Winged Migration: The 77-Carat Butterfly Brooch That “Glows” in the Dark

The piece by Taiwanese artist Cindy Chao has a surprise revealed only under ultraviolet light

Under the black light, the Butterfly Brooch shows off a whole separate array of fluorescent colors. Photo by Donald Hurlbert, Smithsonian

Cindy Chao knew, with more than 2,300 gems of diamonds, rubies and tsavorite garnets, her butterfly brooch was masterpiece of craftsmanship. Made in 2009, the brooch found its way to the cover of Women’s Wear Daily–the first piece of jewelry ever to do so in 150 years. Known for her wearable works of art, Chao had made a name for herself as the first Taiwanese jeweler included at a Christie’s auction in 2007, and her work even debuted on the Hollywood red carpet.

Now her butterfly brooch comes to the Natural History Museum’s Gems and Minerals collection as the first piece designed by a Taiwanese artist. Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, and brilliant enough to illuminate a room. The brooch packs a punch. But it also packs a surprise.

From left to right, Director Kirk Johnson, Artist Cindy Chao and Curator Jeffrey Post unveil the brooch as press look on. Photo by Leah Binkovitz

Curator Jeffrey Post says he was compelled by his ongoing interest in the optical behaviors of diamonds to put the piece under ultraviolet light, and the ensuing light show was nothing short of spectacular. The diamonds and sapphires fluoresced, glowing neon in the dark. “When we saw all these fluorescing diamonds, all these different colors, it was just the whipped cream on top of the cake,” says Post, “It was just the most wonderful surprise.”

Chao, meanwhile, had never seen this phenomenon. “When Dr. Post showed it to me under the ultraviolet light, I was shocked because he thought I did it on purpose.” An artist influenced by her father’s career as both an architect and sculptor, Chao cares about the craft of jewelry-making and working with unique materials. She calls the fluorescent reaction a natural miracle. Now, she says, “I check everything under the ultraviolet light.”

Front and back views of the piece show its detailed design. Photos by Cindy Chao

A symbol of metamorphosis, the butterfly speaks to Chao’s own transformation from jeweler to artist. While she’s had great success in the market (her pieces command any where from $15,000 for a ring and nearly $1 million for a brooch), she says earning a spot in the Smithsonian was a great honor as an artist. She hopes to pass on her lessons to students who share her passion for the craft of jewelry-making.

The brooch also speaks to the natural metamorphosis each gemstone undergoes. “Every gemstone,” says Post, “including this butterfly, starts out as a mineral crystal that forms, and only the best and most perfect of those mineral crystals are transformed into gemstones.” Post says that the incredibly detailed design of the brooch, which mimics the microstructure and scale of a living butterfly’s wings, speaks to the piece’s rarified quality. “The other side of the butterfly is just as beautiful as the front and that’s how you know, this is really a masterpiece creation,” he says.

Johnson and Chao show off the newest donation to the gems collection. Photo by Leah Binkovitz

Johnson, Chao and Post pose with the brooch. Photo by Leah Binkovitz

Chao holds her creation in its natural habitat. Photo by Brittany Hance

Joining the recent Dom Pedro donation, as well as the famed Hope Diamond, the piece will brooch in the Hall of Gems and Minerals. Its donation also marks the fifth anniversary of the museum’s Butterfly Pavilion.

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