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A Guide to Butterfly and Dragonfly Brooches

30/01/2022 2761 3 2

Jewellery trends have come and gone but the desire for beautiful insect jewellery has persisted through the eras. Butterflies in particular are one of the most widely represented creatures in jewellery. The shape of butterfly jewellery, mostly in the form of butterfly brooches has not changed dramatically, but the blank canvas within the body of the butterfly has allowed for all sorts of artistic expression, and the use of many different materials over the years.

What does the butterfly symbolise?

In ancient times butterflies symbolised life, love and beauty.  The transition of a caterpillar into in a butterfly links the creature to ideas of freedom and new beginnings.  There have been particular spikes in the sale of butterfly pin and brooches. Butterflies became a symbol of the women’s suffrage movement in America and activists were sometimes referred to as Iron Butterflies. Small butterfly pins were worn as emblems of the fight for the right to vote. The decorative jewels on the brooch were purple and green (the colour of the movement), and were made of paste or jewels.


Butterfly Jewellery in the 1800’s

The craze for butterfly collecting during the 1800's saw an increase in the trend for butterfly jewellery, often in the form of brooches or hair ornaments. Designers used colourful gems and  plique a jour enamel wings for the brooches.. High end butterfly brooches and hair accessories were made entirely with diamonds as all diamond jewellery was in fashion for formal wear. The opening of the African Kimberly Mine in 1871 saw output reaching European and American jewellery workshops, and this was reflected in an increase in size of gems .The large diamonds used on the brooches were symbolic of the importance of butterflies within a ladies jewellery collection.

Princess Alexandra’s Diamond Butterfly brooch.

Princess Alexandra daughter of the British Queen Victoria received a diamond butterfly brooch in 1888 as a present for her 25th wedding anniversary, The wings had 46.78 carats of mine cut diamonds set in silver with gold details. The design had an en tremblant setting where small springs were installed underneath the wings to allow it to quiver slightly when the wearer moved.


Above: Suzanne Belperron butterfly brooch

Suzanne Belperron Butterfly Brooches

The art deco movement of the 1920’s saw the introduction of linear lines and geometric shapes and butterflies with their naturalistic motifs were not seen much.  The 1930’s however, saw some designers reintroduce the theme of nature with jewelled floral and butterfly designs.  The designer Suzanne Belperron began creating beautiful jewel filled butterfly brooches in 1936. Despite having been known for strong geometric shapes at the start of her career in the 1920’s, she maintained the traditional butterfly shape in her designs.  The gems and gold work on her brooches however were innovative and unlike earlier designs. She created gold butterflies with colourful gemstones. Some had wings which were engraved with scaled patterns. Her large six inch wide butterfly brooches had burnished set gems which were flush with the gold metal and set in a loose mosaic type pattern. Large gems in slim bezels decorated the wings some of the largest brooches. Her designs were very popular, with many woman of the time wearing a Belperron butterfly brooch. She continued to design butterfly brooches until the middle of the 1950’s.

Queen Elizabeth’s Onslow Butterfly Brooch

The Onslow butterfly brooch was one of the wedding gifts presented to Princess Elizabeth in 1947. It was a gift from the Dowager Countess of Onslow and is a beautiful diamond and ruby butterfly shaped brooch. After the wedding the brooch was on display along with other wedding gifts at St James palace in London.  Queen Elizabeth has worn it on several occasions since then, and it was last seen on June 2021 for a virtual audience with ambassadors.

1960’s Van Cleef and Arpels Butterfly Brooches

The 1960’s saw butterfly brooches back in fashion again with all the big jewellery firms producing their own versions. Van Cleef and Arpels made formal and feminine butterfly brooches with many diamonds and gemstones, which proved very popular with the stars of the day. Clients included Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, and Maria Callas.


Above: David Webb Jadeite Butterfly brooch       

1970’s David Webb Butterfly Brooches

Butterrfly brooches were made in all sorts of styles and materials through the late 1960’s and 1970’s. The American designer David Webb included butterflies in his jade collection in the 1970’s. The carved jadeite he used came from old jade jewellery found at the vintage shops of New York. The brooches comprised rectangular and square pieces of jadeite set in brooches with detailed diamond and gold frames. The jade butterfly wing brooches had other gems set within the central body of the brooch and were particularly beautiful pieces. 

