Let’s Dance

As David Bowie’s keyboardist, Mike Garson admits he didn’t quite understand the popularity of the Thin White Duke.

“I was behind him, backing him up, so I saw his back,” Garson says. “I’ve seen YouTube videos and DVDs since his passing, and this guy was even better than I thought.”

Now, Garson is honoring the musician through A Bowie Celebration, a concert tour featuring players who backed him and those who were influenced by him. It comes to The Rose on Friday, March 6.

The band will perform 1974’s “Diamond Dogs” and 1972’s “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” in their entirety with three singers—Corey Glover of Living Colour fame, Canada’s Sass Jordan and Sting’s son Joe Sumner of Fiction Plane.

Others in the band include bassist Carmine Rojas, guitarist Gerry Leonard, Kevin Armstrong and drummer Alan Childs.

“We’re pretty lucky,” he says. “The whole band is alumni who worked with David in different parts of his life.”

“It’s authentic sonically to my ears. We have three singers because it takes a village to bring David’s music to life. In Pasadena, we’ll have guest artists popping in that night like Judith Hill, Gaby Moreno, Perry Farrell (of Jane’s Addiction) might stop by if he’s in town. Gary Oldman may stop by, he loves David’s music and he sings pretty well. The band is entirely self-contained, but it’s nice when others drop by.”

Audience demand dictated their inclusion, Garson says.

“I had done songs over the last three or four years, and people requested something different,” Garson says.

“‘Diamond Dogs’ is an interesting album. Nobody heard it in its entirety live. With the ‘Diamond Dogs’ tour in ’74, we only did some of those songs. Some of the songs had never been played. It just flows really nicely. ‘Diamond Dogs’ is a darker album. ‘Ziggy,’ everybody knows. It’s a nice balance. It keeps it interesting for myself and the band and the fans.”

Garson was always a fan of Bowie, but heard his voice get “richer” in the 1990s and 2000s. Other things changed as well throughout the years.

“I was with him on the Nine Inch Nails tour,” he says. “I love Trent Reznor. We’re good friends. On that tour, they sang each other’s songs. It was mostly Trent’s fans at that time, though. We had to compete with a much younger audience, and Nine Inch Nails was a much louder band.

“We had to add sub bass to our music to watch their volume or it would have sounded like we were really outdated. I don’t know if that was a mistake or not.”

When Garson thinks back about Bowie—especially in A Bowie Celebration’s first couple years—he wells up.

“It’s been bittersweet,” he says. “I think I cry every night. Sometimes the audience sees it; sometimes they feel it. It’s a group grief because he left us too soon. I was saying to one of the audiences that my biggest regret was taking certain things for granted. I just tell myself, ‘Oh, I screwed up that one.’”


A Bowie Celebration w/special guest 3 Fing3rs
7 p.m. Friday, March 6
The Canyon at The Rose, 245 E. Green Street, Pasadena $28-$68
wheremusicmeetsthesoul.com, ticketmaster.com


A Very Succulent Treat

Spring brings warmer temperatures, blossoms on fruit trees and the joy of watching hummingbirds visit my front yard feeder once again. The spirit of spring reminds me of the famed Hummingbird Cake. With origins in Jamaica and made popular in Kentucky, I unfortunately did not learn of this succulent cake until recently, but the first time I made it I was hooked on the moist, tender texture and the complex intermingling of fruit and nut flavors. Pecans, coconut, bananas, pineapple and cinnamon meld together resulting in a delicate and delicious cupcake that tastes like a mild spice cake married a fruit cake. Topped with buttercream succulents, these cupcakes are as fun to eat as they are to decorate to match the garden.

Succulent Hummingbird Cupcakes
Yields 24 cupcakes | Prep time 45 minutes. Total time 1 hour.

Succulent Hummingbird Cupcakes
3 eggs
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups cane sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 cup vegetable oil
2 cups very ripe, chopped bananas
8 oounces crushed pineapple in pineapple juice, undrained
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1/2 cup coconut

Beat eggs separately. Mix flour, baking soda, salt, cane sugar and cinnamon. Stir in the beaten eggs and oil until just incorporated. Add vanilla extract, bananas, canned pineapple, pecans and coconut and mix until well blended. Bake in a lined cupcake pan for 17 to 20 minutes at 350 degrees, or until a knife inserted in a center cupcake comes out clean. Let cupcakes cool before decorating.

