No two scarabs are alike. The uniqueness of beetle-inspired designs was true for both the amulets of Ancient Egypt and modern jewelry of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. From Napoleon’s Campaign to the discovery of the tombs of King Tutankhamun, the Egyptian Revival has been a significant stylistic influence in the Western decorative arts. Drawing from ancient Egyptian sources for inspiration, jewelry designers repeatedly used the scarab motif as a model. Depending on the designer’s fidelity to original amulets from Egypt, a variety of scarab jewelry was created in the modern era that echoed the contemporary social and artistic context in which it was created. Thus, scarab amulets were a significant source of inspiration for many of the stylistic movements which occurred in modern European jewelry.
The description of a black beetle rolling a ball of dung hardly suggests an inspiring image to be evoked for millennia. Yet scarabs were a powerful symbol of luck, fortune, and rebirth in Ancient Egyptian culture. The Egyptian perception of the beetle’s behavior was viewed as a parallel to the sun god Kheper’s daily shepherding of the sun across the sky.[i] Both the dung beetle and Kheper were believed to be self-created. While the beetle dug underground with his ball of dung and later resurfaced anew, so did the sun submerge beneath the earth and reappear every dawn. In fact, the Egyptian word for the dung beetle, wedja, is based on the root word “to become” thus further associating it with ideas of regeneration. [ii] Since the perceived life cycle of the beetle affirmed the Egyptians’ religious belief of rebirth and metamorphosis, the insect’s image became a popular motif for amulets
An amulet is an object that is worn as a charm and it is preventive for its apotropaic qualities. As evident by the thousands of amulets that survive from the Ancient Egyptian period, the scarab was one of the most popular forms with its qualities of luck in current life and protection in the afterlife. The most common depiction of the scarab was a stylization of settled wings and head. It was often a central part of a piece of jewelry such as a ring, bracelet, or pectoral; although the scarab functioned as decorative adornment, it maintained its basic amuletic character.[iii] Even in the ancient world, the scarab amulet became a popular object outside of Egypt especially within the Roman Empire. The scarab’s universal appeal can partly be explained by its successful aesthetic rendering of a common insect, but more importantly it is the scarab’s enigmatic quality that was so attractive to many a wearer of jewelry, especially among Westerners in the modern era.
The scarab motif regained its popularity in Europe starting with Napoleon’s Campaign into Egypt in 1798. One of the reasons the French traveled to the “land of the Pharohs” was in search of a new national identity. Searching for a national heritage other than the ancien regime, France had aligned its new empire with the glory of Ancient Egypt. Initially the Egyptian Revival style was adopted by the decorative arts through architecture rather than through jewelry, such as the Temple in the Place des Victoires in Paris (c.1800) or the Egyptian Hall in London (1815). However, there are a few examples of “Nile style” jewelry in the early half of the nineteenth century including pieces owned by Empress Josephine. Dominique Vivant Denon, an important cultural figure in France, acted as Empress Joesphine’s agent abroad and purchased for her “earrings mounted with eleven scarabs with pearls” and a “necklace with matching earrings of scarabs.” [iv] Unfortunately these pieces no longer exist, yet their inclusion in the inventories nevertheless conveys the excitement surrounding Napoleon’s Campaign. Yet during the Napoleonic years, the Egyptian Revival style competed with the enthusiasm for Roman and Greek antiquities. Even Empress Josephine’s interest in Ancient Egypt did not compare with her love of classicism. [v]
As the nineteenth century continued, France in particular became increasingly intrigued with the Egyptian past through the archaeological discoveries and consequent publications of these new findings. In the 1820’s Jean-Francois Champollion deciphered the hieroglyphs using the Rosetta Stone. During the 1860s, August Mariette, the French director of the newly established Cairo Museum, traveled with an exhibition around Europe of the recently rediscovered Aahhotep treasure, which was on display in Paris at the 1867 Exhibition. Since it was a French emperor who “discovered” Egypt, a French scholar who deciphered the hieroglyphs, and a French archaeologist who excavated Queen Aahhotep tomb, it is understandable that France had a special affinity for all things Egyptian. This fondness for Ancient Egypt became more apparent in jewelry, in which designers had new and more accurate sources for design inspiration such as La Description de L’Egypte (1808-1828) and a facsimilie volume of the Aahhotep jewels (1863).[vi]
Although France was especially enamored with Egyptian culture due to national pride, England was another nation that was fascinated by all the new archaeological discoveries. In 1854, Owen Jones exhibited the Egyptian Court in the Crystal Palace with great success, and the Eygptian fad even captured the imagination of the Prince of Wales who, almost ten year later, toured Egypt for five-months. In fact, the Prince was so inspired by his exotic travels that he commissioned Robert Phillips to create a parure of scarab jewelry as a wedding gift for Princess Alexandra of Denmark in 1863. Phillips modeled his modern version of scarab jewelry on an ancient Egyptian necklace owned by Sir Henry Scott, which was discovered at Thebes. [vii] Unfortunately, like the scarab jewelry owned by Empress Josephine, Princess Alexandra’s scarab parure no longer exists. However, one example of an Egyptian inspired piece of jewelry from the mid-nineteenth century is the Pivoting Scarab Ring. The maker of the Pivoting Scarab Ring attempted to make as close to an exact replica of an ancient original as was possible. The use of gold and even the coiling technique flanking the central scarab emulates Egyptian originals that were being collected by antiquarians and on display at public exhibitions.
