Spectacular butterfly specimens from across the world are being given a luxurious afterlife as jewellery boxes, humidors and watches. Nick Hammond reports.
A short, frenzied life amid the feverish tangle of jungle canopy, then a trip of thousands of miles to a secluded workshop atop rolling Cheshire farmland. Here, the remains of startling, iridescent swatches of Nature are being carefully curated into exquisite objets d’art. This is Haute Art de Papillon — the creation of beautiful things from the wings of butterflies.
‘My whole family is a bit odd when it comes to butterflies,’ laughs Amos Hornstein as he picks me up at Crewe station to begin our drive into Cheshire’s greenery, finishing at the Khamama — the Cherokee word for butterfly — workshop on the Marquess of Cholmondeley’s estate between Chester and Nantwich. Khamama is the brainchild of Amos and his brother Nathan, the sons of Catholic theologians from south Germany. Their venture into luxury is part-financed by their older brother, Simon. It’s quite the family affair.
‘It’s Simon who’s really the lepidopterologist, but we all have an interest,’ explains Amos. ‘When we decided to move to the UK to launch a luxury business, we discovered that, in Victorian times, Haute Art de Papillon was briefly popular here. It then all clicked into place.’
Think exotic jewellery boxes, think breath-taking, mahogany cigar humidors topped with butterfly-wing patterns under museum-grade glass, think watches that flash with an iridescent glow that once attracted lady members of Lepidoptera across the vast spaces of a South American rainforest.
Before you cry deforestation and exploitation of Nature’s finite resources, hear this: every single butterfly is sustainably farmed, meaning their shrinking natural habitat is being protected. Local people are being employed in impoverished areas to feed and care for them.
Only once their lives are over and they fall to the ground from a natural death are these amazing creatures carefully collected, sealed in packages and shipped — with all the requisite international licences for trade in exotic species — across the world to Cheshire.
‘Butterfly farms exist already to supply zoos, users of silk and butterfly gardens, as well as to assist in maintaining or increasing the number of rare and endangered species,’ Amos is quick to point out. ‘We’re actually helping to protect these species and their natural habitat by using their wings after their lifespan is over.’
We pull off a country road near Frodsham into the yard of Cheshire Woodworking to meet Ciarán Ó Braonáin, woodworker extraordinaire and a Dubliner from his boots to his beard. Together with his wife, Claire, and their children, he moved to northern England — although he still enjoys a pint of the black stuff—and from his workshop creates incredible gunboxes, tables, boxes and furniture, as well as leading popular courses for wannabe woodworkers.
Today, he’s painstakingly hand-sanding veneer for the latest Khamama cigar humidors — a precise job, down to the millimetre, overseen by Amos with Teutonic exactitude.
‘I can’t afford to get away with a mill here or a mill there,’ jokes Ciarán, ‘not with a German checking every detail! Amos and Nathan are a joy to work with, actually, because they know what they want and trust me to deliver it.’
These works of art are built on a foundation of solid American black walnut, finished with successive ebony veneers and a lustrous, luxurious lacquer. That’s before the sunburst jigsaw puzzle of butterfly wings is arranged by tweezer and lamplight and carefully glassed to form the finished marquetry that decorates the box top.
From one-off Khamama jewellery boxes comes the rich aroma of leather fashioned by bespoke English leather company Rutherfords, also based in Cheshire. Alex and Russ Hughes are a husband-and-wife team dedicated to the exacting and virtually extinct tradition of exquisite English bridle-leather work, having taken over from the defunct Shuttleworths of Chester in 2010.
The company’s lined leather music bags, leather-covered solid gun cases, wallets, folios and briefcases are revered worldwide and they’ve particularly been a smash hit in stylish circles in Japan.
‘It’s a joy to be able to work with other local businesses, building a small luxury manufacturing community,’ enthuses Alex. ‘There aren’t many of us left, but Cheshire seems to have a rich seam of amazingly talented small, traditional craftsmen.’
Khamama products are luxurious in every detail and an extraordinary labour of love, with many hours of detailed work going into every creation. That’s why you’ll only find them sold by the likes of Glancy Fawcett, Manchester-based luxury outfitter to the world’s super-yachts, private jets and sprawling mansions.
‘Each and every one of our boxes is unique,’ points out Amos. ‘You won’t find another quite like it. They are hand-designed and handcrafted by people who are not only masters of what they do, but obsessed with doing it right, down to the last stitch, the last joint, the innovation and the practicality.’
The afterlife of butterflies
- Neville Chamberlain and Sir Winston Churchill were both keen butterfly collectors.
- The favourite pastime of many a rural vicar, Lepidoptera collecting reached its heyday in England in the early years of the 20th century, when vast collections of moths and butterflies were regularly sold at Sotheby’s.
- Damien Hirst is among the few modern artists to have utilised the mesmerising shapes and colours of butterfly wings.
- In 2017, a man was convicted of illegally catching and killing the rare and protected large blue butterfly on reserves in Somerset and Gloucestershire. He was sentenced to a six-month suspended sentence.
- It isn’t illegal to catch certain butterfly species today, but you need the permission of the landowner to do so and a sure knowledge of the species you’re collecting.
Beautiful, delicate and harmful to no-one, our iconic butterflies are facing an increasingly perilous existence – that's the conclusion reached