Katharine Hepburn wearing a brooch by Paul Flato (photo source: EraGem)
“(Paul Flato) was the first of the major American jewelers to do highly imaginative work on par with European jewelers.'' --Penny Proddow, jewelry historian and co-author of “A Century of Spectacular Jewelry” (1996).
An Unlikely Beginning
Born in the 1900s in Shiner, Texas and famous for being one of the first well-known jewelers to grace the silver screen, Paul Flato was known throughout his lifetime as “jeweler to the stars”. At the young age of ten, he developed an interest in jewelry by watching nomadic merchants making and selling silver-wire items. However, his full-on pursuit of the jewelry business was, at first, a bit unexpected.
After attending the University of Texas in the 1920s, Flato actually planned on attending medical school in New York. However, due to his father’s financial issues, Flato put his dream of making it in medicine to rest and began to sell watches instead. As time passed, Paul Flato made the best out of his situation in New York by embracing his natural talents and applying them to jewelry.
The Stars Align
After moving to New York City, Flato opened his first jewelry shop on East 57th Street in Manhattan. Following his success on the east coast, he unveiled a second store in Beverly Hills, California in 1937. This new store was across from a popular nightclub called Trocadero, granting Flato access to an array of celebrity clientele. Flato’s enigmatic, hand-crafted pieces and whimsical jewelry designs were noticed by the affluent, and the rising jeweler became one of the first celebrity jewelry designers of his time. Throughout the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, people lovingly referred to him as “jeweler to the stars”.
Shining Beyond the Jewelry
Jewelry wasn’t Flato's only claim to fame. He also had some time on the silver screen! In the 1940s, Flato was featured in a film as a jeweler in the movie Hired Wife, which starred Rosalind Russell and Virginia Bruce. His jewelry creations also graced the silver screen in numerous 1930s Hollywood productions including That Uncertain Feeling starring Merle Oberon and Blood and Sand with Rita Hayworth.
To this day, Paul Flato is remembered for his witty, flamboyant, Art Deco jewelry style, and his pieces still bring in thousands of dollars at auctions today. It’s said that Flato’s drew inspiration from anything and everything - he even looked to the common chair for inspiration. It is reported that Flato was inspired by a rush-bottomed chair he saw at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and used this inspiration to create a compact for Elizabeth Arden.
Flato is also well-known for using an abundance of platinum, diamonds, and flower shapes in his jewelry. Some of his most famous pieces include a diamond “corset” bracelet based off of Mae West’s undergarments, a compact for Gloria Vanderbilt studded with gold and enamel angels, a pair of little gold feet set with ruby "toenails" for Irene Castle, and an apple blossom necklace for Lily Pons, a famous opera singer.
Flato’s story is one of artistry, originality and success, and his influence positively affected many others. Throughout the years, Paul Flato employed several future well-known designers: George W. Headley and Fulco di Verdura, both of whom collaborated with Flato between the 1920s and 1960s.
It isn’t all glitz and glamour…
Though Flato knew the highs of beauty, fame, and fortune, he was no stranger to the dark side of life. In the late 1940s, Flato was convicted of fraud and pleaded guilty for taking jewels on consignment from fellow jewelers and pawning them off. The jeweler served 16 years in federal prison and continued to fight further charges of grand larceny and forgery involving more than $60,000 in gems entrusted to him by dealers.
In 1953, Paul Flato finally returned to the United States. He eventually headed to Mexico in 1970, where he opened up a jewelry shop in Mexico City. After spending 20 years in Mexico City, Flato returned to his home state, Texas, and died at the age of 98 on July 17, in a nursing home in Fort Worth. The famed jeweler left behind three daughters: Catharine Dennis, Barbara McCluer, and Susan Flato, along with a grandson and six great grandchildren - and today, both his name and signature style remain well-known in the jewelry world.
(Featured image source: Lang Antiques)