Cream Cheese Frosting
1/2 cup room temperature unsalted butter
8 ounces cold cream cheese
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 cups powdered confectioner’s sugar
1 tablespoon milk

Beat butter until smooth. Add cream cheese and beat until combined and smooth. Add vanilla extract and powdered sugar and begin beating slowly. Increase speed to medium until it begins to aerate. Add milk and beat again. Color frosting as desired and decorate.

A life of Luxury Staycation Style

With the summer months rapidly approaching and summer planning underway, there’s one place on your property that makes paradise just steps away, even beyond summertime. By redesigning your backyard into a year-round oasis, life at home can instantly transform into heaven on Earth.

Mark Meahl, founder of Gardenview Landscape, Nursery & Pools, says transforming a backyard into a miniature resort not only increases the value of the home, but allows the homeowner to enjoy the amenities until they are ready to sell. Though Meahl warns, after the drastic transformation, some homeowners decide to stay and enjoy the view for a little while longer.

In Meahl’s world, balancing luxury and comfort is the name of the game. The goal is to make the space look like something you would go to great lengths to visit, but not so fragile that you’re afraid to use it at all.

From breathtaking infinity pools, intricate stone work, full service outdoor kitchens, comfortable seating arrangements and various water and fire features, Meahl says there’s no project that is too extravagant to take on, and the sky’s the limit as to what can be done to a backyard. And when it comes to equity, Meahl says grand is the way to go.

“If you’re just putting a simple hole in your backyard, in many cases, if it’s unimaginative, real estate agents are going to tell you that you won’t get your investment back. And most people aren’t putting in very imaginative pools. But if you can do something imaginative, people who can afford to pick where they want to live, they want to see how they don’t have to go far to get a little piece of vacation after a long day at work,” says Meahl.

The process starts with a visit from Meahl. Together he and the client will sit down and sort through hundreds of photos that depict potential styles and themes. The homeowners have an open dialogue and discuss what looks they love, and the ones they don’t.

“The conversation serves as a starting off point. We can make a cohesive collage of the things you like while also giving you that custom, tailored look,” says Meahl.

After the hour and a half consultation, Meahl and his team work diligently and quickly to create a 3D video of the property with the conceptual design, and present the vision to the homeowners to ensure everyone is pleased with the concept. The design process incorporates both art and Feng Shui as a way to balance the different elements, aesthetics and functions.

Once the concept has been approved by the homeowners, the nitty gritty of construction and budget begins. A group of estimators determine where each dollar of the investment is going, and perform cost to benefit ratios.

While it is best to start with a budget in mind, Meahl says it is important to be realistic about how far your dollar will go. Starting with a “blank slate” of a backyard has many advantages, but it can also grow costly to install entirely new piping for water features and pools. On the other hand, a home with an existing pool or water feature may only need a quick cosmetic fix to bring it back into style. But, a home can hold a thousand secrets, and most are unbeknownst to homeowners until construction has already begun. From old and exhausted pipes for pools and other obstructions, the reconstruction process can present unforeseen challenges.

Though such challenges are part of any large construction project, Meahl says his design/ build approach to construction leaves the stress to the professionals, and the enjoyment to the homeowners. The team that designed the 3D model video of the project is the same group that will install it, so permitting is as straightforward as possible. Additionally, if an obstacle arises that requires a shift in gears from a design standpoint, there is no waiting period to transfer information between an architect and a contractor because they are one in the same.

“When you’re in the initial phases, the homeowner is looking at the big picture instead of the details. But when you get into the project now you have someone working on building your barbeque for two weeks, little details pop up. And how the details and the craftsmanship come together to make this feature is of course important, because they need to flow and move together,” says Meahl.

Meahl says being able to put your own touch on the project and reaping its benefits while knowing the investment is increasing the value of your property are a couple of reasons he made his own outdoor oasis at home. His space is complete with a comfortable sofa, white chairs, coffee tables and large fans to keep both the heat and the bugs at bay.

“It’s just an extension of your home. You can still relax and watch TV, but you have the freedom of being outside and enjoying that serenity after a long day while watching the sunset or under the stars.”

“From my view, it can really make a house your home.”

Gardenview Landscape, Nursery & Pools
417 E. Huntington Drive, Suite 100, Monrovia

Home is Where The Heart is

Kitchens and bathrooms serve as the heart of most homes, but some in the greater Pasadena have seen better days. To keep things up to date and ready for a more modern lifestyle, finding a balance between what is trendy and what’s functional is the key to a solid kitchen and bathroom remodel.

And for that, there’s Sierra Custom Kitchens. Kitchen and Bath Designer Alice Sin says many Pasadena homes were built in the ’20s, when compartmentalizing each room was trendy. She says homebuyers today are “jazzed” when they see a great room and kitchen share a wall because the space has potential for an updated and open design. However, there can be consequences to removing walls, including losing space to hang art or maintain a pantry.

