Diamond brooch in the shape of a flying butterfly. Each wing is set with a pearl, ruby and emerald.
jewellery history, romance, symbolism

B is for Butterfly: Understanding symbolism in jewellery

Delicate butterflies, colourful and fragile, fly onto brooches, pins, necklaces and bracelets. The butterfly in art and literature is a symbol of love, death and the resurrection of the soul. In the Greek myth of Pysche and Eros, the beautiful Psyche is often shown with butterfly wings, representing the metamorphosis of the soul after death. Just as the butterfly emerges gloriously from the chrysalis, so does the soul triumph over death. Understanding symbolism in jewellery and the many layered meanings of the butterfly motif lets us understand their historic and continuing appeal.

Diamond set butterfly shown facing to the left. Wings are set with, from the left, a ruby, pearl and emerald. The body is made of gold with a ruby eye . The curled proboscis is set with two diamonds.
Diamond butterfly brooch by Marcus and Co. USA, about 1890. Victoria and Albert Museum

The fragility of life

The short lived butterfly symbolises the fragile nature of life. In Thomas Gainsborough’s tender painting of his two daughters chasing a butterfly, the butterfly is a reflection of the fleeting lives of children. Gainsborough had lost his eldest daughter in infancy and must have been very aware of the risks facing children.

Oil painting showing two young girls holding hands. The girl on the right wears a yellow full length dress and holds her apron over her shoulder. The younger girl on the left wears a silvery white dress and apron. She is reaching her arm to catch a small white butterfly. The girls are painted against a background of dark green trees and a cloudy sky.
Thomas Gainsborough The Painter’s Daughters chasing a Butterfly probably about 1756 Oil on canvas, 113.5 x 105 cm Henry Vaughan Bequest, 1900 NG1811 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG1811
Circular gold pendant locket. The outer rim of the locket is shaped like a snake biting its own tail. The central section is set under a glass cover. It is made up of a outer inscription in gold letters on a white back ground which reads 'La rose fletrie, le papillon s'envole' and ' I snapped it, it fell to the ground.' The image inside the text is made up of a panel of plaited light brown hair. Over the hair an enamelled red rose with a gold stem and green leaves is set. The rose has been snapped and droops to the ground.
Locket pendant, ca. 1800. Victoria and Albert Museum.

This gold locket symbolises the transience of love, whether in life or death. It’s set with a panel of plaited hair underneath a drooping rose. The inscription around the edge makes the meaning crystal clear: the flower fades, the butterfly flies away. The poem, which continues around the back reads:

I snapped it, it fell to the ground. And such I exclaim’d is the pitiless part, some art by the delicate Mind, Regardless of Wringing and Breaking a Heart, already to sorrow resigned 

Adonis of love, faithless butterfly

In Mozart’s opera, The marriage of Figaro, the faithless lover is compared to a butterfly, flitting around and never settling.

You shall go no more, lustful butterfly,
Day and night flitting to and fro;
Disturbing ladies in their sleep
Little Narcissus, Adonis of love.

Oval jasperware panel with a mid blue background. The figures of two winged and naked cupids  standing on a cloud are formed from a white material raised from the background. The cupids stand on either side of a square plinth on which a small fire is burning. The cupid on the left holds a butterfly above the flames.

A small jasperware plaque by Josiah Wedgwood, perhaps intended to be set into a brooch, shows the pains of love. Two cupids stand over a flaming altar, singeing the wings of the butterfly, just as love can burn the heart of the lover.

Plaque, about 1780 -1800. Josiah Wedgwood’s factory, Victoria and Albert Museum.

Oval ring with an outer border of small diamonds. The bezel is set with a painted enamel of Psyche against a dawn sky. She is standing, facing to the right. She is naked apart from green drapery around her hips. In her hands she holds a small oil lamp. Translucent butterfly wings are attached to her shoulders.

