Paul Flato

Paul Flato (1900 – 1999) In one of the most stunning reversals of fortune in jewelry design history, one name almost always rises to the top of the list. Known during the1920s and especially in the 1930s as First Jeweler to the Celebrities and Designer to the Stars, as well as one of America’s greatest jewelers, Paul Flato’s career came to a swift and abrupt end in the 1940s.
In 1943, he was sent to prison for grand larceny after being found guilty of pawning gems and jewelry that belonged to suppliers and clients and that had been entrusted to him for safekeeping or consignment. Over the next couple of decades he would return to prison twice for other fraud related crimes. He was finally released from Sing Sing in 1966.
Until his downfall, Paul Edmund Flato led what appeared to be a charmed life. He was born in Shiner, Texas to a successful cattle rancher and a German immigrant wife. The town in which Flato was raised was founded by his German great grandparents who purchased the land from Mexico.
It is said that Paul became interested in jewelry at an early age when he saw pieces worn by his wealthy family and neighbors. It was during these formative years that Paul developed interest in design and construction of jewels. Much of this inspiration was the result of watching local and nomadic Gypsies create and sell pieces made from silver wire.
Paul first attended the University of Texas in Austin. In 1920, he moved to New York to attend Columbia University. However he was forced to drop out a year later when his family experienced financial difficulties. They cut off his allowance when, over their objections, he refused to return to Texas.
Paul soon found a job as an apprentice and watch salesman for the Fifth Avenue jewelry and watch dealer, Edmund Frisch. He worked there for only a couple of years before setting up his own upstairs salon on Manhattan’s 57th Street at the corner of 5th Avenue. Several years later, Tiffany & Co. would open its flagship store directly across the street. Many of Paul’s first clients were friends he’d made at Columbia as well as those he met in the wealthy social circles in which he began to move.
Flato was fascinated by pearls and studied them in detail, building a reputation as a specialist in matching exquisite strands. A friendship with the then relatively unknown diamond wholesaler Harry Winston proved beneficial to both men.
Flato created jewelry using Winston diamonds and over the years helped Winston sell exceptional stones including the 125.65ct Jonker diamond. The stone’s sale received a great deal of press attention when it was unveiled set in the center of a Flato designed necklace.
In the early 1920s, it didn’t take long for Paul to become a celebrity favorite. His earliest sales concentrated on increasingly rare strands of matched natural pearls and designs featuring large diamonds. An example of one of his more important pearl strands that sold in 1930 consisted of 85 graduated natural pearls clasped by a four carat Golconda diamond.
In the late 20s and early 30s, Paul Flato was one of the best known jewelers in New York. His highly imaginative work was considered equal to European jewelers.
Flato’s jewelry ran from elegant, important pieces to urbane and slyly witty designs. He also had a talent for employing gifted designers that included his chief designer, Adolph Klety. Adolph specialized in creating more formal platinum and diamond jewelry that rendered floral and naturalistic flexible jewels in a style Flato described as “drippy.”
George Headley, another of Flato’s featured designers was known for creating fanciful gold jewelry and accessories. While Flato did not have the design training and drafting skills of Klety and Headley, he knew how he wanted his pieces to look and instructed his designers accordingly. Flato’s colored gemstone pieces reflect his strong sense of striking color combinations.
The most famous designer associated with Flato was Fulco Verdura who Flato met through his friendship with fashion maven Diana Vreeland. After leaving Chanel, Verdura designed a number of bold, colorful pieces that reflected a sense of aesthetics and exuberance he shared with Flato.
According to Flato enthusiast and author, Elizabeth Bray, “Both men liked the shocking use of color and nontraditional subjects, and both were social and charming. Flato, like Verdura, was intrigued by religion and the supernatural. Both men liked to use angels, mythological and astronomical imagery in their designs, and both appreciated a sense of humor and whimsy in jewels. Verdura’s pieces had such cachet and presence that Flato begun to market them as, “Verdura for Flato.”
Flato also employed the design talents of two socialites: Standard Oil heiress, Millicent Rogers and the former Vogue editor, Josephine Forrestal, wife of Secretary of the Navy, James V. Forrestal. Based on Rogers’s sketches, Flato designed a series of well received “fat heart” brooches in the 1930s.
The most famous of these was a large ruby heart that featured a sapphire swag with the motto “verbum carro” (‘the word made flesh’) pierced by a yellow diamond arrow. Rogers wore it extensively. The ‘puffy heart’ brooches that Rogers designed with Flato became best sellers and Rogers’ own large version covered in pavé rubies is arguably one of Flato’s most recognizable pieces.
