titles and are from unknown recipients. That's how I almost lost a
great message with the heading: Invasive Species Tiara. This was
definitely odd, and I didn't know the sender, but something made me
not hit the "delete" button, and I'm very glad I
didn't. The message was from Jan Yager, the creator of Invasive
Species: An American Mourning Tiara--a real piece of jewelry crafted of
gold and silver ( object
stories/tiara/index.html). I had mentioned this work in a presentation I
gave at a conference. Jan read about it on the Web
sva/media/1403/large/Proceedings2005.pdf) and contacted me--one of the
advantages of electronic communication, enough to balance out the
annoyance of junk email.
I cited Yager's Tiara as an example of the relationship I see
between jewelry and biology. Wearing ornaments representing plants and
animals strikes me as a manifestation of biophilia. The biologist Edward
O. Wilson (1984) defines biophilia as an innate human urge to have
contact with other species. Wilson describes it in relation to a need to
spend time in natural environments, surrounded by animals and plants. We
also attempt to satisfy our biophilic desire by surrounding ourselves
with plants, pets, and representations of plants and animals. In an
earlier ABT article, I described the depth and breadth of this penchant
in terms of TV shows and art works (Flannery, 2001). I've also
written about the relationship between biophilia and interior decoration
(Flannery, 2005). However, such representations are found not only in
our homes but on our persons, in the form of jewelry. Since biophilia
seems to be a genetically influenced trait, it's not surprising
that personal adornments with representations of plants and animals are
found in cultures throughout the world. This is true both now and in the
past. I want to lay out evidence for this claim here and also present
the argument that making students aware of biophilia and its
manifestations is a way to heighten their sensitivity to environmental
issues and to illustrate how biology relates to other parts of our
Jewelry of the Past
I'll begin with some examples of ancient jewelry from a number
of different cultures to illustrate both the long history of nature
representations in body ornaments and also the geographical breadth of
this custom. I'm presenting this survey because one of the lines of
evidence used by Wilson and others to support the idea of a genetic
basis for human behaviors is to claim their ubiquity. A Minoan goat
pendant from 1500 BC, an ancient Egyptian necklace with hawks, and a
Roman clasp with an eagle and its prey all illustrate my point. Every
continent yields ornaments: a Chinese bat pendant, an Aztec serpent
brooch, a Baule bird pendant from the Ivory Coast, and earrings with
enameled birds from medieval Ukraine. This list could go on and on, but
even these few examples make the point that jewelry in the form of
organisms, particularly animals, is ubiquitous among human cultures over
time and space.
I'm going to now zero in on Western culture because this is
where we live, geographically, culturally, and for the most part,
mentally and emotionally. Here the tradition of animal and plant images
in personal adornment is particularly strong. I want to begin by
mentioning not an example of jewelry directly, but rather, a page from a
Renaissance book of hours. It has images of jewelry in its border,
including a flower pendant. Many of the other pendants pictured have
religious significance. This page shows the movement toward looking at
nature to find God, that is, the development of a natural theology. This
was to become a particularly strong thread in Britain in the 19th
century and was important to the expansion of evidence for evolution. In
addition, as a number of historians have noted, religious thought was
important to the growth of modern science in the late Middle Ages, the
Renaissance, and beyond (White, 1979).
The flower pendant was placed on this manuscript page as a
religious symbol. Flowers symbolize purity and beauty, and obviously
here, the beauty of the flower mirrors the beauty of the young virgin
pictured on the same page. The use of plant and animal images in jewelry
is often symbolic. For example, an American eagle pin can signify
patriotism. It could well be argued that the use of organic images in
jewelry is more culturally than biologically based, that these images
are important because of what they signify in terms of religious,
ethnic, or political beliefs. It would be hard to claim the biophilic
importance of an American eagle pin for the Fourth of July or of
shamrocks on the lapel for St. Patrick's Day.
