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.
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.