Josephine Forrestal’s contributions included designs based on antique pieces she brought back from her travels in Europe. Perhaps, the most well-known are the “wiggly clips;” diamond brooches based on 19th Century en tremblant jewels.
In addition to creating ”important” pieces, Flato was an early advocate of whimsical jewels. Among these was a diamond ”corset” bracelet, with garters in rubies and diamonds, based on a Mae West’ undergarment. He also created a bracelet, aptly named the ”gold digger” that featured a gold pickax and black enamel sign language initial clips for Katharine Hepburn. The latter were among the many pieces Flato created for the 1938 film, ”Holiday.”
Other fanciful designs include a compact for Gloria Vanderbilt that was studded with gold and enamel angels, including an angel on a chamber pot. A pair of little brooches of gold feet with ruby toenails was originally made for Irene Castle, a play both on her maiden name, Foote, and her dancing career.
Flato’s famous “Deaf and Dumb” hand clips were based on the sign language alphabet. Other unusual subjects took their inspiration from the Surrealistic art movement of the early twentieth century. These included such diverse subjects as feet, nuts and bolts, envelopes, gold boxer shorts, radishes and cacti that were transformed into brooches, cuff links, boxes and earrings.
In 1938, Flato opened an elegant store in Hollywood opposite the famed Trocadero supper club, a favorite of Hollywood’s glamorous personalities.
Flato spent the next few years providing fabulous jewels for some of America’s most popular screen stars such as Rita Hayworth, Greta Garbo, Ginger Rogers, Mae West, Katherine Hepburn, and Marlene Dietrich and worn by these women both on and off screen.
Many of Flato’s clients became friends and he attended many red carpet events and glamorous parties where he would enjoy the company of the cream of Hollywood royalty. In fact, in addition to five non-appearing film credits, Flato had an on-screen role as a jeweler in the 1940 film “Hired Wife” starring Rosalind Russell and Virginia Bruce.
Most of Flato’s pieces during this era reflect the trend for large scale, convertible jewels that could be worn in multiple ways. Two noteworthy examples were Marlene Dietrich’s 128 carat cabochon cut emerald and diamond bracelet in which the emerald could be removed and worn as an imposing ring and Joan Crawford’s cabochon cut ruby and diamond necklace designed with Verdura that could be converted into bracelets, a pendant, and dress clips.
Some of Flato’s most famous pieces include platinum and diamond jeweled ribbons, scrolls and flowers. An apple blossom necklace for Lily Pons, the opera singer, was wrapped around the neck and opened in the front with diamond blossoms cascading on either side. A rose became a rambler that twined around the wrist on a baguette-cut diamond stem sprouting rose-cut diamond buds.
He started a trend when he created the black enamel and jeweled encrusted initials. His solid gold screw and nut cufflinks were featured on the cover of “Masterpieces of American Jewelry,” a book released in conjunction with an exhibition of the same name. It was organized in 2004 by the American Folk Art Museum and featured seven Flato pieces.
Flato’s downfall began with the loss of a consigned 17 carat emerald cut diamond at his New York location. That event led to the revelations of a series of ill-advised financial decisions intended to surreptitiously sell off consigned goods to raise cash. Unable to return the goods or pay off consignors, Flato was ultimately convicted of grand larceny and sentenced to 18 months at the notorious Sing Sing prison beginning in December 1943.
A brief venture producing fashion compacts and pens followed his first release, but, a short time later he fell under the influence of an unscrupulous fortune teller and again reverted to unsound and illegal methods of securing funds.
In an attempt to avoid another stay at Sing Sing, Flato fled to South America in a futile attempt to avoid extradition. Ultimately, Flato plead guilty to lesser, unrelated charges in Mexico and served a four year sentence in Mexico’s Lecumberri prison before beginning another five year sentence in Sing Sing.
After his release in 1966, Flato returned to Mexico and opened a store in Mexico City’s Zona Rosa section in 1970. Flato continued to design remarkable jewels for the next twenty years many of which drew on Mexico’s indigenous culture and Flato’s love of exuberant color combinations.
In 1990, at age 90, Flato retired to Texas to be near family and friends. He often related tales of the jewelry he created, the famous stars and clients he adorned and all the illustrious (and not so illustrious) places he lived until his death on July 17, 1999.
After his death, Paul Flato’s jewelry began to fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction.