Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Botanically Beautiful – Incorporating the Outdoors in Jewelry Design by Karen McGovern

Get ready, I’m about to share some secrets.  Well, not secrets per se, but stuff I figured out on my own and haven’t shared before.

With Summer finally on the horizon, we are all spending more time outdoors enjoying the beauty of the season.  Flowers in bloom, and so many intense colors popping...great inspiration for jewelry, no?
I love incorporating unusual bits and pieces into my jewelry designs.  Everything from leaves and flowers to opossum, raccoon and coyote teeth.  Some of these oddities are readily available online and are now quite common in art and jewelry designs, so head to the Google machine and you’ll find just about anything you can think of. 
For me, using found objects and botanicals tells such a great story.  I usually use these items in “totem” designs—some with a strong Native American influence.  I’m fascinated with mythology and storytelling, and often write a short story or poem to go with the design.  I’ve included some design examples here that incorporate a variety of insect wings, and coyote teeth.
A few of my mixed media designs using odd bits and pieces.  The one on the far right is called Tallmadge's Dragons. 
I wrote a short story to go with it...you can read it here.
I find that I am often inspired by one “thing” that sparks the creation of an entire, often elaborate, design.  A photograph, an unusual bead, an antique element like a chatelaine pencil (personal favorite and collected whenever I can find them).  I love things with a history, real or imagined.

This is one of my favorite optic lens designs.  I used cicada wings and a
fantastic tintype circa 1840.  I imagined her to be a pioneer woman of
science, an adventurer and explorer.  Isn't she just wonderful?
Today, in honor of glorious Summer, I am going to share my techniques for using real butterfly wings in jewelry design. There is a lot of butterfly wing jewelry out there; this is just my take on how to use the wings.   First, a bit of back story about butterfly farming.  I am a conservation biologist with the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation.  My work is a direct reflection of my love of wildlife and wild places, and my passion for protecting both.  Working with insects in jewelry designs is challenging, rewarding and also fascinating.  No, I do not head out to my backyard with a net and a can of Raid.  I use insects sustainably harvested through farming techniques.  YES, there are INSECT FARMS around the world that supply just about anything you can think of to museums, schools and collectors.  Butterfly farming is especially interesting to me.  I researched the subject quite a bit, and found that the industry is usually family-run in small, rural communities around the globe.  The insects are housed in botanical garden settings (remember there are many stages in the development of most insects that are very involved and work intensive for both the bug and the bug keeper).  Specific plants are grown for specific insects, kept in almost sterile conditions, and require constant upkeep so the larvae can grow and mature.  It is much easier to sustain a captive colony of insects rather than capture from the wild.  AND, this in turn ensures wild populations of insects will continue to flourish.  Funds raised support families and communities, and many also support local wildlife and ecosystem conservation education programs.  A win-win all around.  I could go on and on, but instead, GOOGLE IT. AND, be aware that there are many sources for NON SUSTAINABLY harvested insects.  Do your research and please use only certified sources.
So, back to using butterfly wings.  In case you didn’t already know it, butterfly wings are made of magic.  That’s right; they are a magical substance that no human can really understand.  Incredibly beautiful, made up of tiny scales covered in fairy dust that reflect and refract light, repel water, STICK TO NOTHING, and seem to be as fragile as spun glass but are actually tougher than aged leather.  They do not cut easily.  They do not set in resin.  They will crumble into dust, shatter like glass, while at the same time dull a razor blade in seconds.  THEY ARE MAGIC I TELL YOU!  They should make tiles for the space shuttle using them and we could fly to Venus tomorrow.  I have spent a LOOOONG time figuring out the best way to handle them and here is what I have come up with….. 

1.  Why not resin, you ask??? I have seen some wings set in resin that look okay, but most look crappy. It’s all about how the light hits the scales on the wings. When they are flattened and coated with liquid resin, the entire wing tends to lose its luster and intensity. Some just turn black. And, unless the wing is framed somehow it will collapse on itself and turn into a ball of goo. You can set a laminated wing in resin, which brings me to…

2.  Laminating. I picked up a low heat plastic laminating machine at Office Depot for about $20.00. Worth it if you like to use delicate items like flowers, insect wings, etc. Must be low heat or the wings will discolor or turn black. Simply slip the wings into laminating pouches leaving a good amount of space between each wing and run it through the laminating machine twice. I tried do-it-yourself laminating sheets, but as I said, the wings stick to NOTHING and you need to get a good, air-tight seal around the wing that will not peel apart. The “dust” on the wings keeps them from sticking to any surface, no matter how adhesive the surface is. A laminating machine creates a true seal around the wing. After laminating, cut around the wings leaving at least a 1/8thinch border of laminating material. If you cut too close you will see that the laminating sheets will pop apart and the wing will slip right out. The border is also important if you plan to drill holes for rivets, etc. At this point you can coat with resin if you want the wing to be stiffer, but good laminating sheets will do just fine.

