Beetlemania: Insects in Victorian Jewellery

By: Dara Vandor

Featured in our Jewellery Auction: A Gold Plated Brass and Scarab Beetle Necklace

Equal parts sophisticated and strange, lot 62 in our current Jewellery auction is a necklace made from 29 scarab beetles. While it seems unreal, you did read that correctly—but think less Halloween and more haute couture.


Commonly known as the dung beetle, scarab beetles were an important symbol in Ancient Egypt. The scarab species is known for creating rolled balls of manure in which they lay their eggs. This distinctive rolling action was seen by the Ancient Egyptians as mimicking the rolling motion of the sun across the sky, a task they believed was performed daily by the god Khepri. The sun’s movements—and by extension, those of the scarab—were seen as emblematic of the circle of life, immortality, resurrection, transformation and growth. Accordingly, the scarab was perceived to be a tremendously powerful symbol, capable of providing protection and good fortune, which explains its long use in jewellery, personal ornamentation, funerary art, and amulets.

The scarab has continued to inspire the fashionable set across time and culture. Its likeness has been found amongst Greek and Etruscan artifacts, through to the Art Deco period, and recently on the Bottega Veneta runway. Perhaps one of the most important—and frenzied—moments in the beetle’s popularity was during the Victorian era, when a fascination with natural history found expression in art, décor and design. Amelia Soth explains that “as urban Victorians grew more and more detached from nature, they tried to reconstruct the wilderness in their homes: cultivating ferns under crystal domes, raising frogs in glass vivaria, and trimming their hats with piles of moss and bird’s nests. Taxidermy was considered a delightful domestic hobby. Victorian ladies learned to gut dead animals, douse their corpses with arsenic, and arrange them in lifelike poses for the amusement of visitors.”


Insect jewellery was particularly sought after during this period, which, combined with the concurrent mania for all things Egyptian—a legacy from Napoleon’s invasion of the country at the end of the 18thcentury—made the scarab particularly trendy. The fashionable of the Victorian era embroidered insect wings to their clothing, while some went so far as to use live beetles and fireflies as ornaments for their hair or bodices. Others more demurely chose to wear preserved insect shells strung together in the form of a necklace, or set into earrings or hairpins. An 1884 guide to practical taxidermy explains this moment in fashion as ushering in a “new alliance between the goldsmith and the taxidermist, resulting in a thousand ingenious combinations of nature and art.”

While Waddington’s has previously sold scarab-inflected designs (such as this Tiffany Scarab lamp or this carved scarab ring), the use of real beetle carapaces as in this particular necklace is wonderfully rare. The iridescence of the shells is especially apparent in closeup, and the piece is in excellent condition considering the fragility of the natural materials from which it is constructed.

Find out More about the auction

We invite those interested in natural history or those fond of unusual jewellery to take a closer look at the scarab necklace, lot 62, on our website. For those looking for jewellery of a less organic origin, we invite you to browse the rest of the catalogue.

The Jewellery auction is offered online from September 26 – October 1.

We are always delighted to provide additional photographs, condition notes and/or more detail.

Please contact Donald McLean for more information.

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