“We have to be mindful of which walls we’re removing to be able to keep its function and make everything fit,” Sin says.

A huge part of the design process for Sin is ensuring functionality for her clients. The initial consultation consists of an assessment of how the occupants of the home live. A mom of three could have the same taste as a retired couple who are empty nesters, but what they need from the kitchen or bathroom could be entirely different.

“Once we decide what would work best for them function-wise, and come together with their general taste and style, we will go ahead and measure out the space. Truthfully, we do our best planning on paper and playing with our ideas before we bring them back. It can go back and forth a couple of times to get it right, but usually it’s pretty straightforward because of that initial assessment,” Sin says.

A large portion of the design process includes bringing the rest of the home into the kitchen or the bathroom. While sometimes that means matching the style of the space to the rest of the house, it can also mean negotiating the designs from in consequence to the lack of planning on the home’s original architect.

“The window in one of the bathrooms we redid is off-center, which was because the architect of the home centered it to the outside of the house instead of the bathroom it shares a wall with. It was quirky, but we went with it and created a spa feel. We matched that quirkiness with style, with the exposed pipes and the shower sharing the space with the bathtub,” Sin says.

Many of the trends that Sin balances with the style of the home are airy, filled with natural light and, most of the time, are white.

“I think it’s kind of the backlash of all of the dark that was on trend for awhile. Especially for the homes that are around here, everyone is doing the opposite of what was on trend,” says Sin. 

“The trends of the ’90s to early 2000s when everyone wanted smaller spaces with the dark brown espresso kitchens are out. Now everyone wants clean and bright and a lot of white and big, open spaces,” Sin says.

Recently, however, the designer says she has seen the tides changing, as people are now gravitating toward exposed wood grain features with natural stains. Sin says she has also caught on to matte black hardware and light features.

But style comes at a cost, and to do it right, a full remodel project can cost a pretty penny. Those looking to gut a kitchen and start anew can expect an $80,000 to $100,000 price tag for the full project. However, Sin says cost is dependent on the space (kitchen, bathroom or both) as well as the materials used for things like countertops, cabinets, hardware and appliances.

“Everyone likes sleek, professional appliances but those can run $30,000 and up. A lot of people don’t realize that if they’ve never remodeled or shopped for that before. You can get less expensive options that are still great but all of those factor in,” Sin says.

Sin adds a full remodel can put homeowners out of a kitchen for eight to 12 weeks once demolition begins.

Though a new look comes at a cost, Sin says the value added to your home, monetarily and otherwise, makes the projects worth it.

“Having a space that feels like it was made for you and tailored to your needs can completely change the way you value and use that space. It’s about fitting the space to you and your lifestyle rather than arranging your life around your kitchen or bathroom,” Sin says.

Sierra Custom Kitchens
686 Union Street, Suite 180, Pasadena


Navigating Pasadena

With home prices up 1.2% within the last year, a projected 0.2% increase in 2020, based on data from Zillow, and the median home selling price at $826,800, the real estate buying process in the Pasadena area is an emotional roller coaster. Before investing in a property, real estate agent Lin Vlacich with Sotheby’s International Real Estate says there are noteworthy things to keep in mind to keep the process as smooth and simple as possible.

Have realistic expectations
Pasadena is known for lasting equity as the real estate market rises and falls. South Pasadena in particular is known for being a separate and somewhat secluded community that’s quiet, cool and hip. The area’s neighborhoods have a lot of charm and a deep appreciation for architecture.

“As we say in South Pasadena, don’t mess with our seniors, dogs or trees,” Vlacich says.

Homes can cost well over $5 million, even a condo will run about $500,000. “You have to understand how far your dollars will go and be realistic when going into the purchasing process,” Vlacich says.

Find the right agent
Just as the market ebbs and flows, the stream of real estate agents swells and shrinks. When the market is hot, more and more agents hit the scene. While not every agent who has been in the industry for a while is the perfect fit, Vlacich says that’s a great place to start. As someone with 43 years of experience, she says with time comes wisdom of reading the market to get buyers the best return they can.

“It’s all about trust between the agent and the clients. What makes me want to go 120% for my clients is when they trust me, because I wouldn’t do anything to break that trust. My license wouldn’t be worth it. And I think getting people to trust you takes time and experience,” Vlacich says.

Do your homework
As part of her initial interview with clients, Vlacich gives homebuyers homework. The task is simple—jot down what they absolutely must have in a house, and what they can’t live with at all. She asks couples do this part separately and honestly. Vlacich will compile the list and move forward on finding the perfect match.

