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Lea Stein – jewellery that’s fantastic plastic

By Christopher Proudlove ©

by Christopher Proudlove©
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Punch the name Lea Stein into eBay and there are currently 188 of the Paris designer’s funky celluloid brooches up for sale. And that’s part of the problem. Can they really all be real?

The problem with eBay is that you’re on your own with only the seller’s feedback to act as a safety net and perhaps a little luck on your side.

Visit a Saturday antiques fair and while you won’t see 188 dealers selling Lea Stein jewellery, you might well find two or three each with an inventory of several times that number which again doesn’t really help.

Problem is, there’s a good deal of misinformation circulating about Ms Stein and anyone who is uncertain when presented with such a welter of stuff to buy — however stunning and special they might be — it’s sometimes easier to keep your money in your pocket.

Anyhow, that’s what I tell the Business Manager. Most weekends find us at one fair or another and, being a brooch girl, she invariably finds some Lea Stein pieces to drool over.

I’m as keen as she is, but the poor lass has never had the courage to buy one because the embarrassment of riches seems too good to be true. So I resolved to find out what I can about who was responsible for creating this collecting craze and then buy her one.

Any piece of the colourful oversize Art Deco style jewellery featuring foxes, panthers, owls, cats, and just about every other creature you could think of would make a smashing Christmas present.

Lea Stein was born in Paris in 1931, where she trained as an artist. In one source I read that she had spent part of her childhood in a concentration camp during the Second World War but try as I might, I could find nothing to corroborate the fact.

Nothing much is known about her early life but in the 1950s, she married Fernand Steinberger, a man who clearly knew his way around a chemistry lab.

He perfected a secret process of laminating as many as 20 sheets of cellulose acetate, known as rhodoid, sometimes interspersed with textiles, lace or metal, to produce a raw material in a myriad of different colours and textures.

This Lea used to cut into shapes of various designs for brooches, bracelets, earrings, bangles and other decorative objects, all of which have a three-dimensional feature and no two are unique — the correct ingredients for the ideal collectors’ item.

Lea’s signature design is probably the fox whose stylised elongated body and looped tail is formed from one piece of celluloid.

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Early examples are hard to find as is a brooch featuring a woman’s head, thought to represent Joan Crawford in the US and Carmen in France.

Some doubt appears to exist as to when production of the brooches began. A source claiming to be definitive reckons that Lea started her own company in 1957 to concentrate on designing textiles until 1967 when she began making rhodoid buttons.

She moved into the jewellery field in 1969, while other sources claim the switch was earlier, possibly because her designs draw heavily on the Art Deco period.

However, an influx of cheap imports from Asia in 1981 caused the company to founder in 1981, by which time she employed 50 workers and the jewellery was being mass-produced.

Interestingly, following its closure, a New York dealer acquired a large selection of her remaindered stock and began selling it to great acclaim in the US, where it began to enjoy a cult following.

Whether word of its success reached Lea is not known but after a period in the computer business, Lea returned to making the plastic jewellery using the old process but on a much reduced scale.

Each year since 1988 Lea has designed just one or two new pieces which are snapped up eagerly by collectors on both sides of the Atlantic.

Thus, there are two distinct eras of Lea Stein jewellery: the so-called vintage period which dates from 1969 to 1981 and that made from 1988 onwards to the present day.

So, is it possible to tell the products apart and anyway, does it matter?

Some collectors prefer the more classic designs which do tend to date from the first period. Brooches representing John Travolta or Elvis Presley are not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea.

All Lea Stein pins attached to the reverse of her brooches have a distinctive elongated V shape and are almost always signed “Lea Stein Paris”, the exception being some made in the early 1960s.

Some claim that age can be deduced by the way the pin is fastened to the rear of the brooch. Word has it that vintage brooches had the pin heat mounted to the reverse, while modern versions are fastened with rivets, however this is disputed by some collectors and on balance is probably not the case.

Chances are that the only way to date a piece is by experience. The production process has never changed, remaining true to the originals to this day, so who cares.

However old it is, a Lea Stein brooch makes a stunning fashion statement. The simple answer is to buy what you like, what you feel comfortable wearing and having spent as much as you can afford.

The brooches are not expensive. A modest outlay of £25-50 will buy a good example, twice that an excellent one. If you want to stand out in a crowd, then these are for you. It’s just a shame that blokes can’t wear them.

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Tags: Jewellery · Lea Stein · Plastic

21 responses so far ↓

  • 1 sue copley // Nov 22, 2009 at 2:18 am

    I disagree with you, men of course can and do
    wear Lea Stein brooches, my brother has several scottie dog brooches that he wears and they look great on him.

  • 2 Christopher Proudlove // Nov 23, 2009 at 9:54 am

    Quite right too! Sue, Thanks for correctig me.

  • 3 karl // May 3, 2011 at 8:52 am

    i have a joan crawford which i picked up at a flea
    market some years ago .what would this be worth.

