Weeds on the Lapel: Biology and Jewelry.

I get a lot of junk email and quickly delete messages that have odd

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

mum petals.

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.

Jewelry Today

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.

Human Development

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.

Paris: Flammarion.

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

Times, F40.

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 is Professor of Biology and Director of the

Center for Teaching and Learning at St. John's University, Jamaica,

NY 11439; e-mail: flannerm@stjohns.edu. 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.

Weeds on the Lapel: Biology and Jewelry. 1

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