The butterfly is the symbol of Psyche, the ill-fated lover of Eros/ Cupid. Psyche, shown here with butterfly wings in an enamelled ring by Charles Lepec, was married to the god of love but forbidden to see his face. Tempted by overwhelming curiosity, she lit an oil lamp and when discovered was punished. After her death, Psyche’s soul floated free, just as a butterfly rises from its chrysalis.

Detail from marble statue of Psyche by Ludwig van Hofer. It shows the head and naked torso of Psyche, sculpted in white marble. She is turning her head to look over her shoulder to the right, her hair is arranged in a chignon on the back of her head. Small wings sprout from her shoulders.
Psyche, Ludwig van Hofer, 1835. Wurttemberg Landesmuseum, Stuttgart.

Naturalism in jewellery

Jewellery set with butterflies was inspired by an interest in natural history which can also be seen in the botanical prints which were popular around the same time.

Watercolour painting on a cream background showing a group of nine assorted butterflies arranged diagonally across the image.

Butterflies and moths were appealing because of the beauty and colour of their wings. Butterfly hunters caught them in vast numbers and pinned them to boards to form exhaustive collections. They also appeared in pretty, naturalistic 19th century jewellery.

Watercolour by Alexander Dyce, mid 19th century. Victoria and Albert Museum

The fleeting butterfly is the perfect choice for a pretty mid 19th century Swiss watch. The front of the watch is enamelled with blue flowers and the back is a carefully observed study of butterfly or moth wings, gorgeously rendered in coloured enamels.

Watch with gold suspension chains. Shaped like a butterfly seen from the front with wings enamelled in royal blue. A floral design in gold reserved against the background decorates the wings. The centre of the jewel is set with a circular watch face with hour and minute markings.
Enamelled watch, Switzerland, about 1840-50. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The reverse of the watch is enamelled in naturalistic patterns of blue, pink and black to replicate the scales on a butterfly or moth. The outer edges of the wings are plain gold. The head of the butterfly is set with two proboscis, perhaps used to wind the watch.
Back view of watch.
Set of eight mosaic panels on a white ground. Each panel is decorated with a colourful butterfly, seen frontally. The panels are joined with a triple row of fine gold chains to form a necklace. The necklace is formed of seven of the mosaic elements arranged in a circle. The eighth mosaic, set with a green and yellow butterfly hangs at a lower level from the centre to form a pendant.

This necklace was made in 1810, around the time of the Regency in England and the First Empire in France under Napoleon Bonaparte. It is set with small panels made up of coloured hardstones in the shape of butterflies and moths. The panels were probably made in Italy as souvenirs for tourists and made up in Paris as a necklace.

Necklace with butterflies, around 1810. Victoria and Albert Museum.

The fashionable butterfly

‘Butterflies being the order of the day in our new fashions, this dainty winged tribe was well represented … a flight of diamond butterflies nestled in every fold of the skirt and corsage, a huge moth in emeralds and brilliants hovering above the soft snowy curls of the Louis XVI coiffure’.

Vogue, May 2 1895

In the 19th century, butterflies flew into all areas of fashion. Growing European expansion into South America, Asia and Africa led to the appreciation of increasing numbers of beautifully coloured butterflies. Butterflies were made into colourful jewellery, using enamels, gemstones and hardstones but also made into monochrome jewels, whether diamond or delicately cut steel or cast iron.

Pair of delicate black cast iron earrings. The top part is formed of a floral rosette from which hang a double scroll and a further openwork rosette. The central part of each earring is made up of a openwork butterfly shown frontally. Three oval pendants hang from the butterfly wings and body.
Cast iron earrings, Siméon Pierre Deveranne. Berlin, ca. 1815. Victoria and Albert Museum
Diamond butterfly shown frontally. Four wings set with massed small diamonds. The body is made up of three larger rose-cut diamonds with two curled proboscis.
Diamond hairpin, mid 19th century. Victoria and Albert Museum

Art Nouveau butterflies

Butterflies and moths also appear in Japanese art, newly discovered in the Western world after the re-opening of the country to foreigners in the later 19th century. Japonisme swept the fashionable world through woodprints, ceramics and lacquered objects. In Chinese literature, the butterfly appears in Zhang Zhou’s dream.

Once, Zhuang Zhou dreamed he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering about, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know that he was Zhuang Zhou. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuang Zhou. But he didn’t know if he was Zhuang Zhou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that he was Zhuang Zhou.

Zhang Zhou Dreams of Being a Butterfly, ca. 300BC

The butterfly symbolises human consciousness and our connection with nature.

Inro depicting dragonflies and butterflies in gold, red and silver takamakie lacquer on a black ground. Formed as a  cylinder wtih rounded ends and dividing into three sections. The sections are joined by a yellow plaited cord with a bead at the top and a carved counterweight.

A little container or inro is sprinkled with a mass of butterflies and dragonflies in gold on a black background. These objects were a potent source of inspiration to the designers and jewellers of the Art Nouveau movement.

Japan, ca. 1870. Victoria and Albert Museum.

Rectangular brooch formed of a central gold figure of a naked woman with head thrown back and legs terminating in a forked fishtail Her arms have been transformed into large wings set with open backed enamel mimicking butterfly wings, in blue, green, black and white.

The idea of transformation is central to the image of the butterfly. Just as the butterfly changes from a caterpillar to a butterfly, Art Nouveau jewellers transformed women into dragonflies and butterflies. In a jewel made by Rene Lalique, the golden body of a woman is morphed into brightly enamelled and gemset butterfly wings.

Butterfly brooch Sylphide c.1900

Enamelled gold pendant in the form of a dragonfly or butterfly with a chain, set with diamonds and hessonite garnet.

An enamelled and diamond necklace by Lucien Gaillard is set with a pendant of a butterfly or dragonfly. The wings are patterned with coloured enamels, set with small groups of sparkling diamonds.

Necklace by Lucien Gaillard, Paris, ca. 1900. Victoria and Albert Museum.

Art Nouveau butterflies fitted into a fashion for nature inspired jewellery. Jewels in the form of spiders, dragonflies, beetles and grasshoppers were fashionable in precious metal and costume jewellery.

The modern butterfly jewel

Butterflies appeal to contemporary jewellers just as much as to their predecessors. A tsavorite and diamond ring made by jeweller Glenn Spiro for the singer Beyoncé, is cleverly articulated. A mechanism incoporated into the band allows the butterfly’s wings to flutter.

Ring in the form of a butterfly. A pair of blue titanium wings, each in two sections, set with tsavorites and diamonds. The wings are joined by a hinge underneath the insect's diamond-set, white gold body. The band is an intricate, curving, hinged structure of white gold set with diamonds, which enables the wings to move as the wearer's finger bends.
‘Papillon’ ring, Glenn Spiro, 2014. Victoria and Albert Museum

British jeweller Fred Rich uses the vast variety of moth species for his elegant jacket pins. And, Chinese sculptor and jeweller Wallace Chan has made the butterfly one of his principal motifs.

Fashion plate printed in pastel colours. It shows a scene in a garden with two women wearing summer dresses seated under a tree. A third woman, wearing a pink mid calf dress and with shingled hair reaches up to catch a yellow butterfly. She stands on one leg like a dancer.

Just as the butterfly flitters and dances above the butterfly hunter, butterfly jewels have continued to be popular. The image of the light, free butterfly appeals to the modern jewellery wearer, as it has for hundreds of years.

Understanding the symbolism of jewellery allows us to appreciate jewels in a new way and to know what meanings they held for their makers and wearers.

‘Papillons’, George Barbier, 1922. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Further reading

Understanding symbolism in jewellery: A is for Anchor, M is for Moon, or S is for Skull.

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