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Jewelry Designers Draw Inspiration From Bugs

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — “Bonkers About Beetles.” “Innumerable Insects.” “Bugs: A Pop-Up Book.” The volumes that line the shelves of the jewelry designer Daniela Villegas’s home in this part of greater Los Angeles underscore what is obvious to anyone who ventures inside: She is passionate about pests.

Thousands of specimens — of the six, eight- and 100-plus-leg varieties — hang in frames on the walls, are displayed in bell jars on the shelves and lie beneath the glass atop her oversized coffee table. Much of the collection was acquired at bug fairs and is shared with her husband, the furniture designer Sami Hayek (Salma’s younger brother). It is likely to make visitors think they have wandered into the entomology section of a natural history museum, or rather, its deluxe gift shop.

The eccentric décor includes a stuffed armadillo adorned with its own gemstone bracelet; a wicker table in the shape of a grasshopper, topped with a crab sculpture; and a collection of Ms. Villegas’s signature Khepri rings, honoring the scarab-face god of ancient Egypt. The scarab beetle is one of at least a dozen creatures — including crabs and crickets, salamanders and snakes, weevils and walking sticks — that Ms. Villegas, a native of Mexico City, has immortalized in jewel form since 2008, when she moved to Los Angeles and made her first bug piece, a stag beetle necklace.

“We don’t see insects because they’re tiny and we don’t pay attention,” she said on a sunny morning in late March. “But they’re incredible species, full of beautiful renewal energy.”

Bees, beetles and butterflies have been a staple of figurative jewelry for well over a century. But not since the nature-obsessed Victorian era — and the Art Nouveau period that followed it — have jewelry designers expressed so much interest in the tiny beings that crawl, fly and slither among us.

“Most insects, if you get beyond the ‘ick’ factor, are jewel-like,” said the author and jewelry historian Marion Fasel, who was the guest curator for the American Museum of Natural History’s “Beautiful Creatures” exhibition of animal-inspired jewelry in 2021 in New York.

“There’s almost a luminescence to their exoskeletons, and I think jewelers respond to that,” she added.

Ms. Fasel compared the Victorian era’s fascination with nature, a reaction to the Industrial Revolution, with our own digital age. “It’s a parallel to the turn of the last century,” she said. “We live such online lives and we’re constantly staring at screens. To actually look at nature and, better still, to have a piece of it on you in the form of a jewel, is comforting.”

For jewelry lovers who care about the environment, a bejeweled bug may have a deeper meaning, said Levi Higgs, head of archives and brand heritage at David Webb, the company founded by a midcentury American jeweler famed for his maximalist animal pieces.

“I know a lot of collectors of jewelry, and they’re big patrons of botanical gardens,” Mr. Higgs said. “Bugs could be a symbol of solidarity with climate change initiatives.”

The biggest reasons for the enduring popularity of insect jewels, however, may be more personal, Ms. Fasel said: “Their silhouettes and their symbolism. It’s everything you want in jewelry.”

Just ask Sylvie Corbelin. A Paris designer, she became enchanted with 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 used 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 is one reason the Covid-19 pandemic seemed to heighten interest in butterfly jewels, Ms. Fasel said. But the winged creatures have always had their devotees.

Take the gemstone carver and master jeweler Wallace Chan, whose artistic devotion to butterflies is the subject of “Winged Beauty: The Butterfly Jewellery Art of Wallace Chan,” a 2021 book featuring some 30 of his most fantastical creations, encrusted with colored diamonds and gemstones and set in the Hong Kong artist’s signature titanium.

Other butterfly-loving jewelers include Joel Arthur Rosenthal, best known as JAR, the Paris 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 threads the butterfly motif throughout its stainless steel jewelry.

This year, however, the bug of the moment appears to be the beetle — particularly the totemic kind familiar to anyone who has visited Egypt.

In February, Guita Mortinger, the New York designer known as Guita M, introduced a line of brooches featuring porcelain scarabs made by the 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 statute of a scarab on a pedestal and the guide said, ‘This is a statue of fertility and if you walk around it three times, you’ll get pregnant.’

“I’d been trying to get pregnant and a few months later, I did get pregnant — my daughter is 39 now. That story stayed with me and through the years I was always intrigued by them.”

The Dutch designer Bibi van der Velden was equally drawn to the beetle’s association with hope, luck 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, created a line of scarab pendants in 2022, she was captivated by the color possibilities. “Traditionally, you see scarabs in lapis or that kind of stone palette, but doing things with fluorite and rainbow moonstone puts an interesting color spin on the situation,” she said. “I have one coming out that’s fire opal and chrysoprase. And a client commissioned one with pink topaz and turquoise wings.”

More recently, Ms. Harwell Godfrey has turned her attention to bees. At the Couture jewelry show in Las Vegas, scheduled to open June 1, “my case will be full of them,” she said.

For some clients, bees and their potentially scary cohorts — spiders, scorpions and the like — may evoke bad memories. But whether they charm or repulse, jewels featuring bugs are almost always talking pieces, 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 charmed and repulsed in equal measure.

“Lalique did a lot of dragonflies mating,” Ms. Martinez said. “Would you wear a necklace that had mating dragonflies unless you’re prepared to say, ‘I’m a free person and I’m not going to live by the restraints of the Victorian period’?”

A similarly anti-establishment ethos drives much of the interest in the insect jewels sold at August, a fine jewelry boutique in Los Angeles, said its owner, Bill Hermsen. He cited the work of Gabriella Kiss, a designer in the Hudson Valley of New York, who fashions oxidized bronze and 18-karat gold into lifelike interpretations of ants, damsel flies and praying mantises.

“We have a lot of artists and art curators, architects, people interested in the arts,” Mr. Hermsen said. “It’s not the same customer who’s necessarily going to Harry Winston looking for a flawless stone.

“Gabriella’s work being so figurative. I think she’s celebrating that tension between the little creatures that make you go ewwww, and their presence in our life. That’s where the humor comes in.”

At a jewelry awards event in New York City in March, Mr. Higgs of David Webb embraced that rationale: He wore the brand’s one-of-a-kind scarab brooch made of blue-green azurmalachite. “Having a big bug on your lapel is pretty cheeky,” he said.

Victoria Lampley Berens, founder of the Stax, a jewelry advisory company in Los Angeles, pointed out the inherent lack of gender of insect jewels. “They’re not for girls or boys,” she said.

“And not to sound too sentimental about it, but bugs are the first creatures kids play with,” she added. “You’re on the ground and you’re playing with roly-polies and ladybugs.”

While that early fascination tends to morph into disgust as some people get older, plenty of jewelers continue to find beauty and meaning in them.

The master goldsmith Anthony Lent, a sculptor by training, said he made his first insect jewel, “a praying mantis critter,” in the mid-1970s and has returned to the insect world countless times since.

“I just finished a big pendant, a leaf based on a linden seed, that has a lot of hidden things in it,” Mr. Lent, a jeweler in Philadelphia, said in a phone interview last month. “The piece I picked up had aphids, and I added a whole phantasmagoria with the ladybug and spider. But it’s not obvious at first glance. It’s a bejeweled leaf that’s delicate and then you start looking at all the creatures.”

And yet, as a recent encounter of Mr. Lent’s made clear, most people are not as enthralled.

“I was in L.A. and stepped out of the back door of the kitchen, sat on the steps and saw a 50-cent-piece-sized black spider stroll out from beneath the stairs and stare at my foot,” Mr. Lent said. “My friend said, ‘Damn, a black widow!’ and squashed it. It was luminous. I was fascinated by it.”

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Mohammad SHiblu

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