“They’ve actually been looking for your [their] first home all your life,” Vlacich says. “You [they] can walk into a friend’s home and say ‘yikes,’ or they can love the way it feels. Sometimes they’ve never expressed it, but they’ve noted things they like. Sometimes they’ve never expressed it to their partner, sometimes they’ve never expressed it to their egos. It can be something that’s familiar, it can be a bad memory, but homes bring out the best and sometimes the worst in people. It’s a very emotional process.”

The agent says she is so passionate about this step that she won’t show homes to those who are unwilling to do it. It saves time, frustration and confusion for all involved parties.

“We’ll be working together for sometimes months and months, and sometimes I have to mediate the emotions between couples because it can get that intense when it comes to differing opinions,” she says. “I wish I had more marriage counseling and psychology courses in my college years,” Vlacich says with a laugh.

Be honest about your budget
During an initial meeting with clients, Vlacich says it’s important to establish trust with a budget. “I want to make sure you can compete in South Pasadena with your budget, and if I don’t think you can we will have to adjust and expand our search to other areas that can provide some or most of what you’re looking for,” Vlacich says.

Once a number is on the table, Vlacich says she ensures the homebuyers have their ducks in a row before they embark on home tours. Being financially organized is key, the agent says, because they may have to act fast if a home that comes on the market at a fair price in a great neighborhood. Homebuyers should have everything ready from bank statements, lender letters and gift letters. “If you don’t have that in place, we’re premature,” she says.

Another noteworthy point, Vlacich says, is to be honest about what you’re willing to spend with your agent up front.

“I hope with that initial interview I can get an understanding of what they can financially do,” she says. “My philosophy is don’t show them something they can’t afford. I also ask if their number is the truth? Or are you really capable of buying into $2 million and you told me $1.5 million? Because I won’t show you a $1.6 million home if that’s the truth. That honesty helps me help them be competitive.”

Get to know the seller
When push comes to shove, sometimes it’s not the highest bid that will win over a seller. Vlacich says she’s surprised at how often other factors can contribute to who gets the home. Knowing the history of the seller, and why they are selling can give some bids a leg up on others.

“It can be divorce, there could’ve been trauma or loss, I mean there are a million reasons to sell a home, and sometimes it takes someone who can relate to that to make them the perfect buyer,” Vlacich says.

The agent recently sold the home of a 92-year-old woman who lived in the house since 1971. She raised her children there after her and her husband built the home. The first Sunday the home was on the market, 32 showings traveled in and out of each room. Shortly after the property had 12 offers to shuffle through. Only one stood out.

“When talking to my seller I said, ‘Do you want something better than this?’ And she said, ‘What could be better?’ I said, ‘Better would be more money. Do you want to ask for more money?’”

The woman told Vlacich, “No I like them because they sent me a picture of their family.”

“You have to know your seller,” Vlacich says.

Lin Vlacich
Sotheby’s International Real Estate

Transforming Lives Through Art

A decommissioned National Guard armory, designed specifically to keep people out, has spent nearly 70 years coming to bloom as a focal point in Pasadena where everyone is welcome to gather and appreciate art.   

From the street, the building gives the impression of an indestructible stronghold. Tall, thick, gray walls authenticate the fortified structure. The building itself serves as a striking contrast to the sounds of children laughing inside while they paint and play, and a view of impossibly delicate sculptures and paintings through the windows.

Within the building lies a maze of free exhibits with a shared focus of, “inspiring dialogue around visual culture and contemporary life, contributing to global discourses in contemporary art and introducing contemporary visual art to Pasadena,” said Jon Lapointe, Armory director of communications.

Lapointe said the center has exhibited collections and works from profound artists who work in the realm of social justice and beyond, including some of Tim Hawkinson’s first solo museum shows, public projects by Yoko Ono and a Rose Bowl performance for 5,000 spectators by Richard Jackson, who crashed a radio-controlled model military airplane filled with paint into a 20-foot wall, that read “Accidents in Abstract Painting.”

While the Armory features works that are in tune with the center’s mission to transform lives through the arts, Lapointe said at the center of that mission is, “a deep commitment to social justice through arts education.”

Throughout the year, the gallery doubles as a host to studio art classes for all ages where kids can learn, play and express themselves simultaneously. The center’s executive director, Leslie Ito, herself a previous workshop student, says the facility is so passionate about its mission, ardent teachers also offer hundreds of free art classes for the community’s youth in schools, parks, libraries, community centers and juvenile detention centers throughout Southern California.

