The History of Jewel Beetle Wings in Craft
Posted on June 19 2023
You may have seen iridescent green beetle wings (aka. elytra in the scientific world) used in jewelry and other accessories in modern times, but what you may not know is that beetle wings have a rich history of being used in crafts in Asia (mostly in Thailand, India, Japan, Myanmar, and China) going back to the 15th century. The wings of the Sternocera genus of beetles, or jewel beetles, were mostly used in this historic craft (called beetlewing or beetlewing art) in textiles, jewelry, and paintings. These emerald green wings were prized for their rich color and durability. In many examples of beetlewing craft from this time period, the beetle wings haven’t changed appearance despite the rest of the items they adorn showing signs of decay.
Panel and Fragments (India), 19th century
In as far back as fifteenth century India, the jewel-like colors of beetle wings were often combined with dazzling zardozi embroidery (intricate sewing technique using gold or silver thread on satin, silk, or velvet fabric) to adorn clothing worn to convey high position in the Mughal courts. When India was considered a British colony from 1757-1947, English ladies began wearing gowns with elytra, and the popular style spread to England.
One particularly astonishing example of the elytra zardozi style was the 'Peacock Dress' made for Lady Mary Curzon, the Vicereine of India to wear in 1903 to the Delhi Durbar which celebrated Edward VII and Queen Alexandra being crowned as Emperor and Empress of India. This stunning gown took a year to make, and is covered in elaborate zardozi embroidery rendered in the shape of peacock feathers (a symbol of India's bounty). The ‘eye’ of each feather is a shimmering elytron.
Courtesy of the National Trust
A more modern example of jewel beetles used in art/craft is an impressive installation piece by artist Jan Fabre in the Royal Palace of Brussels. This amazing work of art took 3 months to complete with 30 assistants, and it incorporates 1.4 billion jewel beetle wings!
Image Credit: Angelos.be
Beetle wing jewelry often manifests itself as statement pieces because of the attention grabbing colors and iridescence of these naturally beautiful wings, and because the light weight of the elytra lend themselves to be used in large quantities in jewelry pieces. There can be a lot of visual weight achieved without too much physical weight, like in our Beetle Wing Bracelet for example.
Our Beetle Wing Chandelier Earrings also make great statement pieces that are light as a feather. These earrings are perfect paired with a little black dress or any other simple attire.
Beetle wing jewelry also makes a very satisfying ASMR clicking sound as it moves with your body or when the wings are caught by the wind. The beetle wings are surprisingly durable as they’re made of chiton (which is also the primarily substance found in the exoskeletons of lobsters and crabs, as well as in seashells) so they can endure a lot of moving and shaking. Chiton is one of the most durable and lightweight materials known to man!
The jewel beetles are a source of food for people in southeast Asia. They're often deep fried and served many different ways. The beetles have a short life span of 3-4 weeks, and the wings are discarded when they're prepared as food, so the wings used in crafts are a byproduct of the food industry in this region.
Image Credit: Atid Kiattisaksiri
Whether you're intrigued or repelled by the idea of wearing beetle wing jewelry or with beetle wings used in art, it's undeniable that these unique little marvels of nature are awe inspiring, and undoubtedly will continue to captivate artists and craftsmen for centuries to come.