‘Jeweler to the Stars’:
Elizabeth Irvine Bray gives
library talk on Paul Flato
(Appeared on Westport News
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All rights reserved.
Westport, CT – It was a cataloguing job at Christie’s that first put the jeweler on her radar. Now she has unveiled a book about his life’s work and given him an official place in history.
The jeweler of note is Paul Flato and author Elizabeth Irvine Bray gave a comprehensive presentation about the colorful individual and his craft Tuesday morning Dec. 14 in the McManus Room at Westport Library, 20 Jesup Road.
Bray, 33, is a native daughter, born and raised in Westport and a 1994 graduate of Staples High School. After earning a dual degree in English and Studio Art from Carnegie Mellon University in 1998, Bray worked for a wholesale diamond dealer in New York’s diamond district. The experience sparked further interest in jewelry and she subsequently earned a graduate gemologist degree from the Gemological Institute of America.
In 1999, Bray landed a cataloguer job at Christie’s auction house and, over her nine years of employment there, she would often see Flato pieces spotlighted. What nagged at her was that there was so little information about Flato’s background as with other jewelers. Out of curiosity, she began researching him and uncovered a treasure trove of information – enough to compile a book she has just released titled, “Paul Flato: Jeweler to the Stars.”
Wearing a circa 1935 Flato brooch with a value of $35,000 on loan from a Chicago collector, Bray exposed the jeweler to an attentive library crowd of over two dozen people.
Flato was born in Texas in 1900 and ventured to New York in the 20s to attend Columbia University. He briefly apprenticed for a Swiss watchmaker then, at age 27, opened his own boutique on 57th Street catering to socialites, Wall Streeters and the fashion conscious. He was flamboyant and loud and enlisted debutantes to model his work.
He collaborated with Harry Winston, who supplied him with gems, and worked with a team of designers to create pieces with complete originality. Flato was often inspired by nature, particularly leaves, and liked to add a touch of whimsy to his creations. He was also influenced by the Surrealist Art movement in Europe, as well as earlier eras like the Victorian age. Often, he would collaborate on a design with his customers, like Standard Oil heiress Millicent Rogers Balcom.
Flato’s most famous designer was Fulco, Duke of Verdura, with whom he shared a preference for a shocking use of color. They offered a line called “Verdura by Flato” before Verdura went on his own.
In the late 30s, Flato became hard of hearing and developed a line of brooches called “Deaf and Dumb” with hand symbols inspired by sign language.
His work was being featured regularly in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, which brought interest from the West Coast. Hollywood director George Cukor asked him to design jewelry for Katherine Hepburn for the film “Holiday.”
Ultimately, Flato opened a boutique on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood and became the go-to of celebrities and film producers for custom jewelry creations. His clients included leading actresses Rita Hayworth, Greta Garbo, Paulette Goddard, Vivian Leigh, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford and Ginger Rogers.
Several events in the early 1940s altered Flato’s course. A robbery netted $50,000 from his boutique, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor pulling America into WWII and forcing Americans to reprioritize spending, and a $60,000 diamond on loan to him vanished from his shop. With regard to the latter, an investigation found that he had been pawning consignment pieces and he was charged with grand larceny. He traded a designer suit for prison grays at Sing Sing for a term of 18 months.
In the 50s, Winston and Verdura replaced him as the glitterati’s jeweler of choice and he subsequently left the U.S. for Mexico where, in 1970, he opened a tiny boutique. It wasn’t until 1990 that he returned to the U.S., where his work and designs had gained high ticket collector value. He passed at age 99 in July 1999.
“He defied the odds of rising from the grassroots of Texas to the limelight of Hollywood,” said Bray, “and from the shame of being imprisoned to the pleasure of being accepted again in high society. This uniquely talented legend of the twentieth century has finally found his place in history.”