“(We are) focused on bringing together people from all backgrounds to authentically collaborate, contribute and thrive,” Ito said.

Lapointe said in addition to the armory’s transformation, the last 70 years have also brought about a wave of reputable art museums, cultural institutions, and non-profit arts organizations to Pasadena.

“One other magical thing about this critical mass of nonprofit arts and culture organizations: we all collaborate, respect and genuinely like each other. No competition. We are all on the same team,” Lapointe said.

Being part of that team, Lapointe added, also comes with the responsibility of engaging in work that contributes to diversity and inclusion efforts.

Rather than developing a single committee toward such endeavors, the future for the Armory includes devoting entiretly of the institution’s efforts toward social justice.

“The Armory is on a journey to make this work part of our organizational DNA. We understand this is a process, and it will take time, courage, persistence, and commitment. This is a journey we are ready for. This is the Armory’s future,” Lapointe said.

Armory Center for the Arts
145 N. Raymond Avenue, Pasadena
626-792-5101, armoryarts.org

Easy as Pie

Those eagerly awaiting the release of pumpkin items at Trader Joe’s or Jamba Juice, might want to add variety to their yearly pumpkin pig out. 

The passion for pumpkins began in the Americas. Seeds from related species have been found in archeological digs in Mexico, dating back to 7000 to 5500 B.C. The name actually comes from the Greek word, “peon,” meaning large melon. Native Americans used pumpkins and related fruit as part of their diet before the pilgrims arrived. The marriage of cinnamon and pumpkin came later. Cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka and was used in China and ancient Egypt.

Ginger originated in Southeast Asia and nutmeg was from Indonesia. The trade along the silk roads brought these spices to Europe. Without such trade and culinary experimentations between the continents, we wouldn’t have pumpkin spice for November.

Jamba Juice made its fans wait until October 20. Trader Joe’s opened the orange winter squash season on October 1, offering pumpkin bisque, pumpkin bars, pumpkin cheesecake, pumpkin ravioli, pumpkin spice bagels, pumpkin waffles, pumpkin cereal, pumpkin spice coffee, pumpkin biscotti, pumpkin cranberry crisp, pumpkin cookies, pumpkin spice almond beverage, pumpkin pie spiced ginger brew, spiced pumpkin madeleines, pumpkin bread mix, pumpkin chocolate chunk oatmeal cookie mix, pumpkin ice cream, pepita salsa and pumpkin cream cheese spread.

Another, and perhaps healthier, choice to fulfill your pumpkin spice needs is a seasonal bagel from Einstein Bagels. You can add pumpkin shmear or splurge on the calories with a pumpkin bagel with a sweet crunchy topping of walnuts and cinnamon.

Of course, you can get pumpkin pie at local pie shops. Moe’s pumpkin pie is $6.50 a slice at the Pie Hole and pecan is also on the fall menu ($7). The Cheesecake Factory has pumpkin cheesecake ($57.95 for a whole 10-inch pie or $8.50 a slice) and pumpkin pecan cheesecake ($58.95 or $8.95 per slice). Pie ‘N Burger has pumpkin and pecan pie, too.

Thinking of trying something savory? Then Suriya Thai has pumpkin curry served with shrimp, white rice, spicy red curry and coconut milk ($11.95). Kabuki Japanese Restaurants are offering a winter special: kabocha squash soup ($3.50 a bowl) while supplies last.

Lêberry Bakery on Colorado has gluten-free pumpkin scones with a pumpkin glaze, pumpkin muffins with a light sprinkle of sugar on top and a danish with pumpkin spread in the center. All are priced at $3, but guests will have to hurry because these goodies will only be offered until the second weekend of November.

Another hurry up and don’t be late pumpkin date is at Alexander’s Steakhouse. The executive pastry chef Gabriela Martinez will be serving pumpkin ice cream with dry ice to make it mysteriously smoky. As part of the complimentary mignardises (mini-bite desserts pronounced min-yar-DEEZ), pumpkin bonbons, pumpkin macaroons and pumpkin tarts are among the selections. Everything is made in-house, including the ice cream, and will only be available until November 15.

The Vanilla Bake Shop has gone wild with pumpkin pie shortbread bars, pumpkin streusel pecan pies, the classic pumpkin pie, pumpkin spice cupcakes and a pumpkin spice cake. The cake comes in two sizes, 6 inch or 9 inch. The pies come as small as a 2-inch round to the regular 9 inch. So go ahead and satisfy your pumpkin passion for as little as $2.50. These pumpkin delights will be available until the end of December.