But I don't think the use of organisms as symbols is evidence
against the significance of biophilia. The very fact that animals and
plants are so frequently used as symbols argues for, rather than
against, the importance of biophilia. When trying to express deeply-felt
beliefs and aspirations, humans have time and again gone to the living
world for symbols. It may be more than coincidence that we use other
species and their likenesses in so many different ways and to symbolize
so many different things. That we seem especially comfortable creating
symbols based on organisms perhaps indicates that when we look to find
ways to express ideas and beliefs, we turn to what is most familiar to
us. to what we feel most attached to, namely other forms of life.
Another example from the 16th century is a swan pendant, a
combination of natural and human-made materials. An oddly shaped pearl
forms the swan's body, while the rest of the animal is composed of
enamelwork and jewels. The ecologist Evelyn Hutchinson (1965) notes that
such ornaments, many of them created in the 16th and 17th centuries, are
examples of the melding of art and science, of decoration and natural
history. For him, they represent the time before a divide formed between
art and science, before there were art museums and science museums. This
was back when there were cabinets of curiosities which housed objects
from both realms, and in the case of such jewelry, objects that combine
the two realms.
This sense of connection between ornament and nature. between art
and science, during the Renaissance has been viewed in a slightly
different way by Pamela Smith (2003). She argues that craftsmen such as
goldsmiths and ceramicists contributed to the development of modern
science by creating realistic representations of plants and animals. To
achieve lifelike images of small animals such as salamanders, goldsmiths
went so far as to take live animals, slow them down by submerging them
in urine or vinegar, and then encase them in plaster to make a lifelike
mold. A similar process was used with plant material. This technique was
then taken up by ceramists like Bernard Palissy who was known for his
platters decorated with snakes, frogs, and leaves (Amico, 1996). Smith
argues that in pushing for naturalism, artisans had to combine expertise
in their craft with close observation of nature, including handling
specimens and making careful notes on them. She sees a dose link here
between "knowing" and "doing," between naturalistic
representation and the emergence of a new visual culture that stressed
eyewitness and firsthand experience. These then influenced the
development of modern science with its emphasis on direct observation.
So it can be argued that the link between jewelry and biology goes
beyond subject matter to the essence of scientific inquiry itself.
Art Nouveau and Beyond
In an effort not to belabor my point with too long a list of
examples, I'll jump from the 16th century to the 19th. The end of
the 19th century and the early 20th century saw the height of the Art
Nouveau movement which brought with it a great deal of beautiful jewelry
rich in images of organisms (Moonan, 1999). A Lalique peacock brooch is
a wonderful representation blending realism and stylization. The
bird's body is quite naturalistic while the tail feathers have been
beautifully contorted and simplified. This interplay of the simple with
the realistic is a feature of many designs from nature, and there were
entire books written on this subject at the end of the 19th century.
Lumen Gillard's thistle locket is another example of this
interplay, while Philippe Wolfers's orchid hair ornament is more
realistic (Moonan, 2000). At least it's as realistic as it can be,
considering it is a gold flower encrusted with diamonds and rubies.
The design of such jewelry is an interesting problem in the use of
appropriate materials. There seems something foreign about employing the
hardest of minerals to represent the most delicate of flowers. On the
other hand, it seems appropriate to use precious stones to create a
model of such a precious flower. In a brooch by Paulding Farnham,
another turn-of-the-20th-century designer, the product of one living
thing is used to represent another: a chrysanthemum made of pearls, with
the delicacy of the pearls as a wonderful signifier of the delicacy of
Now I want to move on to mid-century and mention two extravagant
pieces indicative of the times. One is a fanciful bird brooch by Jean
Schlumberger and the other is a very stylized nautilus shell brooch by
Martin Katz. These, like most of the pieces from the Art Nouveau period
I've mentioned, are brooches. This is in part a result of
selection, but it is also because the preponderance of organic forms in
jewelry are in pins. Brooches sit on the shoulder and so are dearly
visible, and since this part of a garment is usually rather plain, they
add a great deal of flair. Also, they can be big enough so the organism
is identifiable: It would be hard to put an orchid on a ring. The
flamboyance of these pieces is indicative of the flamboyance of the
post-war era, when at least in some circles money was abundant and there
were reasons to celebrate it. While I've concentrated on expensive
jewelry, the same kinds of designs filtered down to the costume jewelry
market, as jewelry stalls in flea markets well indicate today. This was
particularly the case in the years after the Great Crash of 1929 when
the formerly rich tried to continue to look that way by wearing
elaborate pieces of costume jewelry. As Gabriella Mariotti (1996) points
out, many of the most successful of these fakes were representations of
flowers, from glass pansies to enamel tulips studded with rhinestones.