3.  Mica and plexiglass. I love mica and plexiglass. These two materials work really well with butterfly wings (and dragonfly wings) for many reasons. The material is easy to use and cut to shape. You can drill it for rivet setting. It doesn’t affect the appearance of the wing in any way and protects perfectly. Simply cut to fit the wing (leaving a 1/8thinch border around the wing), drill and rivet in place. My go to materials for setting wings.

4.  Glass. This is probably the best way to set the wing in a high-end, professional manner. You can buy glass domes and rounds in many sizes and these can be beze- set very easily. The best way I have found to bezel-set a wing fragment is under watch crystals. Optic glass cut in calibrated sizes from tiny to huge. The variety in size and shape is endless, and many come trimmed in 14k gold and sterling silver, as well as endless fashion colors. These make fantastic rings, earrings, cuff links and pendants. Simply create your bezel setting to size (or use premade settings), cut the wing to fit (more on that in a moment), set it in the bezel, top with the glass and VIOLA!!!! Optic lenses are also great and can be used to create wonderful pendants.

A sheet of laminated butterfly wings.
“But Karen”, you say, “How do you cut your butterfly wings to shape and size?”  That, my friends, can be tricky.  As I said, butterfly wings are very deceptive.  You’d think they would cut like tissue paper, right?  WRONG.  They are amazingly strong, yet highly brittle and shatter easily.  They have stiff, strong veins in them that are not easy to cut through.  You can’t touch them with your fingers, or you’ll rub off the scales and leave dark spots all over the wings.  

First, you need a really good pair of small scissors.  Really good, like hair salon quality.  And an X-Acto Knife with a brand new blade in it.  To cut to fit a watch crystal, I set the wing on a clean piece of white construction paper using tweezers, holding just the very edge of the wing.  I then place the crystal over the wing and press down with the fingers of one hand to hold it firmly in place.  Then I use the X-Acto blade to carefully and slowly cut around the crystal. Rock the blade back and forth—DON’T DRAG IT—untill the wing has been cut through all the way around.  Then I remove the crystal and pick the wing up with the tweezers.  If I need to further trim it, I carefully hold it with tweezers and use the best scissors I have.  For every good cut I get, I trash at least two.  You’ll see….they will shatter so easily.  AND, here’s a big tip from me.  Try not to hold your breath while you do this, because as soon as you think you are done and take a big exhale in relief you will blow your wings right off your table and end up cursing….A LOT.  Yes, the slightest breeze will take your wings away so no fans, AC, etc.

When placing wings on a pendant base to rivet, you can use a tiny dot of good old white craft glue just to hold the wing in place for the moment.  Glue doesn’t actually stick to butterfly wings, but when wet it will at least hold it in place while you place your mica, plexiglass, crystal, etc.  Yes, the process is work intensive, but the results can be so AMAZING!!!!

Here are some of my favorite butterfly wing designs.  I just had one featured in the most recent issue of Belle Armoire Jewelry Magazine.  I created it for Nunn Design, and instructions are included in the magazine, so go get it!!!  This issue also features work by other LMAJ members, so I am in fantastic company….

I won’t list all my sources for wings and watch crystals—a girl has to keep some secrets—but the Google machine will lead the way so I’m sure you will find whatever you need.  If you do give working with butterfly wings a try, please post pictures of your creations—I’d love to see what you come up with!!!!!


Ema Kilroy said...

Amazing. I have found dead butterflies in the past and wanted to preserve the wing. I never did it and the wings deteriorated. Next time I come across a butterly wing I'll know what to do. Thanks for sharing.

Carol Briody said...

Wow, I had no idea how much work was involved to preserve the magic quality of a butterfly wing (I agree, they are full of wonderful fairy dust!). I was completely absorbed reading your post! Thank you!

Artisan Beads Plus said...

Wow! That is truly amazing. As far as secrets, I have a few of them myself that I don't like to share, but happy that you did! Great post, Karen.... as always :o)

Kristin Oppold said...

Great and informative post!!!!! Thanks for sharing. I have a Luna Moth that we found dead in a tupperware container. Been saving it thinking I will do something with it at some point. Will see. Sounds kind of putsy, I know I will have to be in the putsy mood.

baymoondesign said...

Thanks for the wonderful photos and article. Congrats on your publication.

Unknown said...

So interesting and informative. Thank you for sharing with all of us!

Becky Nunn said...

As always Karen, this is a great post!

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