The formal opening for the building of the Suez Canal by Empress Eugenie in 1869 was another significant event that stimulated the Egyptian Revival style by keeping it present in the public mind. The Castellani firm, an Italian jewelry company that specialized in Archaeological Revival pieces, took advantage of the current Egyptian trend by creating several parures that incorporated ancient scarab amulets into the design. The Scarab Brooch was most likely once part of a parure and demonstrates the Castellani attention to archaeological sources. In fact, the central scarab is an ancient original which can be dated to 1650 B.C. with the inscription on the flat side “Chancellor for the king treasurer.” [viii] The brooch also has the firm’s mark of two C’s and thus provokes one to consider the changing nature of dedications on jewelry from personal inscription to commercial mark.
When compared to an ancient example, like the Winged Scarab Amulet, the Castellani Scarab Brooch clearly emulates the form of funerary amulets. Winged scarab amulets were often attached to the mummy usually as part of a pectoral.[ix] Although the overall form of the brooch is similar to ancient examples, the techniques applied to create the piece are not. In particular, the polychrome decoration on the wings, evocative of colorful Egyptian inlay, is made up of micromosaics. Micromosaics were developed by the Castellani firm as an evocation of ancient Roman/Byzantine mosaics. Although the Scarab Brooch may be in the appearance of Ancient Egyptian style, even incorporating an actual steatite amulet, the techniques used to create the piece are more closely aligned with Ancient Roman manufacture.
Similar to how the Archaeological Revival style adapted scarab amulets into its aesthetic for ancient objects, Art Nouveau was another artistic movement that utilized the scarab as a nature motif. René Lalique was a celebrated jeweler who was known for his innovative designs that combined symbolism and the natural world. Lalique was also very interested in Egyptian antiquities, and he himself wore a scarab ring everyday of his life. [x] Thus, the image of scarab well-suited Lalique’s artistic principles and personal taste as exemplified by the Scarab Pendant. In contrast to the Pivoting Scarab Ring, Lalique’s Scarab Pendant did not replicate an ancient model nor did he incorporate an ancient amulet like the Castelanni Scarab Brooch. Rather, Lalique used the concept of the scarab ring as a launching point for personal interpretation. In the Scarab Pendant, the traditional scarab ring is transformed into the focal point of a necklace. Along with the use of green enamel and jasper, referencing the Egyptians’ use of green as a symbol of renewal, Lalique also added sinuous lotus blossoms to hang above the scarab; thus he fused several Egyptian motifs into one Art Nouveau pendant. Lalique also played with the conventional form of the scarab ring by engraving the back of the scarab with non-Egyptian iconography: a lion devouring an ibex.[xi] Like the Castellani signature on the brooch, Lalique also signed the pendant along the gold frame; once again the ancient tradition of including the name of the wearer is replaced by the name of the jewelry designer. Instead of mimicking hieroglyphs or ancient techniques, Lalique freely chose aspects of the ancient scarabs that appealed to him and then reinvented these traits to fit into the contemporary taste for the Art Nouveau style.