At the present time, there is still much use of organisms in
jewelry. One of the fads today is for fabric flower brooches, and again,
they range from the stylized, as in a polka dot generic flower, to silk
flowers that are hard to tell from the real thing. There is also the
same interplay of the simple and the realistic in more traditional
pieces. A necklace by the New Zealand artist Ruth Baird is composed of
metallic representations of leaves of the native plant, pohutukawa--with
the separation of the leaf from its plant tending to stylize it. On the
other hand, the work of David Freda is very realistic, and truly amazing
(Gans, 2003). His Northern Black Rat Snake necklace would not be the
first thing I would hang around my neck, but it is a fascinating piece.
His Pink Lady Slipper Orchid brooch is spectacular, though again
slightly sinister or at least odd, and the same can be said for his
Tomato Hornworm Caterpillar brooch.
These pieces are reminders that rather disgusting creatures show up
quite regularly in jewelry: the slimy and/or dangerous transformed into
the luxurious. This again may relate to biophilia. In Wilson's book
on the subject, there is a chapter on snakes. There he writes of
evidence for what appears to be an inborn fear of snakes which has
paired with a fascination for these creatures. Both fear and fascination
are forms of a heightened interest in snakes that would have had an
adaptive advantage, helping humans to avoid being bitten by venomous snakes. Perhaps it is this fascination that is at the core of the
attraction to rather repellent creatures as body decoration. We may
somehow find it interesting to take the disgusting and transform it into
the beautiful: it may also be comforting to freeze these uncontrollable
creatures in solid metal and jewels.
While David Freda's work is very realistic, John Paul
Miller's work is more stylized. A Freda piece quickly glanced at
may appear to be a living organism; no such mistake would be made with
Miller's jewelry. Here precious metal is relatively unmasked with
enamel: the gold gleams through. Miller specializes in
invertebrates--from octopi to dung beetles and snails (Krupema, 2002):
Again, these animals would not necessarily be on anyone's list of
favorite pets, but his work is just plain beautiful, with the added
attraction of being biologically fascinating. I'll confine myself
to mentioning three representative pieces. All are pendants and all are
stunning: an octopus, a butterfly, and a snail. Many would find the
butterfly beautiful in real life, so the transformation here is not as
radical as for the octopus and the snail. The latter has an enameled
shell and the octopus has tiny beads of gold for its tentacles. Still
another wonderful jeweler is Vina Rust who gets her inspiration from
botanical illustrations and photomicrographs (
pacinilubel.com/exhibits/2006.06_01.html) She has created a ring that
resembles a cross-section through a stamen. She also has a Stained Cell
series of silver pieces with gold inlays. These are enough to make a
biologist become a jewelry fanatic.
Obviously, Jan Yager's jewelry fits under the topic of
contemporary jewelry. After we exchanged emails, Jan sent me a packet of
information about her art. That's how I learned that she has a
significant body of work depicting plants. But like the Invasive Species
Tiara, her pieces focus on species that might not be considered worthy
of depiction in gold and silver. She has done a beautiful dandelion brooch, with leaves of silver radiating from a center stone, that turns
out to be a bit of auto safety glass Jan picked up from the street near
her studio. That's where she gets many of the ideas--and
materials--for her work. Several years ago, she made a conscious
decision to become more aware of her environment. From the streets and
sidewalks around her studio, she collected crack vials, cigarette butts,
and spent bullet casings which she included in necklaces along with gold
and silver. The necklace designs were based on American Indian jewelry
as a tribute to the Lenni Lenape Indians who once lived in the area of
Philadelphia where Yager has her studio (Rosolowski, 2001).
