Jewelry Prototypes: Comments Wanted!

I have been asked recently to design a line of jewelry incorporating my bugs. At first, I was reluctant to try this, since the bugs are so fragile. Bugs are used to make jewelry, but other "bug-jewelry" makers get around this by using resin to completely encase the bug, creating a sort of "bug in amber" look. In this way, bugs are entombed in everything from glow-in-the-dark keychains to plastic bracelets to earrings. This protects the insects very well, but I think it looks cheap, personally. It hasn't been done in a way that is respectful to the beauty of the insect, in my humble opinion.

So, if I were going to make any jewelry, it would have to be very different. I would have to like it. I laid awake for much of the night pondering how to get around having to encase bugs in resin. I'm not interested in making plastic jewelry.

Also, I would also need a clear purpose or theme for my pieces. A reason for the art, so to speak. My main theme thus far has been to show off the natural beauty and diversity of insects to educate the public and encourage them to appreciate and conserve "un-cuddly" species, like insects. I would like to continue this theme in another media with the jewelry. There is a family of beetles which I frequenly use called "Jewel Beetles". Why not take their common name to the exteme and use them as literal jewels, the same as diamonds or emeralds. Why not buy ring settings and other metal bases and mount insects onto them instead of gems? Nice settings...silver and gold pieces instead of plastic. Yes, this was an exciting idea! Imagine, a Tiffany ring setting with a shining beetle instead of a diamond! This stuff was going to be classy!

However, there was still the fragility issue. Could you just set a beetle onto a silver ring and expect it to last? I got to thinking about the centerpieces that were used at my wedding last August, just over a year ago. They were potted live orchids with real, dried beetles tucked in here and there. Just some of my extras and rejects....ones missing a leg or an antenna. Since they weren't worth anything, I just left them in the planters, on top of the potting bark. For the past year, I've been watering my orchids heavily, pouring water right over the beetles each time. The beetles look as good today, one year later, as they did on our wedding day. I have also seen other instances in the past couple of years where dried beetles were tougher than I expected. After all, they are made to live outdoors. They are pretty well waterproofed, and their shells (elytra) are quite scratch-resistant. Add to that the fact that Native Americans (South and Central American peoples) have historically used real beetles in their textiles and jewelry for thousands of years without encasing them in resin. Some of these textiles and jewelry survive today in museums, so it's apparent to me that these beetles are pretty tough.
So, I decided that I would skip the resin and try mounting the insects directly in various types of metal jewelry mounts that are made to hold stones. I'd run "field tests" on my pieces, by wearing them around and exposing them to all kinds of normal wear and tear, noting what worked and what didn't.

I got to scouring the internet, looking for pieces and parts the next day. The past couple of days, my materials have started arriving in the mail, and I've started to play around with putting some things together. Finding the correct beetles to use is the hardest part; they have to be the exact right size, and I want them to look as "jewel-like" as possible. I don't want my pieces to scream "I'm made with a real bug!". I want them to be beautiful because of their color and form, and they will reveal what they are made of when one looks closely. I want people to say "Wow, that's beautiful! What kind of stone is that?" and then be amazed when they find out that insects can be that beautiful and worthy of a nice jewelry setting. I don't want to scare people away from the jewelry; I want it to be sophisticated and not at all "creepy" because it is "made with a real bug". Rutelid ("Shining") Beetles are the obvious choice for me to use, but because of their shiny, jewel-like qualities, many of them command a hefty price. Way too much for my purposes, some of them costing $500 a piece. (!) I happened to have a few that I got as part of a mixed bag, so I'll use those for now and I'll work on finding a source for some more affordable species.
I have finished up a few prototypes this morning, and would like to post them here to get your opinions and ideas. Keep in mind that they are my very first "sketches", if you will, and that I intend to refine them with more ideal parts and insects as I come across better materials. There are two rings here, one broach (pin), and two necklace pendants.

I will let everyone know how the tests go, but I fully expect everything to wear very well, with the possible exception of the rings. Rings can get wet, but not excessively. You definitely wouldn't wear one of these while doing the dishes, but I think it would stand up okay to careful hand washing.
If anyone is interested in testing out any of this jewelry, please drop me a line and let me know. I will sell you the pieces at very minimal cost in return for your reviews over the course of a couple months.
I would love to hear your comments and ideas! Thanks for reading!

Making Of...

Lots of people have been interested in how Insect Art is made. Here's a little glimpse into what I do.

Here's how the bugs start out; I order them from various worldwide suppliers, and they are dead, dried out, and carefully packaged like this: (stay tuned for a report on my research into how the bugs get to this point)

When I'm ready to begin preparing the insects, they are placed into my "hydration chamber", which is actually a tupperware container full of moist paper towels and an anti-fungal agent. Here's a picture of some butterflies in the chamber:

After 24-48 hours in there, they are usually moist enough to handle without breaking. At this point, I am able to move their wings and legs easily. Here's a picture of a butterfly being unwrapped:

Now, I have to carefully unfold the wings and position them in place so they can dry out again. I also position the legs and antennae so they can dry in place. I do this on a styrofoam board that I made myself for this purpose. Most people use little strips of paper and pins to hold the wings in place, but I have come up with the idea of using glass plates instead. I find that this produces a nicer, flatter, result and it allows me to easily see what I'm doing. I do use pins to hold the rest of the body and antennae in place, but I don't put the pins through the bugs; I don't want to make holes in them! This is definitely the hardest part of the whole process; even through they are re-hydrated, the insects are still very fragile! I also have to watch the wings of the butterflies; if I touch them too much, scales will come off and they will look bad. I have special tweezers to help touch the wings for me.

Here's a picture of what a butterfly looks like after it has been spread out to dry:

Beetles usually take a lot more work than butterflies, because they have more parts to set. They are also shaped such that I cannot use glass plates on their wings; having to use pins on the wings is a challenge! See how many pins I used on this Jewel Beetle? (Image courtesy Lawrence Journal World)

Once the insects are all dry again (24 hours later), I remove the pins and move the bugs to storage containers until I'm ready to put them in frames. It's kind of neat to see all the different insects in my storage containers, so here's a few pictures of insects that are all ready to use:

Finally, when I'm ready to use the insects, I choose a frame and a background for them and glue them into place with a special glue. I really love the paper selection from a company called Basic Grey; they make the most beautiful backgrounds. I'm always on the lookout for more papers and frames that I can use, though. Sometimes I even make my own backgrounds, but I'm not very good at drawing, so the ones I do make are abstract. I've also used various fabrics and handmade papers. Here's a look at some of my paper and frame selections:

Here's the end result! My "gallery wall" of Insect Art allows me to enjoy some of my work before the pieces are sent to their new homes! I always work by the philosophy "If I wouldn't hang it in my house, it's not worth making". I continue to strive to search for the beauty in all insects, and it's my goal to be able to display them in a way that maximizes their beauty and impresses people who normally wouldn't be impressed by "a bug". I hope you enjoyed this "Making Of..." entry!