Alternative title: Every time you see the word jewelry, know that the first time it was typed it was spelled “jewelery”.
Insects have been on this planet for at least 479 million years (give or take). They were here before us and they’ll be here after us. Insects have made their mark on our culture whether it be from agricultural pests like the boll weevil or the myriad on insect mascots in sports. More interestingly, insects have made their mark in fashion throughout the ages. Insects have been represented in jewelry as early as the ancient Egyptians but their presence in jewelry has persisted throughout many ancient cultures and have continued into our own. Why even incorporate insects into jewelry in the first place?
There are 29 insect orders* but in the ancient insect jewelry pieces there are only five orders represented. These orders are homoptera (specifically the cicadas), coleoptera (the beetles), lepidoptera (butterflies), odonata (mostly the dragonflies), and diptera (the flies). Each order also has some meaning associated with it; cicadas, beetles, and butterflies were meant to represent immortality or rebirth, while dragonflies and flies had a more militaristic meaning, although flies have been associated with evil and decay in some cultures. It was thought that ancient people assigned these meanings to these insects from observations of their very distinctive life history stages. Different insect themed jewelry was used at different times of life. For example, jade and glass cicadas were put on the mouths of the dead in the Zhou and Han dynasties to prevent the body from decaying and ensure the person would be resurrected. Beetles carved from soapstone were used extensively in the jewelry of the ancient Egyptians for funeral rites as well since the Egyptians linked their life cycle to resurrection as well. For times of war (at least for Plains Native Americans) the dragonfly was regarded as a spirit helper and its image was put on shirts. But, not all insect symbols were universal, in ancient Chinese and Japanese cultures, the dragonfly was a symbol of weakness and laziness, so it was used less often in jewelry. (Source)
Jumping ahead a couple thousand years to the Victorian Era, insects were made into jewelry because of the period’s fascination with natural history. Some brooches and hair pins that came from this time were designed so that the insect would appear to be shaking as if it were alive. The insects typically represented in the Victorian Era accessories were dragonflies, beetles, grasshoppers, and the most popular of all: butterflies (ugh). Much like Portlanida’s motto of “Put a bird on it“, the Victorian Era’s was put a butterfly on it. Embroidery on clothes, pins, hair ornaments;
nothing escaped the mark of the dreaded lepidopteran butterflies were added for a fashionably symbolic touch. Butterflies during this time were believed to be representations of the soul and their life cycle was made akin to the phases of the human growth, with the penultimate as the butterfly emerging from the chrysalis and flying away aka the soul leaving the body and flying away. (Source)
Thanks to mass production, customization in online shopping, and niche stores, more insect orders are available as jewelry. To prove this to myself, I googled lice jewelry and was brought to a cafe press page for head lice necklaces. Sure, the more obscure orders like notoptera (the rock crawlers) aren’t going to be debuting in Forever21 or (wherever people buy jewelry these days) any time soon, but there’s a heck of a lot of insects orders represented in jewelry to choose from now. This increase in availability of insects jewelry to a broader audience as well as popularization in modern fashion may change the motives as to why people in the 21st century adorn themselves with insects. I think the modern motives are less about the symbolism behind the type of insect and more about having a unique statement piece or just to show a person’s love of insects. I tried googling my query but Google thought I meant “why do people fear insects” not “why do people wear insects” which lead to me trying to make fear and wear sound the same. Since Google did not turn into a viable route and I can only say “fare/wear” and “fear/weer” so many times, I did the next best thing.
I asked the twitter universe “TWEEPS! For those of you that have insect, insect shaped, & insect themed jewelry, why do you wear it/own it?”. Since polls are anonymous I can’t definitively say that’s who’s participating, but since the majority of my followers are other scientists I’d say that’s probably who participated the most. But still, I would be able to peer into the minds of some and discover their reasoning for insect jewelry. The overwhelming response was that people wore insect related jewelry to show their love for insects. Although as @CrawliesWithCri pointed out, an all of the above option would have been useful, which is one of the #regerts with the poll (limit of only four poll options is no fun). She also pointed out that there is non-insect arthropod jewelry, which to be honest I forgot existed when I was writing this post （πーπ）Curse my insect-related tunnel vision! Maybe I’ll write sequel post about the non-insect arthropod jewelry and see if it came about in the same way as insect jewelry.
