Blame it on Bulgari…
Max Emsallen was raised in Paris, France and moved to Los Angeles in 1989. He was living in Beverly Hills when he met Pasadena native Michael Merritt during the summer of 2003.
It all started just off the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton, Huntington Hotel in Pasadena. Michael co-owned a jewelry boutique at the historic hotel as well as a larger store in San Marino. He was off that night, but he had trained his staff to offer dazzling service to hotel guests and area residents in search of the perfect gift.
Max and his girlfriend were having dinner at the hotel when he excused himself, ostensibly to visit the men’s room. In truth, Max wanted to end dinner with a gift: the iconic Bulgari B.Zero1 ring. Trying to "mark the moment" with his very special girlfriend is one of his favorite ingredients for happiness.
Max doubled back to the boutique he had spotted on the way to dinner. While the shop carried Bulgari, the wide white gold band with diamonds was not in stock.
The next day, Michael started a hunt for the ring which ended with an edict from Bulgari’s New York office. The ring was pulled from the Rodeo Drive store and sent to Michael’s store. Max was happy to get the ring and impressed with Michael’s approach to business: They started to talk about working together.
On the surface, the two men had little in common.
Michael had stumbled into the high-end jewelry business. At 19, he visited Troy & Company Jewelers to have several diamonds appraised. Michael peppered them with questions about gems. He received his written appraisal on the diamonds plus a job offer. At first, Michael worked with their on staff jeweler, the man in charge of the repair department, and learned about jewelry design and mechanical production. His education, training and instincts came together one day when his co-worker was out sick and a customer needed a wedding band made in just one day. Michael created his first ring in time for the wedding and realized his job was really a calling.
Max chose a different path. He attended college in France, first at Université Panthéon Assas (Paris II) then at Université Paris-Dauphine, where he earned his degrees. Max moved to the United States in 1989, married an American, started a fashion business, and had two children.
His lifelong fascination with jewelry evolved into a business when he met Michael.
When the two started brainstorming over sushi lunches and drinks, their retail concept came together quickly. During stays at Hotel Ritz Paris, Michael had taken photos of the famed Place Vendôme, one of which served as screen saver on his computer. Max had been a frequent visitor to the shops at Place Vendôme when he lived in France.
Both Michael and Max felt that locating at One Colorado in Old Pasadena was the right place to be. Mike felt that the center building in the courtyard would be the perfect destination for future customers. And so Place Vendôme had a home.
While most companies spend many months to design and build out a retail space, Max and Michael opened Place Vendôme just 60 days after signing the lease. The partners knew they wanted separate framed showcases for each of the collections. In this way, Place Vendôme would be a store composed of little “stores”—one for each designer. Even the display backdrops were selected to best communicate the feeling of the jewelry.
While the showcase cabinets were being built, Max and Michael focused on the the surfaces of the store itself. The 1,720 square foot space featured a large skylight, but the floors and walls had dated textures.
The store opened on November 16, 2004 with a goal of presenting emerging European designers in a gallery setting. A half-dozen core lines, like Dinh Van, Pomellato, and Montegrappa are available all the time. An additional six or seven guest designers are featured for three or four seasons. One designer said: “My pieces look better here than they do in any other store.”
Today, Max and Michael continue to enjoy working with customers to find the perfect piece of jewelry, vintage watch, limited edition pen, or sterling silver picture frame.