Paris-based jewelry designer Léa Stein has a rabid cult following—particularly in the United States, Australia, the U.K., and Japan—and a mysterious past.
Stein has been creating exuberant, quirky work—most famously, pins—since the late 1960s. Her style is instantly recognizable. Most of her designs are made up of multiple layers (as many as 50!) of laminated cellulose acetate, sometimes interspersed with layers of lace, silk, or metal, fused together in a process invented by her husband, a chemist named Fernand Steinberger. “The finishes are exquisite,” said Lesley Postle, an Australian dealer who sells Stein’s work online at Decolish. “It’s hard to believe that they’re a type of plastic. Stein manages to create patterns which mimic mother of pearl, glitter, snakeskin, and many other beautiful effects. Because she chooses animals, birds, butterflies, and little whimsical, almost cartoon-like, characters, people find her work adorable. Some of her designs also reflect the spirit of an age, such as the Art Deco period.”
Stein is perhaps best known for her multi-dimensional fox pin with a tail curled and wrapped under its body, but she also makes gorgeous cats, dogs, hedgehogs, and striking abstract pieces. She’s done a Joan-Crawford-like shoulder-padded character, a stylized Elvis with an electric guitar, ringtail possums, keys, chubby faceless urchins on skateboards, cranky-looking owls, matchsticks, flowerpots, Saturday-Night-Fever-era John Travolta, teensy purses, a spit-curled Josephine Baker wearing huge wedge-shape earrings, wee vintage Rolls-Royce roadsters, lady sax players, and an entire line based on a trippy French cartoon (L’Isle des Enfants) from the 1970s that includes a somber, googly-eyed chick with an eggshell on its head. She’s done fairies with gossamer wings; minimalist, bold ladybugs; and a complex geometric brooch inspired by Sonia Delaunay’s paintings. It’s hard to imagine another jewelry designer whose work can promote giggles as well as gasps of admiration.
Once you’ve looked a few pieces, you see that Stein’s work is instantly recognizable but also wildly diverse. “Because the pieces are handmade, often with many components and with a wide range of colors, no two pieces are exactly the same,” said Robert Mace, one of Stein’s two main sales agents in the U.K. (The other is Christopher St. James in Covent Garden.) “There are many thousands of possible color combinations, plus a huge range of designs from the late 1960s to now, providing an endless field for collectors.” (I’d note that some of Stein’s pieces—a caricatured silhouette of a Chinese man in a coolie hat, an Indian in a giant feather headdress—have perhaps not aged as well as others.)
Mace told me that Stein was born in Paris in 1936—not 1931, as is often repeated in articles and on fan websites. Though rumors abound that she spent her youth in a concentration camp, she was actually a hidden child, moved from location to location in occupied France until the end of the war.
Mace hesitated when I asked for more details. “The Steins are quite private,” he said. “I can tell you, however, that Fernand was taken out of Paris by his parents, went south, and got through the war [without being sent to the camps]. He and Léa both lost members of their families and, of course, their possessions. They met in Paris after the war, where they later married and started a family. They remain practicing members of the Jewish faith.”
Fernand and Léa made buttons and buckles for several well-known couturiers before striking off on their own. Except for a brief period in the 1980s, they’ve been producing work steadily since the ’60s. Every year they produce two or three new designs. “These are highly prized, as fewer are made than in the earlier days, and the more recent pieces tend to be particularly intricate,” Mace noted.
The drama of Stein’s work perhaps explains why big personalities like Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Collins owned her pieces, but I discovered her work through the writing of a more cerebral collector, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewel Box is about Albright’s extensive collection of brooches and the ways she used them to deliver messages to world leaders and the press. Albright owns numerous Stein pieces: She wore a Stein turtle to convey impatience with the slow pace of Middle East peace talks and a wise Stein owl when she was feeling optimistic about ongoing negotiations. After the foreign minister of South Korea said he liked hugging her because of her firm breasts, Albright told the press, “Well, I have to have something to put these pins on.” But the next time she and the foreign minister met, she extended a hand for him to shake and wore a big fox pin. For more of these stories, and a look at the pins themselves, keep a lookout for the traveling exhibit of Albright’s pins that’s currently at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco (through Jan. 29). (In the exhibit, you can also see the giant bug she wore to a meeting with the Russian foreign minister after a Russian listening device was found planted in a State Department office, and the gold snake with a diamond dangling from its mouth that she wore to a meeting with Saddam Hussein after the Iraqi state-run press called her “an unparalleled serpent.” Neither the bug nor the snake was by Stein, but I share these stories because, come on, they are awesome.)
If you’re interested in Stein’s work, be wary of knockoffs (“easily recognizable by their cheap construction,” Mace warned, “for example, laser-cut pieces stuck one on top of the other, bearing no relation to the processes that Léa and Fernand use”) and look for the “Lea Stein Paris” signature on the back, on a V-shaped (usually) or short straight pin. Prices start around $60 and go up to several hundred dollars for rarer pieces.
Or you can do what I do: Admire Stein’s designs on eBay, and sigh happily.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.