Lea Stein’s costume jewellery, although of a definite distinctive style, often transcends the varying tastes of differing demographics, with few being able to resist a gasp of delight when they spot a “Ric the dog”, “Buba the owl” or the most recognisable “Renard the Fox”.
The wide range of colourful, multi-textured designs depicting familiar fond imagery including animals, insects and celebrity lookalikes means there’s ‘something for everyone’, or for the avid collectors, always one more to find!
Born in Paris in 1936, Lea trained as an artist, putting her on a pathway to run a textile design company in the late 1950s. In the early 1960s in partnership with her husband, a chemist, the Stein’s began experimenting with new ways of using the medium ‘rhodoid’. The bonded sheets of cellulose acetate were ingrained with subtle accents of textiles and other materials to fashion the expressive multi-layered pieces we see today.
The popularity of the designs took off and Lea Stein evolved into a recognisable jewellery brand including rings, bangles, earrings, and pins. At its largest, the company employed over 50 people in France. Although popular in Europe, it wasn’t until a costume jewellery dealer began selling Lea Stein designs in the late 1980s that the brand became the transatlantic success continuing through to the present day.
For the past couple of decades, the focus has been on Lea’s most popular item of jewellery, the brooch. Each of the sought-after pieces are one-of-a-kind, the differences in detail dictated by the slight nuances of the placement of texture, pattern and colour and the way the rhodoid has cooled, with some designs taking months to finalise.
As with many sought after brands, copies are common. Lea Stein originals can be identified by the distinct Lea Stein logo’d metal v-shaped clasp, the earlier examples heat stamped into place, the more modern pieces secured by rivets. Where a clasp is not possible, the Lea Stein logo in circle form may be visible heat stamped directly into the plastic.
Although many people have their own personal favourite, the “Ballerina”, influenced by Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind is one of the more rare and thus covetable designs.
Collectors eagerly await news of Lea’s new designs, at least one a year, whilst keeping an eye on the auction market where pieces are often snapped up for a couple of hundred dollars each if not more.
However, the menagerie will continue to grow! A family affair with Lea’s husband, daughter, sons and grandchildren included in various avenues of the business, she has been quoted as saying “I love what I do so why would I stop? I will work in this way for as long as I am able to. One should always continue to do what they love, and I love what I do.”
HANNAH SASS / Jewellery Salon Manager