Provocative Objects / Spaces

5 June 2023 -

Provocative Objects: tiara with flowers made of translucent fish scales

This fascinating jewellery piece is made of the scales of European perch. The tiara has artificial flowers, with petals made of fish scales and stamens of small transparent beads.

According to A Dictionary of Useful Animals and Their Products, thin, silvery, and translucent scales had a useful capacity for making ornaments, and scales offered a solution that had a shiny quality suitable for varnishing beads and making jewellery. ‘Fish scales: some of these are used for making fish glue, artificial flowers, and fancy ornaments for ladies’ wear’ (1). Jewellery, rosary, and pearl makers saw the potential of this by-product of fisheries as an imitation product for mother-of-pearl, establishing scales’ recognition and reputation for being attractive products.

The structural and aesthetic qualities of fish scales lend themselves to being a product of innovation and economic solutions that emerged from efforts to find cheaper material to replace mother-of-pearl. This discovery has been published, publicly displayed at exhibitions such as in the galleries of Crystal Palace, and commercially sold (2). The Scientific American also reports: ‘Mahood, the British manufacturer, has made thousands of beautiful and durable ornaments out of this once totally neglected refuse of the fish. Scale brooches, bracelets, pins, ear-rings, etc., etc., are well known, and can be purchased everywhere’ (3). There is a lack of evidence or trade records that show whether they were sold in mass or small batches, but the object acquisition information at the V&A revealed the price of the tiara was £2—the modern-day equivalent value (2022) of these items is £184.41 according to the Bank of England (4) and in 1860, it was worth 10 days’ wage of a skilled tradesman (5). This suggests that it was not a mundane commodity, but a work of novelty that required professional techniques.

US patent 150043 states Eduard Huebner and Julius Huebner’s invention of utilising the scales of various fish to produce articles of jewellery, artificial flowers, and embroidery (6). Patenting fish scale preparation proves that there were attempts to protect this invention through intellectual property rights and it demonstrates that fish scales were a successful design material , a recognised achievement and subject to replication. Therefore, with modern taste and aesthetics, the tiara employed an innovative manufacturing technique that delighted both the wearer and beholder.

Peter Lund Simmonds, an author on commercial and technological subjects shaped by colonisation, scientific discovery, practical technological innovation, and the commodification of nature valued the exploitation of waste and innovative techniques that make use of formerly useless substances. Utilising fish scales in Simmonds’ perspective is not a waste management technique due to ecological concerns, but the subject of resource substitution, a form of engagement with the search for innovative ways of ornament manufacturing (7).

This process of repurposing and recycling was a new phenomenon and technique that was recognised as a desirable and economical technology in the material culture. Arguably, the modern conception of waste can be addressed as an opportunity to find value in neglected substances that offer the prospect of the incorporation of inexpensive, natural, and sustainable materials in creative practices, including jewellery making. In the present day, where endless technological innovation can reconsider and reincorporate natural resources, neglected materials and craftsmanship can enrich us with a better understanding of the age-old relationship between humans and the environment.

Unknown artist, 1879-1874, tiara, AP.20C-1874, delicate circlet tiara with flowers made of translucent fish scales in wire, Victoria and Albert Museum, London


(1) Peter Lund Simmonds, A Dictionary of Useful Animals and Their Products, Etc. (London : E. & F. N. Spon, 1883).
(2) Peter Lund Simmonds, Waste Products and Undeveloped Substances: Or, Hints for Enterprise in Neglected Fields., 1st edn (London, 1862).
(3) ‘Imitation Pearls’, Scientific American, 23.24 (1870), 373–373.
(4)The Bank of England, ‘Inflation Calculator’, The Bank of England <> [accessed 18 November 2022].
(5)National Archives, ‘Currency Calculator’, National Archives <https://www.nationalarchives.g...> [accessed 18 November 2022].
(6)Huebner, Eduard and Huebner, Julius. 1874. Improvement in Preparing Fish-Scales For Use In The Arts. US Patent 150043, filed March 21, 1874 and issued April 21, 1874.
(7) Timothy Cooper, ‘Peter Lund Simmonds and the Political Ecology of Waste Utilization in Victorian Britain’, Technology and Culture, 52.1 (2011), 21–44.

Amber Kim is a MA History of Design student at the Royal College of Art/Victoria and Albert Museum


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