Texas-born and New York City-based Paul Flato had the skill and creative vision to create absolutely show-stopping jewelry for a devoted following. He also had the discerning eye to hire extraordinarily gifted talent to work for him, including David Webb, Count Fulco di Verdura, and George Headley, all of whom would go on to their own fame. Headley, perhaps not so well-known as the other two luminaries, belongs in that firmament as a trip to the Headley-Whitney Museums in Lexington, Kentucky, would affirm.
Flato arrived in Manhattan in the early 1920s and found work as a watch salesman with the Fifth Avenue firm Edmund Frisch. His tenure there did not last long, as he soon branched out on his own and found near-instant fame and a faithful following — café society, heiresses and Hollywood royalty. He opened a shop at the crossroads of the jewelry universe — the corner of 57th Street and Fifth Avenue, still today a jewelry mecca, with Tiffany & Co., Bulgari, and Van Cleef & Arpels occupying three corners, and Louis Vuitton, on the fourth. Another shop followed on Sunset Boulevard and so did commissions to create jewelry for a half-dozen Hollywood films.
His obituary in the Los Angeles Times mentioned his “witty and flamboyant designs” and in his laudatory tribute in The New York Times, jewelry historian Penny Proddow stated, ”He was the first of the major American jewelers to do highly imaginative work on a par with European jewelers,” and the paper further stated he was “one of the best known jewelers in New York.”
His clientele included countless names of the era: Greta Garbo, Rita Hayworth, Merle Oberon, Katharine Hepburn and Gloria Vanderbilt. Early on, he used pearls and diamonds lavishly, and ultimately, he was inspired by everything — envelopes, hardware and even vegetables. His pieces are often bold and colorful and he created many suites that are convertible. Whimsy and a fresh, chic vibe inform much of his work. To see a panoply of his bijoux, savor the pictures in the book “Paul Flato Jeweler to the Stars” by Elizabeth Irvine Bray.