In the 1890s, Victorian fashionistas wore live jewel beetles, ensnared in delicate gold cages attached to chains and brooches.
Fabrics from India embellished with beetle wings were already popular as were hats decorated with all kinds of hummingbirds, bird nests, butterflies, and beetles.
Mrs. Haweis in “The Art of Beauty” described these hats adorned with insects and birds :
a wired edifice of tulle and velvet . . . trimmed with a mass of valueless blonde, a spray of tinsel, and perhaps a bird’s nest in an impossible position at one side, or something else equally bad in taste—e.g. moths, beetles, lizards, mice &c. . . .The large and gaudy insects that crawl over them are cheap and nasty to the last degree. . . . At present, the bonnets and the brains they cover are too often not unfit companions.
Other ladies bought little lizards, attached a chain to their necks and pinned them to their dress or jacket.
These lizards were sold as “chameleons” that would change color to match a woman’s outfit.
Those who used live fireflies in their hair found that they “gleamed and glowed as never diamonds did.”
An 1882 article quotes a writer in a “London journal” who, about to brush a beetle off of a lady’s shoulder, was horrified to discover that the insect was sewn onto her outfit.
She goes on to predict a fantastical future of insect jewelry where:
“Wasps, hornets, caterpillars and cockroaches will all be allowed to nestle soon near the damask cheek of our fashionable beauties. Then reptiles and fishes will have their day. The stuffed adder will replace the necklace of pearls, and one does not need Mother Shipton’s prophetic vision to foresee that the fashion able hat of the coming period will have for its chief ornament a lobster looking round the brim, or a mackerel sitting on its tail”.
Beetles and butterflies were appreciated for their beauty, but they were also more affordable than real jewels.
The starlet Lillie Langtry decorated herself with insect jewelry in the early part of her career when she couldn’t afford gems:
“Of my many attempts at originality, I remember a yellow tulle gown, draped with wide-meshed gold fish-net, in which preserved butterflies of every hue and size were held in glittering captivity. This eccentric costume I wore at a Marlborough House Ball, but it could scarcely be considered as a very serviceable garment, for the Prince of Wales told me that, the morning after, he picked up many of the insects, which were lying about the ballroom floor.”
Ancient Insect Jewelry
Meanwhile, Mayan women from the Yucatan Peninsula have pinned insect jewelry to their clothes for centuries.
They wore Maquech beetles over their hearts to attract and sustain loving relationships.
Mayan folklore suggests the tradition derives from an ancient fable: When a princess was forbidden from marrying her lover, she stopped eating and drinking, preferring to die instead.
A local healer with magical powers transformed the princess into a beetle so she could live disguised as a brooch on the heart of her true love.
Another version says the lover was transformed into a beetle as punishment.
The princess made the best of it by having the finest jeweler in the kingdom bling him up with precious stones.
Then she tied him up with a little chain so she could wear him as a brooch and he could stay close to her heart.
Maquech beetles already look like ancient Mayan jewelry come to life. They have a light golden pronotum and their black, metal like legs stick to fabric just like velcro.
Yucatecans painted them and would add little crystals in order to sell them as “living jewelry”. A little “leash” is attached to them so they can walk around without getting lost.
The Makech spend most of their life as larvae. Once they reach full maturity they stop eating and breathing until they eventually die.
To the untrained eye, these animals don’t seem to have a mouth, eyes or an anus. They don’t appear to drink water, eat or produce waste. Native people of the Yucatan used to say that the Makech could live to be a hundred years, miraculously surviving by “eating” the air around them.
(They do all of these things, of course. They are just ridiculously low maintenance, surviving on a little starch and very little water.)
Today, vendors in Mexico still sell the beetles covered in rhinestones, each one attached with a gold chain and pin, so that the bejeweled bug can take a stroll on the wearer’s shirt.
In America, the Audubon Society was formed in 1896 to combat the “traffic in feathers adorning women’s hats that . . . cost the lives of millions of our finest birds.”
One Florida hunter revealed that he alone had killed 130,000 birds in one season.
In England, Princess Alexandra signed to attach her name to a bird conservation campaign.
She didn’t have the same sympathy for insects, however, as she herself owned a dress made of embroidered beetle wing.
The Roach Brooch
In 2006, the giant Madagascar hissing cockroach (or Gromphadorhina Portentosa) got its 15 minutes of fame as live Insect Jewelry.
Fashion designer, Jared Gold, popularized the”roach brooch” trend when he included the giant Madagascar hissing cockroach in his 2006 collection.
Gold’s cockroaches were hand-decorated with Austrian Swarovski crystals, accessorized with a leash set and were sold as “ready to wear” jewelry.
In response to accusations of cruelty, Gold says they generally live up to a year, if taken care of properly. The cockroach brooches come with instructions for care. Which includes daily water, fresh fruit, and cleaning their aquarium.
Asked whether they hiss, he said:
“We rarely hear them hiss because they are treated so gently. When they are surprised they do hiss. And probably before they are eaten on fear factor.”
An animal rights spokesman described “roach brooch” as “just the gift for the person who doesn’t mind a small animal excreting on them throughout the day.”
How Victorian ladies dealt with that, we don’t know.
Siobhan O’Shea is a freelance writer. She writes about pretty much everything but especially likes to bring readers’ attention to new tech, marketing, human behavior, and other oddities.