Since the emergence of humanity, the organisms that share our world have captured our imagination, influencing our dreams, thoughts and fears. This influence is particularly true of insects, who impact nearly every facet of human activity. In addition to serving as objects of scientific inquiry, competitors for resources, carriers of disease, and food, insects have made a marked impact on the cultural aspects of human societies. Despite their extra appendages and different strategies for making a living, insects look and behave enough like humans to serve as models for friends, enemies, teachers, and entertainers. This status has permitted insects to act as objects on which to impart human qualities and as the source of qualities that can be incorporated into the framework of human ideology and social structure. Think of the movie "Ants". Almost no aspect of our culture is untouched by these creatures.


One aspect in particular—art—has used insects far and wide as inspiration. As one of the decorative arts, jewelry resembling insects has been used as aesthetic adornment around the world, throughout history and to this day. Insects most commonly used as models for jewelry are beetles, bees, butterflies, and dragonflies.

“I decided very, very early on to jump into the world of my own imagination” —Victoire de Castellane, the creative director of fine jewelry at Dior. It’s said that Castellane’s office at the gray Dior headquarters in Paris is covered in butterflies. Not regular butterflies, but bejeweled versions made from diamonds the size of gobstoppers, emeralds as green as a forest and opals the size of pennies. Like many other designers, she has a penchant for creating fairytale-worthy jeweled insects—butterflies, bees, ladybugs and beetles clustered over flowers and vines. For her, the natural world is a veritable playground of ideas full of possibility.

She’s not alone. Throughout history humans have used the shapes, forms and colors of insects to inspire artistic pursuits. Along with jewelry, insects have found themselves used in pictographs, textiles, paintings and ceramics. Having inspired humans for millennia, the earliest clearly identifiable drawing of an insect dates back 20,000 years; A cave-dwelling cricket, inscribed on a piece of bison bone by Cro-Magnon’s in southern France. Some of the earliest human rock art also features insects. Scenes of honey hunting dating back 6,000 years appear in the Cave of Spiders, near Valencia, Spain. Monks in the Middle Ages faithfully copied documents and adorned them with naturalistic figures of plants and insects. Insects also appeared as heraldic symbols on clothing and armor in medieval Europe. But it was in medieval Japan where the depiction of insects on family crests reached an artistic height in simplicity, balance, and aesthetic quality. The butterfly was a particular favorite. It is told that the Samurai adopted them to symbolize the idea of rebirth, from crude caterpillar to majestic winged butterfly, it embodied their path from young apprentices before training, to masters of swordcraft after.


Delfina Delettrez, Marc Alary, and Daniela Villegas continue in their footsteps, all featuring the tiny creatures in their work. Delettrez’s signature disconnected rings feature pearls and yellow and gold bumble bees, and black spiders crawling over white daisies. Amsterdam-based designer Bibi van der Velden, who is known for her use of unusual natural materials (such as 100 year-old mammoth ivory), focused an entire collection on the scarab beetle. She created life-size replicas of the metallic green bugs, using their iridescent wings (elytra) in the pieces. “During my trips to Thailand, I noticed that beetles are a delicacy for the Thai people but the wings are always removed before the beetle is consumed,” says van der Velden. “This practice caught my attention and got me thinking about the shape and color of the wings, which inspired me to design my Scarab Collection. The iridescent color of the wings is so unbelievably beautiful and the fact that the wings aren’t eaten means I'm able to reuse them, this completely ties into the recyclable element in my work.” Van der Velden follows in a rich tradition of Beetlewing art; an ancient craft technique that uses iridescent beetle wing cases, practised traditionally in Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), India, China and Japan, as well as Africa and South America. Beetle wings are used as an adornment to paintings, textiles and jewelry. Depending on the region, different species of metallic wood-boring beetle wings are used, but traditionally the brilliant green wing cases of jewel beetles in the genus Sternocera (Buprestidae) have been the most valued.

Ancient Egyptians also took fondly to the scarab beetle and made it the most famous deified insect of our time. The scarab was a symbol of the sun god Khepera and also equated with the creator god Atum. The scarab was the agent responsible for moving the sun across the sky, in the manner that these beetles move balls of dung across the ground. The scarab also represented the emergence of the soul from the body. For this reason, amulets and pendants bearing the scarab likeness were worn as jewelry by Pharoahs and included in funeral caches as symbols of new life. Scarab figures are nearly always found on Egyptian mummy sarcophagi.


The use of insects as live jewelry has also existed for many centuries, with the Egyptians believed to have been the first to wear live insects as adornment too. Ancient Egyptian soldiers commonly wore scarab beetles into battle as the beetles were considered to have supernatural powers of protection against enemies. Today in Mexico, small jewels, glass beads, and metallic ornaments are glued to the outer wings of living ironclad beetles that are then attached to a fine chain pinned to the blouse and allowed to act as a living brooch. Some brilliantly metallic beetles are used in a similar manner in parts of tropical Asia, with living fireflies used as decorations in hair or attached to clothing.

The Canadian entomologist C.H. Curran's 1945 book, Insects of the Pacific World, noted women from India and Sri Lanka, who kept 1 1/2 inch long, iridescent greenish coppery beetles as pets. These living jewels were worn on festive occasions, probably with a small chain attached to one leg anchored to the clothing to prevent escape. Afterwards, the insects were bathed, fed, and housed in decorative cages.

The attraction of insects lies in a few different arenas. Their tiny, segmented bodies, impeccable details, incredible color, and whimsy offer up a subject fine jewelers can’t resist. “Nature is a big source of inspiration to me, it’s something that never ceases to fascinate me,” says van der Velden. “And of course, animals are a part of nature, which are frequently seen throughout my collections.” Insects also have symbolic significance. Ritual, magical and protective importance has been connected to insects for centuries. Insects are said to confer immortality, rebirth, rejuvenation, regeneration, courage, and bravery.


Spiritual properties aside, it’s also the playfulness of replicating some of nature’s most beautiful creatures that inspires. Along with the modernization of the world, the perceived relevance of insects to human life has slowly eroded. As this happens, the various roles of insects in human cultural affairs may change or be lost. However, many people continue to carry mythological modes of thought, expression, and communication into this supposedly scientific age and others still find pleasure in observing and contemplating their six-legged companions on Earth. Therefore, the importance of insects as subjects of entertainment and aesthetic pleasure should continue to enter into the thoughts of future people and mold aspects of human culture. As some relationships between human and insect are lost, others are formed. Because of the dominant place in the function of the world’s ecosystems and their influence on human existence, insects have played (and will continue to play) a prominent role in our perception of life, pursuit of aesthetically pleasing activities, and for the enlightenment of human societies.