When one thinks of Thai arts, one may imagine scenes of gold, shining crystal mirrors, luxurious silk, and intricately carved wooden figures. Indeed, those are celebrated components of Thai arts, but there is one lesser known material that has been used by Thai craftsmen since ancient times: jewel beetle wings.
Jewel beetles are a family of beetles known for their luminous exoskeleton, which resemble metal or precious stones. The common varieties of jewel beetles found in Thailand are Sternocera aequisignata and Sternocera ruficornis. These beetles possess outer wings, which are metallic green and copper red in colour. Adult beetles lay their eggs in the underground trunk of certain types of bamboo. The pupas spend around 2 years in their egg-larvae-cocoon stage. Once they reach adulthood, the beetles lay underground waiting for rainfall. After the rain, they fly out to feed and mate. The lifespan of an adult beetle is around 2 -3 weeks. Males die after mating, while females die after laying eggs.
The term “beetle wing art” refers to the use of jewel beetle wings to produce crafted work. Thai craftsmen have been collecting wings of dead jewel beetles to produce art since ancient times, but the practice has diminished in the modern era.
In 1982, a special exhibition was held to celebrate the 200th Anniversary of the Rattanakosin Period. While searching for display artifacts from the royal collection at the Grand Palace, H.M. Queen Sirikit, The Queen Mother came across a beetle wing embroidered dress cloth that was owned by the late Queen Savang Vadhana, grandmother of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej The Great.
Although the fabric had deteriorated over time, the carefully stitched beetle wings remained in excellent condition. The discovery made Her Majesty recall a time when locals presented garlands of jewel beetle wings to her during a royal visit to the Northeastern Region with His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej The Great.
Determined to save the dying art, Her Majesty Queen Sirikit, The Queen Mother established a beetle wing art department at the Queen Sirikit Institute (then Chitralada Palace Silapacheep Workshop). There, traditional beetle wing crafts; such as, clothing and carved dolls were revived by newly trained craftsmen under Her Majesty’s programme.
Her Majesty also revolutionised Thai beetle wing art, ordering for jewel beetle wings to be cut into thin strands and woven in with yan lipao ferns to create the first prototype of beetle wing hand bags. This technique of beetle wing weaving was later incorporated into the making of larger crafted work.
Through the efforts of Her Majesty Queen Sirikit, The Queen Mother, Thai beetle wing art has been successfully revived. Today, skilled beetle wing craftsmen are still being trained by the Foundation of the Promotion of Supplementary Occupations and Related Techniques (SUPPORT)of Her Majesty Queen Sirikit. The Queen Mother of Thailand. Exquisite examples of beetle wing crafts are on display at the Arts of the Kingdom Museum in Bang Pa-in District, Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya province. Jewel beetle farming has also become an alternative source of income for some communities.