And now, the part I couldn’t wait to write about: insects in jewelry. That’s right folks, having insect jewelry isn’t limited to insects made of metal, plastic, or gems, actual insects can be used as well! The first time I ever saw insects in jewelry was in a store at the Mohegan Sun casino a couple of years ago. They were resin pendants with insects, mostly beetles and ants (if I recall correctly) and I had to have one. Which I did because they were fairly cheap. I thought this necklace was the pinnacle of looking cool and scientific. It was a statement piece that would weird some people out but also attract the attention of others, aka other biologists aka the coolest people you’ll ever meet. And the back glowed in the dark, so I was sold. Casting insects in resin is great for display purposes of rarer or larger and more delicate insect (or whatever you want really). It allows an insect to be protected from all sides for destructive forces (like beetles that eat insect collections or rough handling). Additionally, casting insects in resin can allow for some really cool props to be made.
The next time I saw insect jewelry was in my aquatic insects course where my professor wore her trichoptera larva case earrings to class. Trichoptera, or caddisflies if you prefer, are one of the truly aquatic insect orders (that is all members of this order have development that occurs in water, except for the terrestrial adult stage), found in clean streams for the most part. Many members of the order trichoptera build cases as larvae out of materials found in their natural habitat.
Since caddisfly larvae can be raised ex-situ in the right conditions, they can be introduced to an artificial environment where gems, stones, and metal pieces are apart of the substrate and can be incorporated into their cases. Once the caddisflies emerge as adults, the cases are left behind and then made into jewelry, or works of art.
Wings are another popular jewelry feature. The wings tend to be the most beautiful part of an insect (I’m looking at you butterflies) that can be incorporated into jewelry if carefully preserved since they also tend to be the most delicate part (again, hello butterflies and your stupidly delicate, scale covered wings). I’ve seen a lot of butterfly wing jewelry online where it’s parts of the wing placed in flat cage/lockets/pendants to be sold as necklaces or earrings. I came across an even more striking insect wing jewelry earlier this year because of someone I follow on twitter. Nancy Miorelli (@SciBugs) is an entomologist, science communicator, and guide at the Maquipucuna Reserve and Ecolodge in Ecuador. I started to follow her after she curated @RealScientists in March. Besides her excellent #FaceBug and life in Ecuador tweets, she also posted about structural coloration in insects (yaaaaaaas) and left a link to her etsy store.
She uses the elytra (hardened fore-wing) of jewel beetles (Ternocera aequisignata) in the creation of her pieces, as well as tagua nut; a type of palm nut grown in Ecuador that can be used in crafts. The great things about Nancy’s etsy shop (besides all the pretty necklaces, earrings, etc.) is everything is eco-friendly; the jewel beetles are sustainably farmed, the tagua nut comes from a local source, and the jewelry pieces that involve butterflies are from ones that died naturally or come from student collections at the University of Georgia. How awesome is that?! If you want to buy insect jewelry, make sure you pay attention to where the parts are coming from; wild populations shouldn’t be depleted for the sake of looking good. On the flip side, since insects adult insects tend to have a short time alive anyway coupled with the fact that their hard exoskeleton makes them more resistant to decaying like a mammal would, it’s easy enough to find dead specimens in good shape to be used in jewelry or decorative purposes. Insects are also capable of being farmed and sold or bred and reared in captivity as well, alternatives to catching them wild or finding them dead.
I was not aware of all the symbolism associated with the insects, nor was I did I know what other insects orders were used outside in ancient jewelry outside of the beetles. Maybe next time I’m in the market for some insect jewelry, I’ll think about what the insect symbolizes instead of “OMG INSECT JEWELRY SO KEWL MUST HAVE I LOVE THE BUGZ !!!11!!1!” So readers, why do you wear insect jewelry if you wear insect jewelry- are you an insect lover, do you like the symbolism, do you think it looks cool? Let’s chat about it in the comments.
One topic I did not cover here is live insect jewelry. This is something that requires me to do a little more research on. In some cultures wearing living insects has ancient roots and important historic meaning, or was once used for symbolism/protection in certain events. On the other hand there have been people that have kind of exploited wearing living insects as statement pieces. Living insect jewelry could be a whole topic in itself. So I’ll add it to the list of my blog topic ideas to use for another day.