Enigmatic Celebrity Jeweller, Paul Flato
From L-R: A Portrait of Paul Flato, circa 1937; A Pair of Highly Articulated Emerald Bead, Diamond and Platinum Clip Brooches, circa 1936; The famous "Hand of God" Brooch belonging to Joan Bennett that was inspired by astrology and fortune tellers; The Feather Necklace, in Platinum and Diamond worn by Paulette Goddard and Lily Pons.
Paul Flato was a celebrated jeweller in New York who rivalled the most established names in European jewellery from the 1920s to 1940s. Flato's creativity as a jeweller was unparalleled in his time and his unique combination of whimsy, style and proportion, and masterful renderings of a wide array of themes left behind a legacy of stunning "conversation pieces, which were sometimes wicked, always sophisticated and invariably smart". Navigating high society with flamboyant ease and charm, he built a strong following with his marketing savvy. Sought after by socialites, aristocrats and Hollywood stars, his sudden downfall following an arrest and imprisonment for fraud came as a shock. A colourful personality, Flato has always been a source of interest to many, and his work remains highly collectible and valuable today.
He was born in 1900 to a wealthy Texan family of German descent from the town of Shiner. From an early age, Flato was exposed to life in high society, and the finest things that money could buy. When he was 8 years old, a clandestine encounter with nomadic gypsies would spark off his lifelong interest with jewellery. Flato was fascinated by the jewellery that belonged to his mother and the female visitors who came to their house. He would examine the construction of the pieces, and how they were worn by women. After completing high school, Flato enrolled in the University of Texas as a pre-med student, and joined the Student Army Training Corps in 1918 (although he never went to war). Realising that a medical career was not for him, Flato decided to move to New York City in 1920 to seek a different future. Enrolling in business school at Columbia, Flato joined a fraternity and began socialising with the scions of New York's elite.
Dropping out of Columbia a year later, and having been cut off from his family, Flato became an apprentice with Edmund Frisch, a Swiss jeweller and watch dealer, for a humble allowance of $15 a week. After several years of apprenticeship, Flato started his own business creating graduation gifts and engagement rings for his friends from Columbia. Success came easily and he became known as a specialist on Oriental pearls and was frequently featured in many publications. A million dollars worth of sales was achieved in a few short years. He had the help of a designer team, with him at the helm offering inspiration, ideas and setting themes. This team was made up of Adolphe Klety, George Headley and the Duke du Fulco Verdura.
Despite his booming business, Flato often had problems with his cash-flow. He lived lavishly, beyond his means; while his wealthy clientele was tardy with their payments. Hollywood soon beckoned, leading to the opening of a second store in Los Angeles in the late 30s. Paul Flato jewels were worn by the brightest stars in Hollywood both on and off screen - Katherine Hepburn, Jean Harlow, Marlene Dietrich, Ginger Rogers, Merle Oberon, Joan Bennett, Vivien Leigh, Rita Hayworth, Greta Garbo and Lily Pons were some of the celebrities who wore his pieces. In 1941, an armed robbery caused the company to suffer severe losses and in the same year the bombing of Pearl Harbour slowed business down further, forcing it to be closed down.
In 1943, a $60,000 diamond brooch that had been consigned to Flato went missing. The police were called in to investigate the loss. Worried jewellers who had consigned pieces with Flato turned up to collect their pieces, only to find that he had pawned many of them, using the cash to temporary stay afloat. Charged with suspicion of theft, Flato was forced to file for bankruptcy. He was sentenced to jail at the end of 1943. A year later, the diamond mysteriously turned up. According to the the tailor who had returned the diamond, he had been to Flato's office to collect a bill, and Flato had handed him the diamond saying it was a present to his wife. The tailor's wife, not knowing the value of the stone, had left it pinned to her dress in a closet for a whole year. The couple only discovered it was the missing diamond when she had taken the brooch to a jeweller to have it reset. Although the diamond was returned, Flato still had to remain in prison.
Upon his release, Flato started a business with his daughter, creating costume jewelled vanity cases and pens. However, he was caught in 1952 for paying a fortune teller with jewels that were on loan once again, and this time he escaped to Central America, where he was caught. Eventually he served prison time both in Mexico and then again in the United States. Moving back to Mexico after his 5 year incarceration in the United States, Flato finally started afresh, opening a jewellery store in the Zona Rosa district of Mexico City, where he continued creating jewellery late into his 80s. At 90 years of age, Flato was reunited with his family in Texas, till his death in 1999.
Standard Oil heiress, Millicent Rogers wearing a large heart brooch that she collaborated on with Paul Flato and which later became art of the "whimsies" jewels marketed under the Flato brand. The Millicent Rogers heart: A Ruby, Sapphire, Colored Diamond and Enamel brooch, by Paul Flato was auctioned at the Christies New York Magnificent Jewels sale on April 14.
Estimate $350,000 - $500,000. Realised $425,000
Left: A Pair of Gold, Ruby, Diamond and Sapphire Shoe Brooches, circa 1938. Created for Ginger Rogers.
Centre: A Pair of Gold and Ruby Feet Brooches. Currently available at www.revivaljewels.com
Right: A typical display of the irreverent humour that can be found in many of Flato's pieces. An ink and gouache design for a brooch created for Marlene Dietrich. The actress suffered a broken leg on the set of filming The Lady Is Willing and was presented with a broken leg brooch when filming was completed.
A Gold and Citrine Bangle Bracelet, by Paul Flato, circa 1940. Worn by Katharine Hepburn in the film Holiday. Part of the Important Jewels Sale at Sotheby's on the 2nd February, 2011 for an estimate of $7500 to $10,000. Price realised $36,250.
Paul Flato - Jeweller to the Stars, by Elizabeth Irvine Bray