It was her job as a cataloguer at Christie's auction house that first put the jeweler on Elizabeth Irvine Bray's radar.
The jeweler is Paul Flato, about whom Bray has written in her recently released book, "Paul Flato: Jeweler to the Stars," giving him an official place in history. She gave a comprehensive presentation about this colorful individual and his craft Tuesday in the McManus Room at Westport Public Library.
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 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 the cataloguer job at Christie's, and over her nine years of employment, she often would see Flato pieces spotlighted. What nagged at her was that there was so little information about his background. Out of curiosity, she began researching him and uncovered a treasure trove of information.
Wearing a circa 1935 Flato brooch with a value of $35,000 that was on loan from a Chicago collector, Bray revealed the jeweler to an attentive crowd of more than two dozen.
Flato was born in Texas in 1900 and ventured to New York in the 1920s to attend Columbia University. He briefly apprenticed for a Swiss watchmaker, and then at age 27, he 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 often was inspired by nature, particularly leaves, and liked to add a touch of whimsy to his creations. He also was 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 1930s, 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 Katharine Hepburn for the film "Holiday."
Ultimately, Flato opened a boutique on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood and became the go-to designer of custom jewelry creations for celebrities and film producers. 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 World War II 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 1950s, 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 died 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 20th century has finally found his place in history."