Jewelry designers are inspired by bugs
BEVERLY HILLS, California – “Bonkers About Beetles.” “Innumerable insects.” “Bugs: A Pop-Up Book.” The volumes that line the shelves of jewelry designer Daniela Villegas’ home in this part of Los Angeles underline what is obvious to anyone who ventures inside: she is passionate about vermin.
Thousands of them—six, eight, and more than 100-legged varieties—hang in frames on the walls, stand in bell jars on the shelves, and lie under the glass on her oversized coffee table. Much of the collection was acquired at insect fairs and is shared with her husband, the furniture designer Sami Hayek (Salma’s younger brother). It will probably make visitors think they’ve walked into the entomology section of a natural history museum, or rather, the luxury gift shop.
The eccentric decor includes a stuffed armadillo adorned with its own gemstone bracelet; a wicker table in the shape of a grasshopper, topped with a sculpture of a crab; and a collection of Mrs. Villegas’ signature Khepri rings, honoring the scarab face god of ancient Egypt. The dung beetle is one of at least a dozen creatures — including crabs and crickets, salamanders and snakes, weevils and walking sticks — that Mexico City native Ms. Villegas has immortalized in jewel form since 2008, when she moved to Los Angeles. Angeles and made her first beetle piece, a stag beetle necklace.
“We don’t see insects because they’re small and we don’t pay attention to them,” she said one sunny morning in late March. “But they are incredible strains, full of wonderful energy of renewal.”
Beyond the ‘Ick’ factor
Bees, beetles and butterflies have been a staple of figurative jewelry for over a century. But not since the nature-obsessed Victorian era – and the Art Nouveau period that followed – have jewelery designers taken such an interest in the tiny creatures that crawl, fly and slither beneath us.
“Most insects, if you look beyond the ‘ick’ factor, are jewel-like,” said author and jewelry historian Marion Fasel, who was guest curator for the American Museum of Natural History’s “Beautiful Creatures” exhibit of animal-inspired jewelry in 2021 in New York.
“There’s almost a luminescence in their exoskeletons, and I think jewelers are responding to that,” she added.
Ms. Fasel compared the Victorian era’s fascination with nature, a response to the industrial revolution, to our own digital age. “It’s a parallel to the turn of the last century,” she said. “We live such online lives and we are constantly staring at screens. Really looking at nature and, better yet, having a piece of it with you in the form of a jewel is reassuring.”
For jewelry enthusiasts who care about the environment, a bejeweled beetle may have deeper meaning, said Levi Higgs, chief of records and brand heritage at David Webb, the company founded by a mid-century American jeweler. famous for his maximalist animal pieces.
“I know a lot of jewelry collectors, and they are great patrons of botanic gardens,” said Mr. Higgs. “Bugs could be a symbol of solidarity with climate change initiatives.”
However, the biggest reasons for insect jewelry’s enduring popularity are perhaps more personal, Ms Fasel said: “Their silhouettes and their symbolism. It is everything you look for in jewelry.”
Just ask Sylvie Corbelin. A designer from Paris, she became enchanted by beetles, dragonflies, butterflies, flies and bees in 2009 when she saw an exhibition of Albrecht Dürer’s work, including his famous 1505 drawing of a stag beetle. She has been using them in her work ever since.
“I see them as symbols of metamorphosis, transformation and also resilience,” Ms Corbelin wrote in an email. “They have a remarkable ability to thrive in hostile environments.”
No insect represents metamorphosis better than the butterfly. That’s one of the reasons why the Covid-19 pandemic seemed to increase interest in butterfly jewelry, Ms Fasel said. But the winged beings have always had their devotees.
Take gemstone craftsman and master jeweler Wallace Chan, whose artistic devotion to butterflies is the subject of “Winged Beauty: The Butterfly Jewelery Art of Wallace Chan,” a 2021 book featuring some 30 of his most fabulous creations inlaid with colored diamonds and gems. and set in the Hong Kong artist’s signature titanium.
Other jewelers who love butterflies include Joel Arthur Rosenthal, better known as JAR, the Parisian designer often described by connoisseurs as this century’s answer to Peter Carl Fabergé, and Brosway Italia, a fashion brand from the Marche region of Italy that incorporates the butterfly motif into fashion everywhere. are stainless steel jewelry.
