The ‘best dressed woman in the world’ on the occasion of ‘the grandest spectacle in history, ’ bedazzled kings and princes alike in a fabulous gown of gold that in peacock patterning, each feather illuminated with an iridescent emerald-green jewel-beetle wing casing.
The occasion – the Delhi Durbar held to commemorate the coronation of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandria as Emperor and Empress of India; the invitees – Rajas and Maharajas; the event – the coronation ball; the host – Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India; the hostess – Baroness Curzon, Vicereine, who glittered in what came to be known as the peacock gown; and the date – a little more than a century ago. The legend of the extravagant Peacock gown spread far, the blue-green Jewel beetle wing casings reflecting light like faceted gems having been mistaken for emeralds.
Justly renowned as an opulent accoutrement used to embellish luxury textiles, the elytra (the hard casing covering the wings and not the wings themselves) of the jewel beetles or buprestidae were valued as one of the important commercial and economic products of India. Lightweight, surprisingly tough and hard-wearing, they retained their luminous colour for over a century. This is apparent from museum pieces in India and the famed ‘Peacock gown ‘now on permanent display at the National Trust in the UK – they were the ultimate in luxury embroidery.
An 1888 publication, on the ‘Art Manufactures of India’ written by T. N. Mukerji gives us information on this ‘costly style’ and ‘expensive article’. Stating that this embroidery, much in demand for ball dresses was especially effective in lamp-light as the ‘glint of the pieces added to the richness’ as the wing casing replicated the jewel like brilliance of emeralds and sapphires.
Embroidery using jewel beetle casing was famed from Mughal times as evidenced from museum pieces of sumptuous court-garments, turbans, wedding outfits and waist-sashes. Embroidered on to fine muslins, satins, brocades, velvet and other luxury textiles the jewel beetle casings were couched with silk threads, gilt silver and gold wire.
Embroidered not only on valuable textiles the Jewel beetle casing were used to embellish to ornate hand fans, theatrical costumes, paintings, book-covers, jewellery and other decorative items
The casings were available in colors of emerald green that reflected luminous layers of sapphire, amethyst and copper shades. Relatively small in size, extending from lengths of 3 to 80 mm, their shapes from cylindrical to oval was sewn down on the base textile either with a mirror stitch that encased it overlapping stitches or through stitching it down through the minute holes punctured either on its two ends or in the center, depending on the demands of the patterning. The beetles wing casings were in the past collected from forests int Burma (Myanmar) which was their known habitat. Distributed through Kolkata (Calcutta) to embroiderers across India this supply route has long fallen into disuse. With the jewel beetles short life span of 3 to 4 weeks in their adult stage the wing casing are now farmed in accordance with the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and can now be easily accessed on-line or from Thailand.
The recently concluded major exhibition on the ‘Fabric of India’ held in London at the Victoria and Albert Museums featured many never before seen historic textiles. Included amongst the 200 pieces showcased from its collection was a muslin border for a women’s dress dated to the 19th century that was embroidered with beetle wing casings couched with silver wire.
More recently, examples from other parts of the world show a revival of the embroideries. In the movie Snow White and the Huntsman nominated for best costume in the Oscars the glamorous gown worn by Charlize Theron in her role as the evil queen was embroidered with the casings of jewel beetles.
The embroidery and its art have been almost completely lost in India. Though there are some recent glimmerings of revival by Asif Sheikh, an embroidery designer based in Ahmadabad whose experiments hold out hope that techniques of the past can be recreated however long and painstaking the process. Given the huge market in India for bejeweled textiles there is the promise that the magnificence of the jewel beetle casing if revived will have a splendid future.
First published in the Sunday Herald.