He was exposed to the delights of fine jewellery from an early age through the pieces worn by wealthy family, friends and neighbours and developed an interest in the design and construction of jewels by watching local Gypsies fashion pieces out of silver wire. He moved to New York in 1920 where he enrolled at Columbia University. However he was forced to drop out only a year later when his family cut off his allowance after he refused their pleas to return home to Texas. Undeterred, Flato remained in Manhattan and became apprenticed to a jeweller on Fifth Avenue for whom he worked for only a couple of years before setting up in business on his own. Many of his first clients were the friends he’d made at Columbia as well as connections from the increasingly wealthy social circles he was beginning to move in. He was fascinated by pearls and set about studying them in detail, building a reputation as a specialist in matching exquisite strands. Later in life he would comment that one of the most expensive jewels he ever sold was a row of large, exceptionally beautiful pearls that had taken 10 years to assemble and cost half a million dollars. A friendship with the then relatively unknown diamond wholesaler Harry Winston was to prove highly beneficial to both parties. Flato created jewellery set with Winston diamonds and over the years helped him to sell some exceptional stones including the 125.65ct ‘Jonker’ diamond which received huge press attention when it was unveiled set in the centre of a Flato designed necklace.
By the mid 1930’s Flato was established as the society jeweller ‘par excellence’. His rise to fame was greatly aided by his naturally charming and witty manner and his love of socialising. He attended numerous events from fashion shows to charity events and balls, never missing an opportunity for self-promotion. He worked with three designers who all specialised in different styles of jewellery and whom Flato watched over and directed as they brought his ideas to life on the page. From stylish platinum and diamond statement jewels through whimsical gold shoes studded with coloured gems to his famous “Deaf and Dumb” hand clips which were based on the sign language alphabet, all of Flato’s pieces were infused with his personality and joie de vivre. Alongside these regular designers (one of whom was Fulco di Verdura, fresh from working for Chanel) several of his clients including Josephine Forrestal and Millicent Rogers would also contribute ideas for jewellery. The ‘puffy heart’ brooches that Rogers designed with Flato would become best sellers and her own large version covered in pavé rubies is arguably one of Flato’s most recognisable pieces.
In 1938 Flato opened a store on Sunset Boulevard, seduced by the glamour of Hollywood and riding high on the acclaim he had received for designing the jewellery worn by Doris Nolan and Katherine Hepburn in the movie ‘Holiday’. It was the beginning of a marriage made in Hollywood heaven as Flato would spend the next few years providing fabulous jewels for some of America’s most popular screen goddesses such as Rita Hayworth, Greta Garbo, Ginger Rogers and Marlene Dietrich to wear both on and off screen. Many of his clients became friends and he attended red carpet events and glamorous parties where he would enjoy the company of the cream of Hollywood royalty.
Unfortunately his glittering career was brought to an abrupt end when he was imprisoned in 1943 for grand larceny (having been found guilty of pawning gems and jewellery belonging to both suppliers and clients) and over the next couple of decades he would return to prison twice more for fraud related crimes.
After his final release from Sing Sing in 1966, Flato moved to Mexico City where he opened a jewellery store in the fashionable Zona Rosa district in 1970. He remained here happily for twenty years designing and selling pieces often inspired by the history and culture of his adopted country and attracting clients both new and old. In his 90th year he was persuaded by his children to return to Texas and he moved in with his daughter in Dallas spending his final years writing his memoirs and enjoying time with his family.