JAR (Joel  Arthur Rosenthal) 1980's Butterfly Brooches

JAR was an American designer who opened his first boutique in 1977 in Paris.  Butterflies featured prominently in the JAR jewellery collections and were somewhat of a signature item for the firm.  He had an interest in late 19th century jewellery and the materials used in that era such as blackened silver and colourful semi precious gemstones. He used elements of the Victorian era and combined them with his own more modern style to create a new type of jewellery.  Examples of his work can be seen below. He liked the matt effect of the blackened silver due to the contrast it created and the manner in which it outlined the many small size diamonds and gemstones he used in the wings.  Small diamonds were used to create the lines of veins in the wings.


Above: JAR  - pair of diamond, sapphire, and amethyst butterfly brooches

Wallace Chan Butterfly Brooches

Wallace Chan started his gemstone workshop in 1974 at the age of 17, and went on to become one of the world’s master jewellers. His beautiful pieces are sought after by the leading stars of the day, auction houses, museums and galleries. He is renowned for his innovative designs and techniques inspired by nature and mythology.   The exquisite Wallace Chan brooch below has a central rose cut diamond, the body has oval and rose cut diamonds, and the wings are embellished with a mixture of  sapphires, tsavorite garnets and diamonds mounted in 18 karat white gold and titanium.


Dragonflies and Japenese Exports

Dragonflies have been admired by the Japanese for centuries, and throughout the world have been seem as symbols of courage, strength and wisdom. Japanese exports featuring dragonflies including silk kimonos, wood cuts and decorative object  were seen by many when they went on display at the 1862 International Exhibition in London, and the Paris 1867 Exposition Universelle.  When trade with Japan opened up in 1853 dragonfly jewellery started to come into fashion in the West. 

Dragonflies in Jewellery Design

Dragonflies were in abundance in jewellery designs of the 1890’s. Art nouveau jewellers who took inspiration from nature were particularly inspired by the graceful qualities of the dragonfly. The dragonfly was considered particularly beautiful and perfect for jewellery, due to its outstretched wings, long posterior and solid central body, allowing space for setting of precious stones. The veins and translucent quality of the wings were perfect for the plique-a-jour enamelling technique which allowed light to shine through the enamel, giving a stained glass like effect.

Above: Art nouveau diamond and plique a jour dragonfly brooch

Tiffany and Co Dragonfly Brooches.

Tiffany and Co. in New York  started depicting dragonflies in their tableware in 1878, and then some years later dragonflies were seen in Tiffany’s jewellery collection. They produced beautiful dragonflies which could be worn as dragonfly brooches or hair accessories. The brooch below is a beautiful sapphire, opal , emerald and diamond 18 karat gold broch with plique a jour enamel wings.


Above: Tiffany's sapphire, opal, emerald, and diamond 18 karat gold dragonfly brooch

Louis Comfort Tiffany (the son of the Tiffany and Co. founder) had been inspired by the Japanese art he encountered at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1899. In 1903 Louis became design director at Tiffany’s and several dragonflies were produced. In 1904 Julia Munson , a talented Tiffany’s designer created a beautiful series of dragonfly brooches. Black opal gems were set along the body emulating the iridescent effect of the dragonfly. Other gems used on the brooches were pink opals and green demantoid garnets. The wings were made in platinum and were beautifully detailed.

Rene Lalique Dragonfly Brooches.

The dragonfly was a favourite motif of Rene Lalique, the famous French art nouveau jeweller.   He produced some exquisite dragonfly brooches, and used dragonflies as centrepieces in bracelets, necklaces and pendants around the early part of the 20th century.   One of famous brooches created was his “dragonfly-woman” corsage ornament . It comprises a large gold and enamel dragonfly with articulated wings. The piece features very fine opaline enamel, together with moonstones, diamonds and enamel work. A woman’s bust with helmet decorated with two gold beetles emerges from the jaws of the insect. The hybrid nature of the brooch gives it a mix of beauty and horror.

Related Articles: Different Types of Brooch Styles

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