tears of the rain forest

A jewel scarab in its native environment.  Photo by David Hawks, courtesy of National Geographic.

This is one of a family of scarab beetles (related to june bugs) called "jewel scarabs" which inhabit tropical rain forests in South America. Its distinctive, metallic coloration is entirely natural, and there is wide variation across species and individuals.

A collection of jewel scarabs, showing range and variation of colors.  Photography by David Hawks, images courtesy of National Geographic.

Because of their striking appearance, jewel scarabs are prized by insect collectors. In an article in the February 2001 issue of National Geographic (see online feature here), entomologist and jewel-scarab specialist Ronald D. Cave claims that, "While many sell for a few dollars, a bright red specimen might fetch $200, the finest gold, $500."

More jewel scarabs.  Photography by David Hawks.  These are only a few of the spectacular photographs of jewel scarabs featured in the February 2001 issue of National Geographic.

In the same article, Cave proposes that regulated beetle collecting, and possibly farming, could work to slow down the destruction of the beetle's native tropical forests for farmland. The idea is that, if a market for the beetles can be established in the first world, local peoples will realize an economic incentive to leave the forests on their lands intact so they can collect beetles, instead of razing them so they can plant crops. Answering the worries of conservationists raised by this proposal, Cave explains, "Catching insects isn't like hunting jaguars. Millions of jewel scarab eggs, larvae, and pupae remain underground, while collectors take only adults."

Dr. Ronald C. Cave.  Photo by David Hawks.

What is proposed herein is a simple means of commodifying jewel scarabs for a first-world market larger than that of the relatively limited insect-collector set. A low-tech casting process encases an individual jewel scarab in a teardrop-shaped nodule of clear plastic resin, which, being molded with an integral aperture to allow the threading of a chain or cord, may be worn as jewelry. It is hoped that the process described herein will prove simple and inexpensive enough to allow not only for collection of raw materials by indigenous peoples, but for local manufacture as well. Because this process is imitative of the natural process whereby insects are fossilized in amber, these charms may be referred to as "synthetic amber jewelry." Thus, the complete brand and product name I propose are "Tears of the Rain Forest Sythetic Amber Jewelry."

Conceptual rendering of synthetic amber pendant, showing obverse of beetle.  Resin is depicted in blue only for clarity of presentation here. Pendant, showing reverse of beetle. Dashed lines indicate molded-in through-cord-passage.

The teardrop shape is not merely evocative; it is functional as well. The circular "body" of the teardrop encases, protects, and preserves the insect, while the pointed "stem" incorporates the passage for a chain or cord. Worn about the neck as a pendant, the charm looks like a teardrop, and can be reversed to present either the top or the underside of the encased beetle to a person facing the wearer.

Step one: Manufacture a mold. Two approaches are proposed, their application depending on the availability of tools and materials. The first of these is called the "cookie-cutter" approach, and involves a mold manufactured in at least two pieces--a form and a mandrel--which will allow for the encasement of the insect and the formation of the through-cord-passage in a single casting operation. The second is termed the "prop-casting" approach, and involves a simple one-piece mold made of flexible urethane which, while it cannot completely form the through-cord-passage, does accurately mark its location so that it can be easily completed by drilling at a later stage in manufacture.

Step two: Obtain jewel scarabs. Unfortunately, killing beetles is an essential part of this process. While a farming approach might conceivably be implemented that allowed the beetles to live out their lives and die naturally before being harvested for use as jewelry, collecting is the only strategy which works to achieve the social functionality of the product, viz. to preserve tropical rain forests. Thus it would seem that etherization of collected beetles is an inevitable part of the process. As long as the species is not endangered, however (and if Dr. Cave is right the commodification of the jewel scarab should actually have a positive effect on the conservation of the species), the painless euthanization of collected specimens past the age of sexual maturity is probably acceptable to most people's consciences.