With the Art Deco style beginning to gain momentum in the early twentieth century, the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tombs in 1922 firmly established Egyptomania as a major source of artistic inspiration for jewelry designers. Royal funerary jewels were among the many objects found in the Tutankhamun archaeological site including a large armlet with a large naturalistic scarab made of lapis lazuli. Art Deco’s emphasis on geometry, stylization, and bold colors was in visual harmony with the Ancient Egyptian arts. From movie theaters to “King Tut Lemons,” the Egyptian Revival was at its height during the 1920s, pervading almost all aspects of popular culture in central Europe and the United States.[xii] Louis Cartier was also caught up in “Egyptian fever” partly because he saw a business opportunity for his family’s jewelry firm. Louis Cartier purchased Egyptian antiquities from Parisian dealers and several books about the art of Ancient Egypt, allowing these items to be sources for Cartier’s Egyptianizing designs. [xiii]
The result of Louis Cartier’s gathering of Egyptian sources was a series of jewelry pieces that were directly inspired by the world of the Pharaohs such as the Scarab Buckle/Brooch (see above). While lapis lazuli was highly valuable to the ancient Egyptians, diamonds and emeralds were the expensive materials of the modern era. Thus, the Scarab Buckle/Brooch is made up of these gems as well as black-enameled gold for the border, smoky quartz for the body, and original “Egyptian faience” for the blue wings.[xiv] The Scarab Buckle/Brooch is similar to the Castellani Scarab Brooch in its use of the winged scarab form and also the recycling of ancient materials like the blue faience for the bejeweled wings. Also like the Castellani example, the Cartier buckle/brooch uses a more modern technique to evoke Egyptian inlay as demonstrated by the pavé diamond setting across the wings. Able to be worn as either as a buckle or a brooch, the Scarab Buckle/Brooch was applicable to modern fashion; the buckle function parallels the wearing of amulets on a woman’s girdle in Egyptian times although this comparison was unlikely intended by the Cartier firm. Like Lalique, Cartier was not restrained by historical accuracy in his emulation of scarab amulets and chose to be innovative in his Art Deco version. For instance, the strategic setting of cabochon emeralds indicates Cartier’s awareness of the proliferated holes often found on ancient amulets but instead filled the void space with a gem that elevated the piece’s monetary value.
The original significance of the beetle amulet was transformed with the evolution of the scarab motif in Western jewelry. While the beetle may have been a symbol of the afterlife in Ancient Egypt, the scarab continued to signify a faraway place in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries but in a more imaginative way of a culture long ago. Indeed scarab amulets continued to hold sway in the Egyptian owner’s afterlife by inspiring later generations from a different part of the world to emulate the ancient aesthetic. Similar to the former belief that the dung beetle was constantly regenerating, the image of the scarab continued to be renewed in European jewelry with each stylistic trend. Empress Josephine, Princess Alexandra of Denmark, the Castellani firm, Lalique, and Louis Cartier have at least one thing in common: they all wished to adorn like an Egyptian through scarab jewelry.
© Courtney Ahlstrom Christy 2014-2018
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[i] Michaelyn Mitchell, ed., Objects of Adornment: Five Thousand Years of Jewelry from the Walter Arts Gallery, Baltimore (New York: American Federation of Arts, 1984), 35.
[ii] Philippe Germon, The Symbolic World of Egyptian Amulets: From the Jacques-Edourad Berger Collection, trans.by Sasha Trone (Milan: 5 Continents Editions, 2005), 32.
[iii] William A. Ward, “Beetles in Stone: The Egyptian Scarab,” The Biblical Archaeologist 57 (1994): 189.
[iv] Eleanor DeLorme, ed., Joséphine and the Arts of the Empire (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2005),177.
[vi] Charlotte Gereand Judy Rudoe, Jewellry in the Age of Queen Victoria: A Mirror to the World (London: The British Museum Press, 2010), 380.
[viii] Jean-Michel Humbert, Michael Pantazzi, and Christine Zeigler, Egyptomania: Egypt in Western Art, 1730-1930 (Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1994), 360.
[ix] Judy Rudoe, Cartier 1900-1939 (New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc. and Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997), 146.
[x] Ibid., 483.
[xi] Jean-Michel Humbert, Michael Pantazzi, and Christine Zeigler, Egyptomania: Egypt in Western Art, 1730-1930 (Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1994), 483.
[xii] Ibid., 509.
[xiii] Judy Rudoe, Cartier 1900-1939 (New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc. and Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997), 135 – 137.