This year, however, the beetle of the moment seems to be the beetle – especially the totemic species familiar to anyone who has visited Egypt.
In February, Guita Mortinger, the New York designer known as Guita M, introduced a line of porcelain scarab brooches created by Austrian artist Gundi Dietz.
“My attraction to them started in the ’80s, when I went to Egypt,” Ms. Mortinger said. “I was in Luxor and there was a huge statue of a scarab on a pedestal and the guide said, ‘This is a fertility statue and if you walk around it three times you will get pregnant.’
“I tried to conceive and a few months later I got pregnant – my daughter is now 39. That story has stuck with me and over the years I have always been intrigued by it.”
Dutch designer Bibi van der Velden was equally drawn to the beetle’s association with hope, happiness and regeneration. At Paris Fashion Week in October, she unveiled a $44,100 eternity necklace featuring 16 scarabs, some with pavé pink and purple sapphires and others embellished with real green and blue scarab wings.
When Lauren Harwell Godfrey, a designer in Northern California, designed a line of scarab pendants in 2022, she was fascinated by the color possibilities. “Traditionally you see scarabs in lapis or that kind of stone palette, but doing things with fluorite and rainbow moonstone gives the situation an interesting color twist,” she said. “One comes out that is fire opal and chrysoprase. And a customer ordered one with pink topaz and turquoise wings.
More recently, Mrs. Harwell Godfrey has turned her attention to bees. At the Couture jewelry show in Las Vegas, scheduled for June 1, “my suitcase will be full of them,” she said.
Charm and repulsion
For some clients, bees and their potentially scary cohorts — spiders, scorpions, and the like — can bring back bad memories. But whether they charm or repel, insect jewelry is almost always a talking piece, said Suzanne Martinez, co-owner of Lang Antique & Estate Jewelry in San Francisco. She referred to the Art Nouveau master René Lalique, whose insect jewels often appeal as much as they repel.
“Lalique has had many dragonflies mate,” Ms. Martinez said. “Would you wear a necklace with mating dragonflies unless you’re willing to say, ‘I’m a free person and I’m not going to live by the constraints of the Victorian period’?”
A similar anti-establishment ethos drives much of the interest in the insect jewelry sold at August, a Los Angeles jewelry boutique, said its owner, Bill Hermsen. He cited the work of Gabriella Kiss, a designer in New York’s Hudson Valley who sculpts oxidized bronze and 18-carat gold into lifelike interpretations of ants, damselflies and mantises.
“We have a lot of artists and art curators, architects, people who are interested in art,” said Mr. Hermsen. “It’s not the same customer who necessarily goes to Harry Winston in search of a flawless stone.
“Gabriella’s work is so figurative. I think she celebrates that tension between the little creatures that make you ewwww, and their presence in our lives. That’s where the humor comes in.”
At a jewelry awards show in New York City in March, Mr. Higgs of David Webb embraced that rationale: He wore the brand’s unique scarab brooch, made of teal azurmalachite. “Having a big beetle on your lapel is pretty brutal,” he said.
Victoria Lampley Berens, founder of Stax, a jewelry consulting firm in Los Angeles, pointed out the inherent lack of sex of insect jewelry. “They’re not for girls or boys,” she said.
“And not to sound too sentimental, but critters are the first creatures children play with,” she added. “You’re on the floor and you’re playing with rolly-polies and ladybugs.”
While that early fascination tends to turn into disgust as some people get older, many jewelers continue to find beauty and meaning in it.
Master goldsmith Anthony Lent, a sculptor by training, said he made his first insect jewel, “a mantis beast,” in the mid-1970s and has since returned to the insect world countless times.
“I just finished a large pendant, a leaf based on a linden seed, which has many hidden things in it,” said Mr. Lent, a Philadelphia jeweler, in a telephone interview last month. “The piece I picked up had aphids and I added a whole phantasmagoria with the ladybug and the spider. But at first glance it’s not obvious. It’s a jeweled leaf that’s delicate and then you start looking at all the creatures to look.
And yet, as Mr. Lent’s recent encounter made clear, most people aren’t so enthralled.
“I was in LA and I stepped out the back door of the kitchen, sat on the stairs and saw a black spider the size of 50 cents come out from under the stairs and stare at my foot,” said Mr. Lent. “My friend said, ‘Damn, a black widow!’ and crushed it. It was luminous. I was fascinated by it.”