Yager also collected plants that grew in sidewalk cracks and empty
lots; that's how she came to create the dandelion brooch. In
addition, she has a gold and silver dandelion leaf with tire tread
marks--it's wonderful--as are a chicory necklace and a purslane brooch. Originally, she had thought of the necklaces with their
drug-related elements and the plant jewelry as very different kinds of
pieces. Then she realized that they all involve plants, since cigarette
butts contain dried tobacco leaves and crack vials are receptacles for
cocaine derived from coca leaves. So she paired both types of jewelry in
an exhibit called City Flora/City Flotsam that was shown at both the
Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Museum of Fine Arts in
Boston. In all these works Yager is asking us to look more closely, to
not dismiss debris and weeds; they too have beautiful elements and push
the question of what we deem beautiful. How much of beauty is culturally
defined? This is a question that can be asked of how we value plants
since "weed" is not a biological category, it is a value
judgment we make about plants.
Yager's attention to detail is extraordinary, making her
pieces very naturalistic--even though they are created in the most
abiotic of media. She even has acquired a microscope for closer
observation, and she has done research on the plants she uses. To her
surprise, she discovered that the plants that are so much a part of her
environment are in many cases not native species. In all likelihood,
they weren't there when the Lenni Lenape Indians walked this land
(Brown, 1999). It was this realization that led Yager to create the
Invasive Species Tiara meant to be worn by the most invasive species of
all, the human. She has just finished work on The Tiara of Useful
Knowledge, adorned with rye, potato, and clover, among others, Again,
there are historical allusions in this work. The title comes from the
charter of the American Philosophical Society, founded in Philadelphia
in 1743 "for Promoting Useful Knowledge."
To students who are into personal adornment, Yager's work is a
surprise: Who would think that a jeweler would be interested in biology?
While they might not want to wear a tiara (... then again, it is
something different), the idea of a link between biology and jewelry is
something they might never have considered. This connection might help
them to become aware of other such links and thus to see biology as less
isolated from the rest of their experience.
Beetles and Birds
Another 20th century jewelry artist sends somewhat the same message
as Yager. Jennifer Trask has created a Japanese Beetle pendant, with
real Japanese beetles, which are alien pests in the United States
(White, 2003). She is playing on the attraction/repulsion theme, and her
work is also a reference to a 19th century fad for real organisms as
ornament. A 19th century counterpart to Trask's work is a beetle
brooch and earring set. In "Beetle Abominations" and Birds on
Bonnets: Zoological Fantasy in Late-Nineteenth-Century Dress, Michelle
Tolini (2002) writes of this fad, that ran to live beetles tethered to
gold chains climbing on ladies' shoulders. A present day artist,
Jared Gold, is offering live hissing cockroaches adorned with crystals
and similar tethers (Holden, 2006).
One of the more bizarre examples Tolini cites is a pair of
hummingbird earrings, made from the birds' heads. This isn't
my cup of tea, but it brings up what could be seen as a perversion of
biophilia: Attraction to other species can lead to killing organisms
just to keep them close, as with deer-head trophies and tiger-skin rugs.
Many species have become endangered because of this interest, with the
19th century use of bird feathers and even of whole birds in hats, as
one of the most dangerous trends. Since many students are fascinated by
body ornament--the more bizarre the better--this topic could be a more
interesting way into the issues of extinctions, alien species, and
environmental conservation than the more traditional approach of
discussing a particular environmental problem.
This topic also gets students to think about their own relationship
to nature, what organisms they like to have around: their pets, their
stuffed animals, their posters of polar bears or sharks--or the belt
buckle with a bucking bronco or the earrings with orchids dangling from
them. This is a visually rich topic in an age when the visual is
preeminent. It's also a way to explore the relationship between art
and science. In an effort to get students to see that science is not
something divorced from the rest of the culture, but very much a part of
it, Yager's tiara is a wonderful example.
