Butterflies and moth belong to the order Lepidoptera. Lepidos is Greek for "scales" and ptera means "wing". These scaled wings are different from the wings of any other insects. Lepidoptera is a very large group; there are more types of butterflies and moths than there are of any other type of insects except beetles. It is estimated that there are about 150,000 different species of butterflies and moths.
Butterflies have appeared in art from 3500 years ago in Ancient Egypt. In the ancient Mesoamerican city of Teotihuacan, the brilliantly colored image of the butterfly was carved into many temples, buildings, jewelry, and emblazoned on incense burners. The butterfly was sometimes depicted with the maw of a jaguar, and some species were considered to be the reincarnations of the souls of dead warriors. The close association of butterflies with fire and warfare persisted into the Aztec civilisation; evidence of similar jaguar-butterfly images has been found among the Zapotec and Maya civilisations.
French Diderot's Encyclopédie cites butterflies as a symbol for the soul. A Roman sculpture depicts a butterfly exiting the mouth of a dead man, representing the Roman belief that the soul leaves through the mouth. In line with this, the ancient Greek word for "butterfly" is (psȳchē), which primarily means "soul" or "mind".
In some cultures, butterflies symbolize rebirth. The butterfly is a symbol of being transgender, because of the transformation from caterpillar to winged adult.
In the English county of Devon, people once hurried to kill the first butterfly of the year, to avoid a year of bad luck.
In the Philippines, a lingering black butterfly or moth in the house is taken to mean a death in the family. Several American states have chosen an official state butterfly.
A butterfly was seen in Japan as the personification of a person's soul; whether they be living, dying, or already dead. One Japanese superstition says that if a butterfly enters your guestroom and perches behind the bamboo screen, the person whom you most love is coming to see you. Large numbers of butterflies are viewed as bad omens. When Taira no Masakado was secretly preparing for his famous revolt, there appeared in Kyoto so vast a swarm of butterflies that the people were frightened — thinking the apparition to be a portent of coming evil.
It is no wonder that butterflies are widely used in objects of art and jewelry: mounted in frames, embedded in resin, displayed in bottles, laminated in paper, and used in some mixed media artworks and furnishings. They are strongly embedded in popular culture, spiritual and religious heritages worldwide.
Perhaps one of the more literal interpretations of butterflies could be found in the works of Chinese designer Wallace Chan. Here, Mr. Chan inserts real Butterfly wings into his designs to convey the natural beauty of Butterfly wings. Clasped in between two slices of rock crystal, the wings are mounted on a titanium structure creating the architecture for the body of the insect. A very intriguing realistic rendering which has made headlines in the past jewelry auctions of Christie’s worldwide.
These wings, which appeal so much to the eye, inspired Van Cleef and Arpels to collaborate in 2004 with Japanese master Mr. Junichi Hakose - a talented Japanese artisan located in Wajima, where his workshop belongs to the craft industry which masters the techniques of lacquer.
The skill and attention to detail on display are highly impressive. Each lacquered piece is individually handcrafted, making them unique works of art celebrating the beauty of butterfly wings.
With the same focus on the element of wings, Joel Arthur Rosenthal explored unusual materials to convey the velvety shimmer and texture of butterfly wings. In his latest exhibition in 2014 at the Metropolitan Museum of New York, an entire wall was dedicated to Butterfly brooches. A striking pair of aluminum electric blue wings fluttered at the public, placed strategically in center position, slightly above eye level, and aiming straight through the center hall of the exhibition. Mr. Rosenthal created once again a striking piece of beauty, majestic in proportions, with a calm yet powerful presence.
Historically, Butterflies have been used to convey the idea of death, or more spiritually the cycle of existence, through birth, life and then death, and after death. Like their memento mori counterparts the skulls, butterflies can be used as a means to express this idea that we can live gracefully amidst our inevitable end. In her signature “Black Lace” collection, Hong Kong designer Michelle Ong for the house of Carnet explored the visual possibilities of oxidized blackened Gold and diamonds to design skeletal butterflies of the night, their wings trembling in monachal silence.
Butterflies have inspired the idea of transformation and rebirth throughout history. One of the recent tributes is the Graff Butterfly, which translates the values of the London based house, founded in 1960.
Mr. Laurence Graff started from humble beginnings in the London Hatton District as an apprentice, to become over the decades a successful billionaire entrepreneur. The Butterfly symbolizes the idea of transformation, inviting everyone to be successful.
Butterflies are a classical inspiration for jewelry designers and should be respected as a reference theme for any collector. Whether they be translated into representations of death, similar to the memento mori skulls, or poetic interpretations of feminine fragility, or even used as the canvas for intricate miniature paintings.
- "Planche de papillons", l'Encyclopédie de Diderot et d'Alembert
- Butterfly brooch, Real butterfly wings pressed in between rock crystal slabs, Wallace Chan
- "Lacquered Butterflies" pair of brooches, Van Cleef & Arpels
- "Butterfly", Aluminium and Diamonds, Joel Arthur Rosenthal (JAR)
- "Black Lace" Butterfly brooch, blackened Gold and diamonds "en trembleuse", Carnet by Michelle Ong
- "Graff Butterfly", emerald and diamond earrings, GRAFF Diamonds