Sunmerry Bakery in Temple City has pumpkin brownies, matcha-pumpkin danishes and whole wheat pumpkin buns into November. Sunmerry is also offering multigrain cranberry bread to go with turkey.

PattiCakes in Altadena has pumpkin cheesecake in five sizes. Two people can feed off a 3-inch pie, or parties of 50 or 60 can get a 16-inch pie. Pumpkin muffins are also available. The pumpkin party continues at PattiCakes until May.

Where to go

Alexander’s Steakhouse, 111 N. Los Robles Avenue, Pasadena, 626-486-1111, alexanderssteakhouse.com

The Cheesecake Factory, 2 W. Colorado Boulevard,
Pasadena, 626-584-6000

Einstein Bros. Bagels, 605 S. Lake Avenue, Pasadena,
626-449-6415, einsteinbros.com

Kabuki Restaurants, 88 W. Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena,
626-568-9310; 3539 E. Foothill Boulevard, Pasadena,
626-351-8963, kabukirestaurants.com

Lêberry Bakery, 445 E. Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena,
626-993-9898, leberrybakery.com

PattiCakes, 1900 Allen Avenue, Altadena, 626-794-1128, patticakesbakery.com

The Pie Hole, 59 E. Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena,
626-765-6315, thepieholela.com

Pie ‘N Burger, 913 E. California Boulevard, Pasadena,
626-795-1123, pienburger.com

Sunmerry Bakery Café, 5728 Rosemead Boulevard, Temple City,
626-656-6336 , summerryus.com

Suriya Thai, 123 W. California Boulevard, Pasadena,
626-577-7273, suriyathairestaurant.com

Vanilla Bake Shop, 88 E. Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena,
323-204-4075, vanillabakeshop.com

Selling Happiness

Place Vendôme sits in a quaint courtyard in Old Pasadena, but the jewelry that occupies the shop is anything but humble.

A grand foyer gives way to a gallery of extravagant jewelry, giving guests a peek into a world where beauty, functionality and history collide and shine.

Since the dawn of luxury jewelry, a couple mainstream ideologies have dominated the way the world views the industry: Princess cut diamonds are a girl’s best friend and creativity has to be sacrificed when aiming for functionality.

About 15 years ago, two men who crossed paths by a mix of fate, luck and chance decided to push the limit of what is possible in the industry and feature unique items that are not standard to most jewelry stores.

The two met when Max Emsallem meandered into Michael Merritt’s store looking for a piece of jewelry to gift his girlfriend at dinner.

“I could never find something special enough, most things are safe—ordinary. When I bought her stuff, it was to make her happy, but it was to make me happy, too. So not being able to find unique pieces was disappointing. But when I met Mike, he had stuff I’d never seen before,” Emsallem said.

As the two moved through each piece Merritt had, the jewelry prompted a conversation about the constraints withholding the industry from reaching its full potential in America, in contrast to its thriving European counterpart.

“Design is just part of the culture there and it shows through in everything, even beyond jewelry,” Merritt said. “It’s shoes, it’s clothes, it’s handbags, it’s architecture, it’s beautiful Italian cars. Whereas in America beauty has to be sought out.”

The conversation sparked what would become a revolution in the U.S. jewelry industry and would change the relationship shoppers have with the jewelry they purchase.

Emsallem, who has a 10-year history in the fashion industry, and Merritt who was ready to grow into a new form of the business with a partner, joined their creative forces to open a luxury jewelry store where the pieces had all of the elements they value most—flawless and indulgent design, diverse lines with functionality for all jewelry lovers and a strong history behind each brand—Place Vendôme.

“We choose brands with their past and their stories in mind, because it changes you,” Merritt said. “It changes the way you see the piece. A ring or a necklace suddenly transforms into something so much more relatable and intentional when you know its story.”

Beyond the jewelry, every detail of Place Vendôme contributes each line’s unique features.

Individual galleries line the walls of the store, which Merritt says, allows customers to see where each designer’s vision begins and ends. “You can understand a designer better when you’re not distracted by anything else,” he adds. “It’s a literal window into each designer.”

Within each gallery are small props that continue to tell a story. Some designers choose to create their own layouts and send in decor, whereas others give Emsallem and Merritt full creative freedom.

From textured placemats, picture frames with leather pieces and decorative candleholders, customers can pair the brand’s vision with several textures, colors and dimensions. Tying each gallery together are fabric-lined walls that lead to a massive skylight inspired by Parisian architecture.

But the real magic, Merritt said, happens when customers allow him to “play” and put on the jewelry.

