Gold is commonly associated with its use in jewelry. Dedicated readers of our blog know that gold also plays a major role in the design of electronics and technology. Thanks to gold, these two industries cross paths often, whether it’s the latest technology like the Apple Watch, or much, much earlier – like the “Ethiopian caterpillar.”
In 1810, Swiss watchmaker and mechanician, Henri Maillardet, built the 7 cm insect using gold, enamel, pearls, diamonds, and rubies. But, it was more than just beautiful jewelry – it was also an automaton that used a built-in clockwork mechanism to crawl and wriggle like a real caterpillar. Maillardet debuted his piece at an 1811 automata exhibition in London, where he named it Ethiopian caterpillar – hoping that the exotic name would pique the curiosity of attendees.
Maillardet created many more types of automaton, including more jeweled caterpillars. Today, these combinations of early technology and beautiful jewelry are in the hands of private collectors. In 2015, the famous Ethiopian caterpillar was auctioned by Sotheby’s to an anonymous buyer for $262,000. After more than 200 years, it still functions! You can watch the automaton crawl around here.