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Trash or Treasure: French jewelry designer had intriguing past

Khristi Zimmeth
Special to The Detroit News

“She knew how to live,” Penny Franz says of her maternal grandmother. Franz recently brought a few items that had belonged to that bon vivant relative to an appraisal session held at the Michigan Design Center, hoping to shed some light on both their history and value.

Among the things she brought were some jewelry, including an inherited ring and a necklace as well as some unusual and highly collectible brooches she had bought herself at antique shows and local thrift shops.

Penny Franz displays her 1920 necklace.

Appraiser Brian Thomczek said that while jewelry isn’t his specialty, he could tell that the pieces she had brought were of excellent quality. “The garnet necklace falls so nicely and is very beautiful,” he told her of the unmarked piece, which he dated to the 19th century, adding that “it could use a good cleaning.” He valued it at $300 to $400 at auction. He also admired the unusual silver and enamel ring with a woman in profile she had brought, which he valued at $200 to $300.

But he was most intrigued with the four pins she brought in that she identified as by the French jewelry designer Lea Stein. Representing an elongated Rolls Royce, a small purse, a little dancing girl and a boy on a skateboard, all were marked with Stein’s name on the metal pin on the back.  “These are really fun and quite collectible,” the appraiser told her. Thomczek called her pieces “nice examples of Stein’s distinctive style,” and appraised them at up to $250 for the four examples.

Pins from French jewelry designer Lea Stein

Franz said she started collecting Stein pins from antique shows and was even lucky enough to find one at a thrift shop, where she thinks she paid about $20. She said she was curious about the designer, adding that an antique dealer she had purchased one from had told her that Stein was both French and Jewish and had a fascinating history, including one reputed story that she had escaped occupied Paris by marching out of the city disguised as a Nazi.

No online information confirming that story could be found, but some additional facts about the enigmatic designer were found at worldcollectorsnet.com, “Lea was born in Paris, France in 1931 and although very little is known of her early years it is believed that a lot of her childhood was spent in a concentration camp during WW2. Lea married Fernand Steinberger in the 1950s but it was not until the 1960s that she embarked in her own business of making creative innovative designs in costume jewellery.”

The site went on to explain that her husband had discovered a way to laminate celluloid into sheets that could be baked, and that Stein employed this new technique to make her popular jewelry from the 1960s into the 1980s. Her “patterns and designs vary from the amusing caricature to the classic geometric deco style,” the site continued, even mentioning that one of Penny’s designs is among the most sought after.  “Rolls Royce”, “French Sailor”, “Saxophone” and even rock legend “Elvis” are also highly desirable to collectors,” it claimed.

Franz said she used to wear the pins often, especially when she would dress up and in the pre-pandemic days “when I used to wear anything besides t-shirts and capris,” she added with a laugh.

Tell Khristi Zimmeth about your unique antiques at trashortreas@aol.com.

About this item

Item: Jewelry

Owned by: Penny Franz

Appraised by: Brian Thomczek

Estimated value:  Up to $400 each