A fan favorite is the Pomellato NUDO ring. Starting at about $2,350, the stackable rings are constructed without prongs holding the stones. Instead, they are fastened on the top with a groove cut around the stone’s base. The gem fits into the metal cup, then the metal is crimped into a groove. Though the process takes much longer than setting the stone in prongs, Merritt said the result is priceless. And his customers agree.

The “little Pasadena store” is the Italian brand’s No. 1 account in North America and outsells all of the Neiman Marcus stores combined.

“The president of Pomellato asked us how we do it, and we just told her we view it as art, and because of that, we’re very passionate about it,” Merritt said. “We’re not just selling it to customers because it’s pretty. It’s so much more than that, the design is intentional. We just pass our passion on.”

Perpendicular to the Pomellato case is the Pasquale Bruni gallery.

The brand is of another luxurious Italian designer, with looks inspired by nature and built with hand-selected stones.

A $14,200 massive Giardini Segreti ring dominates the case—with good reason. Brown diamonds cover the surface of the ring that spans over two fingers. Each stone varies in color, undulating like a real leaf.

The piece is not one guests would be able to find in most other jewelry stores because of its unique approach to stone selection and setting, “but this place is about going beyond the limits of what you think is possible. It’s about being extraordinary,” Merritt says.

The store also sells men’s jewelry, plush pens and collectible watches that run up to $725,000.

Though being unique can be pricey, Emsallem and Merritt agree the pieces are priceless because of the memories they create. From birthdays and anniversaries, to just a moment made special with a piece of jewelry, both Emsallem and Merritt said being part of memorable occasions is one of the best aspects of the job.

“I don’t think we’ve worked since we opened shop. We sell happiness and in turn, that makes us happy,” Emsallem said.   

Place Vendôme
48 Hugus Alley, Pasadena
626-577-7001, plvendome.com

Making Chinese Culture Shine

The Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden has grown seemingly overnight into a wonderland of lanterns that represent themes from Chinese culture for its second Moonlight Forest Lantern Festival. 

The seed to create a lantern festival was planted years ago, when arboretum CEO Richard Schulhof traveled the country in search of a special way to honor the culture and traditions of China, as L.A. County has one of the largest Chinese populations in North America.

Though only in its second year, the festival has become a prominent window into the world of Chinese culture, and according the Schulhof, is one of the best in the nation.

“The festival allows us to discover the commonalities that unite us across the globe,” Schulhof says. “There are aspects of the human experience that are so universal. I think among the long list of those aspects is appreciation for art and appreciation for nature, and this festival celebrates both.”

Set with the backdrop of the gardens, lanterns light up the night and play off of the grounds’ features. A 160-foot dragon stands tall as its light bounces off the neighboring Baldwin Lake and forms breathtaking silhouettes of the surrounding trees. A towering fountain display of bright koi fish guides guests along a path that leads them past cavorting panda bears to a massive blue and green peacock, which serves as the festivals most iconic spot to take pictures.

The result is flawless, but the process is anything but easy and straightforward.

The staff at the arboretum are in constant contact with a design team in China’s Sichuan Province. The layout is reworked numerous times as ideas are exchanged and new exhibits are formulated. Once the design of the layout is established, the Sichuan team is flown out to the grounds roughly a month prior to the festival to begin staging the lanterns.

“It’s quite a process, but I think our audience here at the festival is extremely receptive and curious to experience this wonderful culture. It’s their interest that makes the work worth it,” Schulhof says.

To appease even more of guests’ interests, the festival also features various forms of entertainment with craft professionals from Sichuan Province.

Festival goers have the chance to interact with inner bottle painting artists, who create intricate panoramic scenes on the inside small bottles. Dancers and jugglers relay tradition through customary performances, and a conventional face changing dance originated by the Sichuan Opera lures guests into a world of rich culture. Translators are always nearby to give guests an opportunity to speak with the performers and learn more about China.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to interact with these folks who come here from China to share their traditions. Last year people really loved the interactive pieces of the festival, so we wanted to bring that back,” Schulhof says.

The festival is back by popular demand, but Schulhof wants attendees to know this year’s Moonlight Forest has only gotten bigger and better since last year.

“We’re here to serve the community so it’s a constant evaluation of what works, what programming our guests find rewarding and how the arboretum has to evolve to meet the needs of LA County and Southern California. But it’s going to be a wonderful experience and I hope people come ready to take it all in and really enjoy it.”