There is something else important about this jewelry. Paul Shepard
(1996) ties together human biology and behavior, but with a different
emphasis from that of Wilson, a more developmental one. He contends that
since humans evolved in a world rich in other organisms and had constant
contact with animals and plants, this has shaped human biology;
therefore such contact is necessary for normal human development, both
physical and perhaps even more importantly, psychological. In Nature and
Madness (1982), Shepard argues that contact with nature is a necessity
for normal psychological maturation. He makes the strong claim that
without an intimate relationship with living things during formative
years, humans reach physical adulthood in a psychologically infantilized
state, and as a result do not feel fulfilled and experience rage that is
at the root of much violence.
Shepard also says that images of animals are useful as reminders of
the living world, though they are not substitutes for exposure to life.
So even jewelry could play a role in building mental well-being. In
addition, Shepard contends that plants function in a similar way to
enrich the maturation of the human mind. Plants offer tactile contact
and require their care, patience, and close observation, Obviously, the
plant-human encounter is different from the animal-human encounter, and
this makes it all the snore important since it fosters the development
of different mental responses. In Green Nature/Human Nature: The Meaning
of Plants in Our Lives, Charles Lewis (1996) writes about the many ways
that plants influence our lives, from their therapeutic value in
hospitals to their recreational value in parks and backyards. So a
chrysanthemum brooch might be a good example of this link, one we can
carry around with us.
I may be making rather large claims for rhinestones and silk
flowers, but the whole point of this essay is to be provocative, to make
you think about a rather ordinary part of our lives in a different way,
to help you see the link between what we wear and how we think about the
natural world, and finally, to have fun doing it, to see this link as
fascinating and curious. If I can make science both, then I will have
accomplished at least part of my goal of getting science to be more
relevant to my students.
Amico, L. (1996). Bernard Palissy: In Search o[ Earthly Paradise.
Brown, G. (1999). Jan Yager: Urban stigmata. Ornament, 23(2),
Flannery, M.C. (2001). Living with organisms. The American Biology
Teacher, 63, 67-70.
Flannery, MC. (2005). Jellyfish on the ceiling and deer in the den:
The biology of interior decoration. Leonardo, 38(3), 239-244.
Gans, J.C. (2003). The small, great world of David Freda.
Metalsmith, 23(5), 21-27.
Holden, C. (2006). Roach brooch. Science, 312, 979.
Hutchinson, G.E. (1965). The Ecological Theater and the
Evolutionary Play. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Krupenia, D. (2002). John Paul Miller. American Crafts, 62(6),
Lewis, C. (1996). Green Nature/Human Nature: The Meaning of Plants
in Our Lives. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Mariotti, G. (1996). Fabulous fakes. FMR, 83, 117-126.
Moonan, W. (1999, August 13). Dragonflies shimmering as jewelry.
The New York Times, F38.
Moonan, W. (2000, November 10). A triumph of orchids. The New York
Shepard, P. (1982). Nature and Madness. San Francisco: Sierra Club.
Shepard, P. (1996). Traces of an Omnivore. Washington, DC: Island
Smith, P. (2003). The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in
the Scientific Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Tolini, M. (2002). "Beetle Abominations" and birds on
bonnets: Zoological fantasy in late-nineteenth-century dress.
Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide, 1(1). Available online at: 19the-artwordwide.org/spring_02/articles/toli.html.
Rosolowski, T. (2001). Intervening in amnesia: Jan Yager's
mnemonic adornment. Metalsmith, 21(1), 16-25.
White, C. (2003). The gold standard. American Craft, 63(4), 36-39.
White, Lynn. (1979). Science and the sense of self: The medieval
background of a modern confrontation. In G. Holton & R. Morison
(Editors), Limits of Scientific Inquiry, 47-59. New York: Norton.
Wilson, E.O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
MAURA C. FLANNERY, DEPARTMENT EDITOR
MAURA C. FLANNERY is Professor of Biology and Director of the
Center for Teaching and Learning at St. John's University, Jamaica,
NY 11439; e-mail: email@example.com. She earned a B.S. in biology
from Marymount Manhattan College; an M.S., also in biology, from Boston
College; and a Ph.D. in science education from New York University. Her
major interests are in communicating science to the nonscientist and in
the relationship between biology and art.