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Antiques Column: A spectacle of costume jewellery

Lea Stein.
Lea Stein.

Lea Stein was a French Paris-based artist born in 1931 who become famous for her costume jewellery fashioned out of rhodoid, a form of cellulose acetate, typically the type used to make frames for spectacles.

She began her own design company in 1957 but it wasn’t until the mid-1960s that she experimented with rhodoid and in 1965 started making buttons. By the end of the 1960s she had branched out from buttons to brooches and further improved her technique, with the help of her husband, chemist Fernand Steinberger.

He invented a lamination process involving very thin sheets of rhodoid that enabled her to layer to dramatic effect.

This method gave wonderful texture, colour and pattern to her pieces.

The subject and designs of her pieces include most commonly animals, particularly cats and people both famous and stylised.

Due to the process taken to create them, each piece is completely original, no two are the same and all her work is signed in the same way; on the pin backing “Lea Stein – Paris”.

Stein’s work is categorised as either vintage (1969-1981) or modern (1988-). The company suffered from competition abroad, closing in 1981.

Stein began designing again in 1988 as well as recreating some of her vintage collection.

The Art Deco look of many of her designs has repeatedly lead to them being mistakenly dated in the 1920s.

Popular vintage pieces include Fox, Rhino, Felix and Ballerina. Key modern designs include ‘Buba’ (an owl), Goupil (a fox’s head) as well as Penguin, Tortoise and the cat, Sacha.

It can be incredibly difficult to tell vintage and modern pieces apart.