  • 4 Christopher Proudlove // May 3, 2011 at 9:10 am

    Happy to help, but I’d need more information about the brooch and an image of it.

  • 5 Terry Blum // Sep 23, 2011 at 7:01 pm

    Only one correction here: “the production
    process has never changed” simply not
    true. “New” Lea Stein pins are made
    from Italian acetate – not really layered
    just simulating the look. Anything signed
    or stamped on the inside of a bracelet or
    pin is new. (have large collection since
    1980.) TB

  • 6 Christopher Proudlove // Sep 23, 2011 at 9:22 pm

    Terry, thanks for your input. I bow to you superior knowledge. I continue to learn something every day. Chris

  • 7 Jayne Sutton // Nov 15, 2011 at 12:33 pm

    Hi Christopher,

    I recently bought a few brooches, original vintage examples. What I didn’t realise at the time I bought them was that the ‘attila’ cat brooch I have bought is a complete mirror image to any other attila brooch I have seen or can find on the internet. Am I alone in my find or are there some other examples like mine?

    I’d be really interested to hear back from you – i’m scared to wear it in case its one of a kind, which is such a shame because it’s beautiful!


  • 8 Christopher Proudlove // Nov 17, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    I put your question to Terry Blum (see above). He writes: I would say that if the metal clasp on the back has the Lea Stein mark it is probably authentic. I certainly would not be afraid to wear it.
    Hope that helps.

  • 9 Moya Stone // Jan 25, 2017 at 3:43 am

    Hello Christopher, Great article! You briefly mention copies of Lea Stein. Can you elaborate on that? Do you know if the Lea Steins one finds at markets in London could be copies? Do you how we can tell the difference?

  • 10 Christopher Proudlove // Jan 25, 2017 at 5:38 am

    Moyà, thanks for your kind remarks. I regret to say that I would view every Lea Stein brooch with suspicion, particularly in a street market. Experience is the key. Speak to relIable and trustworthy dealers who will guarantee what they sell. Try to compare known original pieces with those known to be copies. Look for telltale differences. Compare marks, specially those on the metal clasps. If you continue to be nervous, buy only from those who are prepared to give you a written receipt stating authenticity. Otherwise, trust your judgement. If you make mistakes, learn from them. Good luck!

  • 11 Margaret Kalman // Jan 26, 2017 at 7:49 pm

    Sorry but Terry Blum is totally inaccurate. I have done a lot of research into the subject as I just adore her jewelry. The manufacturing process for the brooches is exactly the same as always – sometimes as many as 10 layers are used often with liberty print material or lace between layers.
    Perhaps he’s confusing the genuine article with the ghastly cheap Chinese imports that seem to be at all fairs these days. All the more important to buy from a reliable dealer as you say. His information about the Bracelets is also just not accurate. However sometimes the vintage ones are “signed” at a later date.

  • 12 Christopher Proudlove // Jan 26, 2017 at 11:12 pm

    I’m keeping out of this one…and standing well back!

  • 13 Laura // Jan 30, 2017 at 2:50 pm

    I’ve found one mixed in with some lego at a charity shop, how do I know if it’s real or fake? Doesn’t seem to look like any I’ve seen online? !

  • 14 Christopher Proudlove // Jan 30, 2017 at 5:51 pm

    Send me a picture and I’ll put up here.

  • 15 Margaret Kalman // Jan 30, 2017 at 7:14 pm

    A photo of both back and front would be helpful . Failing that try to find someone who knows about Lea Stein. Having said that I should say that a typical brooch will have a v shaped pin with a security clasp and have the words Lea Stein Paris stamped on it. But as with so many things there are always exceptions to the rule and certainly with LS.! That is why ideally it should be seen by an expert to verify it’s authenticity.

  • 16 Jenny // Feb 14, 2017 at 4:45 pm

    My clasp has come off the back of my lea stein fox brooch, it was riveted on can anyone tell me where I can take it to get it fixed please.

  • 17 Christopher Proudlove // Feb 14, 2017 at 5:09 pm

    Jenny, I would think a competent jeweller could fix that for you.

  • 18 Alison // Apr 16, 2017 at 8:18 am

    I really enjoyed reading your article. There is so little information about Lea Stein ‘out there’, I’ve even wondered if she’s actually real! Dealers in the U.K are very protective of their sources which just adds fuel to the mystery! I’m trying to locate her workshops in France, but finding this information is proving impossible! Does anyone know where she is located? Thank you 🙂

  • 19 Margaret Kalman // Apr 16, 2017 at 1:13 pm

    Yes she is very real!!! If you were doing business would you reveal your sources ? I don’t think so! That explains the”mystery” of her location and dealer’s reticence about their sources. Business is business after all!
    Sorry I can’t be more helpful.

  • 20 Izzy // Jul 4, 2017 at 3:04 am

    Look at the fox. I have a copycat version and the tail loops over not under as in the original. I did know it was a copy but fora few pounds not many know!

  • 21 Christopher Proudlove // Jul 4, 2017 at 8:16 am

    Good observation, many thanks.

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