding a blue glass gem, by Vican

Christie's via The Jewellery Editor

Art Nouveau dragonfly brooch with green and blue plique-à-jour enamel wings and rose-cut diamond borders set en tremblant to the diamond body and green enamel eyes, c.1890, by Boucheron

Via Christie's

An art nouveau gold ring centering an oval doublet opal between two stylised butterflies with green and blue enamel wings and diamond-set bodies and eyes, c.1900, by Eugene Feuillâtre

Via Christie's

An art nouveau gold ring modelled as a naturalistic dragonfly, set throughout with multicoloured window enamel, with emerald details, c.1900, by Lucien Gaillard

Via Christie's

Art Nouveau butterfly brooch, the body set with small rose-cut diamonds and emeralds, the wings enamel plique à jour decorated with rose-cut diamonds, emerals, and rubies, c.1900

Via Christie's

Large brooch of gold and enamel in the form of a hornet hovering by a flower, the stem of the flower curves back on itself then swirls into the distance. This brooch combines the 'wavy line' and the inspiration of flowers and insects - all typical features of Art Nouveau jewelry. Made by Georges Fouquet and designed by Charles Desrosiers, France, Paris, c.1901

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Art Nouveau moth brooch by Emil Riester, enamelled with pearls and rubies, c.1905

Via Pinterest

To wrap up, here is a selection of some of Antique Animal Jewelry's insect jewelry from the archives:

For more rare Georgian and Victorian jewelry, follow Antique Animal Jewelry on Instagram.