Step three: Manufacture. In the case of the cookie-cutter approach, the mandrel is inserted into the mold rack and the entire assembly is sprayed or daubed with mold release. The mandrel rod is rotated, and more mold release is applied, taking care that the entire circumference of the rod be covered. Then a layer of liquid resin is poured to the halfway point in each mold, and a dried jewel scarab floated on top of it and lightly tamped down with the fingers. Then a second layer of liquid resin is poured over the first, up to the top of the mold, thereby encasing the insect and completing the casting process. Once the resin has hardened, the mandrel rod is removed and the mold rack inverted to dispense the rough-finished charms.

Step 1: The empty mold and mandrel rod are thoroughly sprayed with mold release. Step 2: The mold is filled to the halfway-point with plastic casting resin. Step 3: A dried jewel scarab is floated on top of the bottom layer of resin. Step 4: A second layer of resin is poured to top off the mold.

The process using the prop-casting approach is essentially identical, but that no mandrel rod is used and, after the dried resin charms have been removed from their molds, the partially-molded through-cord-passage must be completed with a drill. Once the charms are rough-finished, they are polished by loading in a rock polisher with the appropriate abrasive compounds, and left to cycle for an appropriate length of time (which may be a week or more), until all hard edges have been removed and what remains is a smooth, bulbous teardrop-shape nodule resembling a large drop of water, with insect and integral through-cord-passage encased therein.

A commercial rotary rock tumbler from Pearson's, in California, of the sort which might be used to polish rough-cast Tears of the Rain Forest to their finished state.

Marketing possibilities for Tears of the Rainforest abound. Besides the striking visual impact of the jewel scarabs themselves, scarab beetles in general have strong mythological/magical associations for many people and, since the time of the Egyptians, have frequently figured in lapidary and decorative iconography. The packaging would include detailed descriptions of the collection and manufacture processes and their social functionality, as well as an explanation that the collection process does not threaten the species' survivability. It might also advertise the fact that a certain percentage of sales will go to various "save the rainforest" charities. Possible retail chain outlets include The Discovery Channel Store and The Nature Store, as well as various internet, direct-market, and promotional dealers.



Beetle embedded in clear acrylic resin, front view.  Click for larger image.
Beetle in clear plastic, side view.  Click for larger image.

A second beetle embedded in 'luminous' resin, front view.  Click for larger image.
Second beetle in 'luminous' resin, side view.  Click for larger image.

These four photographs were recently e-mailed to me from Malaysia, by a gentleman named Chris who commissioned a friend of his to make them after he saw this page. You can e-mail Chris if you are interested in purchasing them or some like them. Although these are not jewel scarabs, they are very pretty insects and I think they demonstrate the concept quite nicely.



A pendant made by Charlie Hines that recently sold on eBay.

This pendant was manufactured by a designer named Charlie Hines, who, at one time or another, had a small concern going making items like this. The company was called "Bedebug." I have looked and have not been able to track down Mr. Hines or his company, but it's clear he had the idea for resin-insect pendants a long time before I did. This is a particularly nice piece, with a stag beetle embedded in a clear ovoid. The teardrop shape isn't here, nor is the particular use of jewel scarabs, but I think I'd probably be infringing on Hines' patent, if he had one. :)



A beautiful Plusiotis Gloriosa embedded in a resin pendant by Charlie Hines.

This pendant was manufactured by Charlie Hines to order using a jewel scarab--plusiotis gloriosa, which is the only jewel scarab native to North America (Arizona)--which I provided to him. It's the first actual prototype of the product described on this page, which I first imagined almost a year-and-a-half ago. Mr. Hines gladly does custom work. If you're interested, e-mail him at bedebug@yahoo.com.



Compare this product and its packaging to the idea proposed at the top of this page.

I first proposed "Tears of the Rain Forest" on this page in January of 2002. Since that time, it has become clear that I was not the first to propose encasing insects in resin and selling them as jewelry. But there were some unique twists to my idea, such as the use particularly of jewel scarabs, the indigenous sustainable production of jewel-scarab jewelry in poorer tropical areas, and the ecomarketing of the resultant product. Around the middle of August of 2005 I bought the pendant pictured above in a gas station in Austin, TX, for about five bucks. Comparison of the pendant to the product I was proposing here back in early 2002 leads one to wonder about the likelihood of a coincidence, or the possible lack thereof.