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The History of Insect Brooches

It is something of a natural human instinct to want to adorn oneself in various ways. For as long as humans have existed, we have been captivated by the creatures with which we share our world. This is especially true of insects. Love them or hate them, the cultural impact they have had throughout the ages cannot be denied.

Our fascination with them has produced some remarkable pieces of craftsmanship, from engraved silver to gemstone delights.

Wear What? Where?

At its origins, insect jewellery quite literally crawled all over the wearer. Many ancient civilisations wore live insects as fashion accessories. Soldiers in Ancient Egypt utilised scarab beetles as a form of mythic protection, as the beetles were believed to possess supernatural properties that would protect the wearer from harm.

Anceint Maya culture made use of the Mexican subspecies of the zopherus beetle. These large, docile beetles have been made into living brooches called ma’kechs at various points in time.

The history of insect brooches
insect jewellery

The beetle is attached to a decorative chain, which acts as a lead to ensure that the insect doesn’t wander too far afield when being worn. Additionally, it is ornamented with gold and semi-precious gemstones.

The ethical debate around live brooches is ongoing; some believe that the beetles involved become victims of human vanity, while others cite the cultural history and significance of beetle brooches to be validation for their existence.

The Maya folklore surrounding the wearing of beetles is a bittersweet tale of a princess in love with a member of a rival clan. Rather than go on existing, she stops eating and drinking.

A sympathetic healer of some kind witnesses the princess’ devotion and transforms her into an insect that can then be worn by the one she loves, keeping the lovers close. Whether or not there is any semblance of truth to the tale, or if its sole purpose is to convince tourists to invest in jewellery is unclear.

Busy Bees

For centuries, the bee has been a motif that is rich in meanings:

  • Industrious nature = symbol of hard work and orderliness.

  • Produces honey = representative of sweetness and benevolence.

  • (Allegedly) never sleeps = a diligent and zealous worker.

It is no wonder then that Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte of France was keen to adopt the bee as his insignia in the 1800s.

the history of insect jewellery
the history of insect brooches

This varied and novel style of brooch makes them perfect for expressing individual personality and values.

By commandeering the symbol of the bee, Napoleon increased its popularity immensely; it soon adorned everything from earrings to chokers. The symbol of the bee has such longevity that bee brooches and other bee-related jewellery remains popular even centuries later.

At One with Nature

During the Victorian era, a romantic fascination with nature resulted in swarms of insect-adorned jewellery. Like many, the Victorians were inspired by older cultural traditions; it wouldn’t have been a shock, for example, to see respectable Victorian socialites wearing live beetle brooches.

There are even reports from animal rights activists of the 1800s detailing a backlash against ‘little lizard’ jewellery. Some fashionable young women of the time it would seem were collaring reptiles and attaching them to clothing as brooches.

René Lalique

Hailed a revolutionary in every sense of the word, René Lalique was one of the master craftsmen of the Art Nouveau period. Whilst he is commonly recognised for his glasswork, Lalique also created some incredible pieces of jewellery.

In fact, he was considered to be one of France’s foremost Art Nouveau jewellery designers.

The style as a whole heavily incorporated elements of nature in a way that had never been done before, and Lalique embodied this perhaps more so than anyone else.

insect jewellery
the history of insect brooches

He was a passionate lover of insects, and this is reflected in his designs. Dragonflies are considered to be one of the most popular subjects of his jewellery. Indeed, they remain a common choice for anyone creating insect inspired jewellery. This is due to their bright and bold colouring and the natural symmetry their shapes provide.

From Then to Now

A contemporary rising preoccupation with nature and sustainability means that antique and vintage insect brooches are more popular than they have been since the Victorian era, as they embody these two ideals. A tradition and practise that stems from ancient civilisations, through the trends of antique jewellery and into modern times seems set to continue into the future.

Andrew Campbell started trading in antiques during the 1970s. Initially, Andrew lived in the South of England, travelling the country, searching for items of silver to buy. Andrew sold these items at various London markets and antique fairs. Over time, and through selling at a range of venues, Andrew built up a large and diverse customer base from private buyers to national and international trade customers.
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