Fixing broken treasures
By Lauren Fritsky
Times Staff Writer
If Castor Gardens resident Ava Leas were stranded on a deserted island, she would need very little to survive — just glue, pliers and some broken jewelry.
For the last 21 years, Leas, 51, has crafted pins, jewelry, picture frames and other items from broken accessories and heirlooms. The resourceful married mother of three finds many of the items at yard sales, flea markets, thrift shops and even online through eBay. Sometimes customers approach her directly with their goods, while others send them to her anonymously.
"You have an heirloom; you have something that could mean something," said Leas, who works full time at Movies Unlimited’s corporate office in Normandy. "It’s nice to take something through life that makes people happy."
Out of their worn-down wares, Leas makes collage pins, which feature a mix of materials. She made one for herself with her parents’ possessions and gifts to her — a broken watch, a jewel from a ring her father gave her at age 13, and earrings from when she was a baby. The medallion-sized circular pins represent unified memories, Leas said.
"The vision just comes to you," she explained of how to assemble the pieces.
Leas’ business savvy emerged early. At age 6, she began charging friends and family 50 cents to craft baby and ankle bracelets. More than 40 years later, the kindergarten entrepreneur’s aptitude for adornments has burgeoned into a part-time business.
Inspiration struck in the most unlikely of places — Chuck E. Cheese’s entertainment center circa 1985. Leas, whose father sold jewelry in Center City, spotted a woman donning a collage pin and asked her how much it cost ($60). Leas thought the price was too high and decided to make more affordable, personal pins for people.
"This is my escape. I sit behind a desk all day," she said. "I have no daughters, so this is how I satisfy that part of me."
Leas, who tests out her accessories by wearing them first, also makes butterfly and angel pins themed for occupations, hobbies, relatives or nationalities. Her collections were displayed at Fox Chase Cancer Center last month. Leas donated 20 percent of her profits to the facility, where her parents had worked for decades doing their own fund-raising.
There have been other charitable endeavors. Leas was commissioned to craft 21 pins for a family to give to a terminally ill woman’s children and grandchildren upon her death. She recently designed an angel pin for a leukemia patient to raise money for leukemia awareness through the University of Pennsylvania.
Materials are both metal and plastic and include beads, gemstones, chains, charms, buttons and more. Leas has boxes upon boxes of broken jewelry, most sitting atop her dining-room table. She has worked with some ancient pieces — customers have offered her antique Elgin pocket watches and buttons from century-old wedding dresses. Ceramic watches, she said, are among the hardest items to work with.
Still, she wants "to use every medium possible."
While the means by which she acquires her pieces and material varies, Leas imposes one consistent rule:
"Don’t take apart something that’s still working."
Leas claims most pins take mere minutes to assemble, but she spends hours scavenging for pieces and showcasing her work at craft fairs and shows in the tri-state area. She tends to get more activity in places like the Jersey shore than in her home city.
"There’s not a lot of money in Philadelphia," she said. "I really don’t make a lot of money doing this."
At first, her husband was concerned about time spent away from the family. Ever the creative thinker, Leas found ways to incorporate her near-and-dear ones into her side job. In the past, she’s charged her children with dismantling items for her to reassemble. Her sons — Michael, 24, Justin, 15, and Blake, 14 — often accompany her to shows. Her husband of 25 years, Stuart, helps when needed.
"My husband is extremely handy," Leas said. "If I need something sanded down, he’ll do it."
Leas’ dream is to hook up with a store on South Street where she can sit in a window and make her pins with items that customers simply walk up and give her.
"I would just sit on display and make them," she said. ••
Leas charges $15 per pin or $25 for two. For information on purchasing pins or donating broken jewelry, e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Reporter Lauren Fritsky can be reached at 215-354-3038 or email@example.com