You may have seen them and not even realized what they were, but buried in the piles of costume jewelry and bakelite pieces that you may see at antique shows and flea markets are some fabulous treasures of the late 60's through the early 80's made by a French artist named Lea Stein.
Stein, a French trained artist who was born in Paris in 1931, began making her whimsical pieces of jewelry in the 1969, when her husband, Fernand Steinberger, came up with a process of laminating layers of rhodoid (cellulose acetate sheets) with interesting textures and colors. The layers were baked overnight with a secret component of his creation and then cut into shapes for various designs of pins, bracelets, earrings and shaped decorative objects. From the side, you can see, in some pieces, as many as 20 layers of cellulose bonded together to make these pieces.
The most easily recognizable Lea Stein pin is the 3-D fox, which has been produced in a myriad of colors and designs. Often, lace or metal layers were incorporated into the celluloid, which produced an astounding number of unique textures. The 3-D fox's tail is looped from one piece of celluloid.
Many different styles of cats, dogs, bugs, bunnies, birds, ducks and other creatures were introduced, as well as deco-styled women, mod-styled children, flowers, cars, hats, purses, gold-encased and rhinestone encrusted designs and lots of little "things" such as stars, hearts, rainbows... even pins resembling John Travolta and Elvis Presley! ! In addition, you can find many bangles, rings, cuffs, earrings and rarer boxes, mirrors and cigarette cases. The designs seem endless and to a Lea Stein collector, the ability to collect one of everything is almost impossible, because so many pieces were one of a kind! One particularly elusive piece was called "Joan Crawford" in the US and "Carmen" in France. This piece was made in limited quanity and was always hard to find, but, lo and behold, a new cache has recently hit the market and they are not so difficult to find anymore!
These "vintage" pieces of jewelry were made from 1969 until 1981 and are identified by a v-shaped pin-back which is heat mounted to the back of each piece, as are the pin-backs on her newer pieces. The v-shaped pinback is always marked "Lea Stein Paris." The smallest pieces have tiny straight pin-backs which say "Lea Stein."
Some of the thinner pieces have the clasp glued or heat-mounted on a small plastic disk, but all of them are marked in the same way. At one time the age of a pin could be determined by the pinback, but because of many newly released pieces in the past few years, that no longer is always the case.
Many different stories about the history of Lea Stein's jewelry have been circulated, but here are the facts, which are in direct discrepancy with many of the well known jewelry collecting books.
In 1957, Lea Stein started her own company, and from 1957 to 1965 was in the textile business. From 1965 to 1967 she made buttons. In 1967, she began making buttons in rhodoid, which is the cellulose acetate that we associate with her jewelry. Her skills at making rhodoid buttons were put to use in her first jewelry collection, which she began producing in 1969.
The vintage period of Lea Stein's jewelry was really a very short period of 12 years from 1969 to 1981, when her company, which by that time employed 50 workers and was mass-producing jewelry, failed due to the influx of Asian competition.
Reports in different books describing Stein's jewelry vary the time period of her "golden years" as anywhere from the 1930's to the 1960's. This is untrue, as she would have been but a schoolgirl in the 1930's!
Part of this speculation is due to the fact that Lea Stein's work is heavily influenced by the Art Deco period and that rhodoid, the cellulose acetate from which her jewelry is fashioned, strongly resembles Bakelite and some older plastics, such as galalith.
After the failure of her company in 1981, an American dealer in New York bought a big part of her remaining stock and began selling her jewelry in the US. It was not until after 1981 that the trademark Lea Stein pieces began to be well known in the US. It was somewhat ironic that Stein became known as a famous designer of French jewelry only after the failure of her business!
In the late 80's, after running a computer business, Lea Stein returned to the profession which she liked best... creating and making plastic jewelry. Every year since 1988, she has created a new piece for her collection, after much research into the design. These new designs included Buba (owl), Bacchus, Gomina, Attila, the tortoise, Ric the dog. Newer designs include the Ladybug in 1998 and the Porcupine in 2000. New designs for 2001 include a penguin and cicada, as well as a Christmas tree. More recent designs include Sacha and Quarrelsome cats, Pouf the Dog, Tom the Bear, Leo, who is a stylized cougar and a beautiful collaged Maple Tree . Despite what you may have heard, there are no first and second editions of these pieces.... They did not exist in the '70s and early '80s and they are still being produced. In addition to new pieces, from time to time dealers in France still unearth old stock. If you keep your eyes open, you can find them!
My first find was one of the little skateboarders....That was the beginning... Like a good compulsive collector, I have ended up with many, many pieces. Everytime I think I've seen them all, another one will pop up!
I have found two good reference books that have the most info about Lea Stein. Neither of these books offers an authoritative history of Lea Stein's jewelry, but they offer great photos and examples of her work. The very best is European Designer Jewelry by Ginger Moro (ISBN: 0887408230). This is an expensive book, but if you are serious about jewelry collecting, it's the most thorough reference you can find. Ginger Moro and Karima Parry have recently updated Lillian Baker's classic Twentieth Century Fashionable Plastic Jewelry, (ISBN: 157432327X ),which has long been out of print. Lea Stein Jewelry, by Judith Just, offers a comprehensive photographic reference of Lea Stein's designs.
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