20th Century Gems: Icons in Jewelry Design

Glittering glamour. Timeless elegance. Classic couture. The art of fine jewelry design has long fascinated aspiring collectors and celebrities alike. Its history is interwoven with the world’s most beloved style icons – from the Royals to the Hollywood elite. But behind each of these stunning pieces we see on the red carpet and in the movies, there is a visionary at the jeweler's bench. Read on to learn more about three of the most notable jewelers of the 20th century.

 

Paul Flato

Katharine Hepburn in Holiday, wearing a custom designed brooch by Paul Flato. Katharine Hepburn in Holiday, wearing a custom designed brooch by Paul Flato.

Paul Flato was one of the very first “celebrity jewelers” who was consistently sought-after in the early 20th century. He made stunning creations for for dozens of stars and socialites, including Mae West, Ginger Rogers, and Gloria Vanderbilt. Many of his celebrity clients wore his creations on screen in major motion pictures, such as Katharine Hepburn in Holiday, Greta Garbo in Two-Faced Woman, and Merle Oberon in That Uncertain Feeling.

Flato, who came from humble beginnings on a farm in Texas, quickly rose to prominence after moving to New York to pursue his dreams of fashion jewelry design in the early 1920's. After selling watches for several years, he opened his own shop to sell his collection on East 57th Avenue in Manhattan, soon to be followed by a second location on Los Angeles' Sunset Strip.

Flato was known for his exceptionally whimsical designs, whose inspired creations often included movable parts. These works of art remained in high demand throughout the designer's career, and continue to be exceptionally valuable today.

This spectacular emerald suite was designed by Flato for Ginger Rogers. This spectacular emerald suite was designed by Flato for Ginger Rogers.

Perhaps most notable about Flato was his discerning eye for young talent. Several of his apprentices went on to become just as revered in the industry, including the two jewelers mentioned below.

 

Fulco di Verdura

Forever entrenched among these jewelry greats, alongside the muses and makers alike, stands Italian jeweler Duke Fulco di Verdura. He began his career as an apprentice in the workshop of Paul Flato, though his enchantment with fine jewels dates back to his childhood.

Born into affluence in 1898, the young Verdura was immersed in the aristocratic American ex-pat circles of Palermo, Sicily and Venice. It was in 1925, amidst the swirling, fashionable diversions of European high society, that Verdura was introduced by Cole Porter to American vivant and timeless style icon, Coco Chanel. Their shared passion for all things fine and beautiful lead Chanel to hire Fulco as a designer in 1927. He was captivated by the beau mode of Paris: the social life, the fabulous costumes, and the overall sense of grandeur. “Chanel was the most chic woman I ever met,” Fulco declared, “and the first person to ever take me seriously.”

Fulco di Verdura and Coco Chanel Fulco di Verdura and Coco Chanel

Chanel was quick to realize Verdura's talent, and soon asked him to reset the gemstones of jewels given to her by ex-lovers, including the Duke of Westminster. It was the beginning of a nearly decade-long collaboration, with Verdura at the head of Chanel’s iconic fine jewelry department. The numerous parties he attended during this period, with guests like Picasso, Hemingway, and the Rothschilds, also served as inspiration for his jewelry designs in rings, bracelets, necklaces, earrings and more. This can be seen in Verdura's bold explosions of color, relentless merriment, and unorthodox, provocative fashion. His creations were an instant, classic hit, and were a revelation in the world of chic design.

With a strong foundation, Verdura broke from Europe and sailed to America. As during his childhood, Verdura continued to constantly seek new inspiration. Almost immediately upon his arrival, Verdura discovered Hollywood, while Hollywood simultaneously discovered him. Los Angeles introduced the designer to an entirely new world of high fashion and glamour. Demand for the most stylish, breathtaking jewelry was at its peak: Hollywood stars such as Joan Fontaine and Joan Crawford set the precedent for style, which naturally included Verdura's elegant Italian-style designs.

Credited with changing the look of 20th century jewelry design, Verdura’s bold and colorful pieces have endured a strong legacy. Exuding glamour and majesty, Verdura's designs are a testament to high style, excellent taste, and true talent.

 

David Webb

An icon of American jewelry design in the 20th century, Webb also began his New York career in Flato's studio. From an early age, he too was enchanted by the craft. His designs went on to become synonymous with meticulous attention to detail, and were known for their innovation and uniqueness.

Webb used enamel and colored precious stones generously, and is perhaps most fondly remembered for his whimsical enameled animal pieces, often featuring precious gems for accents such as eyes and teeth. Much of his inspiration came from nature, and the theme is evident throughout his oeuvre. These unparalleled pieces in his collection were known as “wearable art” in a way that redefined the state of jewelry in the second half of the 20th century. Some of Webb's notable clientele included Elizabeth Taylor, Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis, and Barbara Streisand.

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