He was known as the “Jeweler to the stars” and was one of the first well-known designers to grace the silver screen. Paul Flato was born in the 1900s in Shiner, Texas. At the young age of 10, Flato developed an interest in jewelry by watching nomadic Gypsies make silver-wire items to sell. After attending the University of Texas in the Twenties; he planned on attending Medical school in New York. Due to his father’s financial issues, Flato put his dream about making it in medicine to rest, and started to sell watches instead. As time passed, Paul Flato made the best out of his situation in New York by embracing his God given talents, and eventually applying them to jewelry.
After moving to New York City, he opened his first jewelry shop on East 57th street in Manhattan. In 1937, he unveiled his second store in Beverly Hills, California. The store was across from the hot spot, Trocadero nightclub, which increased his celebrity clientele. His enigmatic work was being noticed by affluent societies. He was referred to as the “jeweler to the stars,” throughout the 1920s and 1940s, due to his fine pieces and hand crafted, whimsical jewelry designs. Paul Flato was one of the first celebrity jewelry designers of his time. Jewelry wasn’t the only reason he was popular amongst the stars; Flato was featured in a film as a jeweler in the 1940’s movie, “Hired Wife,” starring Rosalind Russell and Virginia Bruce. Besides being in a film himself, his creations were seen in numerous Hollywood productions in the 1930s, such as; ”That Uncertain Feeling,” starring Merle Oberon, and “Blood and Sand,” with Rita Hayworth. To this day, Paul Flato is recognized for his witty, flamboyant, Art deco jewelry style, which still brings in thousands of dollars at auctions.
Over the years, Paul Flato had employed several future well-known designers; George W. Headley and Fulco di Verdura; both who collaborated with Flato between the 1920s and 1960s. Flato was said to be Harry Winston’s biggest client back when Winston was only a wholesale dealer. It is said that Flato’s inspiration derived from a little bit of everything. He even looked at the common chair for inspiration. It is reported he was inspired by a rush-bottomed chair after seeing it in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and created a compact for Elizabeth Arden from it.
Plato was known for using a lot of platinum and diamonds along with flower shapes in his jewelry. An apple blossom necklace was made for Lily Pons, a famous Opera singer. The necklace entailed diamond blossoms, cascading on both sides with a rose wrapped around the wrist on a baguette cut diamond stem, along with rose bud cut diamonds. Another one of his popular pieces is the diamond “corset” bracelet. This was based off of Mae West’s undergarment. Flato also designed a compact for Gloria Vanderbilt, which was studded with gold and enamel angels. Another piece was a pair of little gold feet, which was created for Irene Castle. It was all gold with rubies set in as toe nails.
Life wasn’t always rainbows and butterflies for Paul Flato. He was convicted of fraud for obtaining and disposing of jewels from his colleagues. In the late 1940s, Flato plead guilty and served 16 years in a federal prison for taking jewels on consignment from fellow jewelers and pawning them off. He lived there for almost eight years after serving time and fighting extradition on further charges of grand larceny and forgery involving more than $60,000 in gems that had been entrusted to him by dealers.
In 1953, Paul Flato returned to the United States for a brief time. He head back to Mexico in 1970, where he opened up a jewelry shop in Mexico City. After spending 20 years in Mexico City, he returned to his home state, Texas. Paul Flato died at the age of 98 on July 17, in a nursing home in Fort Worth. Leaving behind three daughters; Catharine Dennis, Barbara McCluer, Susan Flato, including a grandson; along with six great grandchildren.
”He was the first of the major American jewelers to do highly imaginative work on a par with European jewelers.” –Penny Proddow, a jewelry historian and co-author of “A Century of Spectacular Jewelry” (1996). ”He would take his ideas to his four designers — they were his hands — and they would go on from there to his workshop.”