By Rosalind Bentley, Staff Writer; Minneapolis Star Tribune.

The first piece of jewelry that St. Paul designer Michael Angelo Pills did almost 14 years ago was fit for a princess – Princess Leah of “Star Wars,” that is.

Embedded in the huge, V-shaped silver cuff were three big malachite stones, each one between the size of a half-dollar and a quarter. He sold the bracelet to a friend for about $40.

“It was a real Star Wars-looking bracelet,” Pilla said. “It was kind of cool – at that time, but my tastes have changed greatly since then.”

Since then, Pilla, 35, has made a name for himself nationally with fine jewelry more suitable for real-life princesses. A 70-piece collection of rings, necklaces, pendants and earrings recently earned him the 1991 now Designer of the Year Award from the Jewelers of America Inc. The award is one of the most prestigious offered by the jewelry industry.

Of the 1,700 artisans whose work was exhibited at the Jewelers of America show in New York City, Pilla was chosen from a field of 12 for the award.

Although he still considers his work contemporary, bordering on the avant-garde, it is a far cry from the pieces he fashioned in his St. Paul basement 14 years ago. Then, the St. Paul native was still an apprentice at the now-defunct Northwestern Jewelry in St. Paul; he worked at the shop from 1978 until a robbery forced its closure in 1980 and drove Pilla into business for himself. He created commissioned pieces in his basement and then entered the wholesale market about five years ago.

All of his pieces are one-of-a-kind. His metals come from a local refiner, his jewels are cut in North Dakota and he casts his mountings in his shop on Grand Av. in St. Paul. He still does some commissioned pieces, but most of his work is sold in about 50 stores nationwide.

His work is sold locally at Facets in the Minneapolis Radisson Plaza (375-0554) and at Graff in Jewelers in Calhoun Square in Minneapolis (825-9898). Other Minnesota stores offering his works are Lasker Jewelers in Rochester, Exclusively Diamonds in Mankato and Security Jewelers in Duluth.

The contemporary style of his work has limited the number of Midwestern stores willing to carry the items, he said. He has several accounts on the West Coast and a couple in Boston, Mass., and Hartford Conn.

Greg Greffin, of Greffin Jewelers in Calhoun Square, has stocked Pilla’s work for six years and Pilla is now one of his store’s major suppliers. “It has a crisp nature to it,” Greffin said. “It’s different from most things you see. The settings tend to be geometric; he doesn’t go into flowery things but bold lines and bold designs.”

Pilla’s pieces range from $600 for a small pearl ring to $3,500 for a jeweled ring or earrings, and up to $20,000 for a custom piece. Almost none of those pieces contain malachite, however, partially because the stone loses its luster over time and Michael Pilla partially out of memory of that ’70s “Star Wars” cuff.

“Every time I look at malachite I think of that bracelet,” he said with a shudder.