Brooches, after being neglected by the fashionistas for a while, are definitely making a come-back. Not many of us can afford a high end diamond or Tiffany brooch, but there is some amazing costume jewellery around that is much more affordable. If you are a brooch person you should definitely check out Lea Stein brooches. They are colourful, fun and the designs are stunning.
Lea Stein was born in Paris in 1931 and not much is known about her early life, other than that she initially worked for Coco Chanel before establishing her own textile design company in 1957. The company started making buttons for the fashion industry and Lea’s husband developed a laminated coloured rhodoid, consisting of multiple, paper-thin sheets of cellulose acetate that could be inter-layered with materials like glitter to produce a stunning effect. The layered sheets were then baked to harden and various shapes would be hand-carved.
Lea Stein launched her first range of costume jewellery in the late 1960s, consisting mainly of bangles and brooches. There is a multi-coloured striped bangle from this collection which is very difficult to find and it would cost you between £200 and £300. She started producing many types of jewellery, as well as jewellery boxes, picture frames and other accessories, but she is best known for her brooches. There was a high demand for these items and at one time the factory employed 50 people. By the early 1980s they were facing competition from East Asia and the company closed, selling the remaining stock to a dealer in the US. Stein’s designs were a huge success in the US and in 1988 she was persuaded to start designing again, although on a smaller scale. A sleeping cat named ‘Gomina’ and ‘Ric the Dog’were among the first of her new designs.
If you are buying Lea Stein brooches you are getting a piece of design history. While many designers used futuristic materials in psychedelic colours in the 1960s and 1970s Stein is a class above, in innovation and design. Working with rhodoid took time and patience and some effects could take up to six months to perfect. Also, because of the differences in finish, no two pieces are identical, which make them true collectors’ items. The simplified lines of the brooches mean they are often mistaken for Art Deco.
The brooch that Lea Stein is best known for is the ‘Fox’ pin, which was first produced in 1968 You can get it in all types of colours and patterns, from pearlised snakeskin to glitter and the price is very reasonable at £30 – £35. You could put together an entire collection of just foxes, as it comes in so many variations.
You should also look out for the ‘Joan Crawford’ or ‘Carmen’ pin. It was made from 1968-80, and this is considered to be the ‘vintage’ Lea Stein period – you would have to pay between £65 and £70. ‘Tennis Woman’ and ‘The Diver’ are from the same period and would be a bit more expensive, as would her Rolls Royces, saxophones and Elvis Presleys.
In the 1970s Stein bought the licence to a French children’s TV show called L’ille aux Enfants and in 1975 she reproduced the characters as brooches. These are now very difficult to come by, but if you do find one you would have to pay well over £100. Even rarer are the geometric ‘Chinese Men’ pins, which would set you back in excess of £200. Since 1988 Lea Stein has only designed one or two pieces a year and they are snapped up by collectors on both sides of the Atlantic. These are great for collectors as they are produced in small quantities – look out for the ‘Ladybug’ pin from 1998 and the ‘Penguin’ pin from 2001. For those of you who love Christmas, she did a limited edition of Christmas tree pins in 2001.
You can recognise a Lea Stein brooch by the distinctive elongated V shape pin at the back and most brooches are signed ‘Lea Stein Paris’. While prices can be high for the rarer designs, many of the brooches can be found for between £25 – £70, which is fantastic value, given the design and craftsmanship and really good news if you are collecting Lea Stein brooches.