The Moonlight Forest Magical Lantern Art Festival

Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden, 301 N. Baldwin Avenue, Arcadia
5:30 to 10 p.m. Saturday, November 9, to Sunday, January 12.
Ticketed entry times are 5:30 p.m., 7 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Tickets are $20 for children 3 to 17; $23 for students and seniors and $25 for adults on Wednesday and Thursday. Tickets are $23 for children 3 to 17; $25 for students and seniors and $28 for adults on Friday and Saturday. arboretum.org

Catching the Bug

The most precious gems the world can offer are buried in the farthest corners of the globe, deep in a cherished book, or in Old Pasadena’s very own Gold Bug gallery-where not all that glitters is gold. 

Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Gold Bug,” the family-owned gallery plays off the short story’s key scene when the protagonist, eager to have more money, follows scarab beetle toward a trove of treasures more valuable than what money could ever buy. In tune with the intellectually suspenseful tale’s motif of the golden bug, the store highlights how much of the world around us is not always what it seems.

Staying true to the somber and eerie undertone of Poe’s works, Gold Bug showcases pieces that are meant to turn heads and make statements about the troubles and glories of the world. Owner Theodora Coleman says each piece was chosen because, “of their ability to make people feel something, or see something in a new light they perhaps never considered before.”

Coleman says many items in the gallery serve as a vehicle to have meaningful conversations about the rich history of the world’s art practices. The gallerist added, other quirky works highlight the environment’s most notable struggles.

“The goal has always been the same and that’s to represent people who are inspired by nature, natural history and science that are doing something natural and will at some point go back to the Earth,” Coleman says.

The gallery boasts works from every corner of the world, but the collection of the items has humble beginnings based in Pasadena.

Before Coleman was born, her parents, Shelley Kimball and Stacey Coleman, owned a restaurant and employed countless actors, filmmakers and artists. In addition to flexible scheduling to accommodate their employees’ demanding dreams, the family showed their support for the arts by hanging the staff’s sculptures and paintings in the restaurant.

“When the art didn’t sell, my parents would show their support by buying some of the pieces themselves. They didn’t do a lot with it, they just kind of held onto it,” Coleman says.

Though the family closed the restaurant, the culmination of strange art pieces and sculptures sent the household down an entirely new path—one that sometimes involves the necessity of death to appreciate the fragility of life.

“There are a lot of things that are hard to look at because there is death in here, there are preserved animals here. I mean it’s a conversation we have a lot. But definitely where I’m coming from and these artists are all coming from is this place of revering nature and supporting systems to preserve it,” Coleman said.

She adds customers often ask about a handful of the gallery’s most eye-catching items. One of which is an isopod that dwells alone in a translucent box.

Isopods are part of the pill bug family and are related to the sand flea, but a prolonged glance at the creature paints an entirely different story. Its gigantic frame is a stark contrast to its roly poly genes, and its pink and tan toned hard shell gives a nod to the being’s prehistoric ancestors.

Though the creature looks like a grenade of historic lineage—able to withstand the test of time untouched—coming across the specimen in an unnatural way exposes its vulnerability to destructive fishing practices.

Deepsea trolling, the practice of clean sweeping the seafloor with a net for commercial fishing, captured the isopod from its dark and empty home at the bottom of the ocean.

“I think (trolling) is horrible and not sustainable, but as a byproduct of that they’re pulling things out of the sea by accident that they don’t have a market for, but I do,” Coleman says. “I get a thrill out of those things that come through the store, like those specimens that you wouldn’t normally see. Plus, it’s a way for us to start educating our customers about what’s happening in the fishing industry.”

Another store item that demands attention is a taxidermized unborn fawn.

With a small crown atop its head, the fawn may be petite, but serves as a mighty symbol of the diseased venison industry.

In the open plains of the Midwest, Chronic Wasting Disease has become an epidemic among farmed deer and has spread to naturally occurring deer in the surrounding area. The condition causes the degeneration of the brain and results in abnormal behavior, emaciation and, ultimately, death.

“I hear from the other side of the room a lot like, ‘oh how sad,’ and I sort of have to present myself and let customers know it’s not, ‘oh how sad,’ it’s just a thing that’s happening in our world today. It’s about making yourself aware of it,” Coleman says.

However, while the isopod and fawn definitely demand attention of curious shoppers Coleman says, “they are just two things in the shop presented in order to bring a little of nature’s pure wonder into the store, embellishing the hundreds of other art pieces that surround them.”

The handful of shocking items in the store is balanced with more delicate works like handcrafted jewelry, sculptures, paintings and prints.

The gallerist said one of the most historic artforms in the gallery may not be as shocking, but still has a deep-rooted history that presents yet another peculiar and noteworthy story of our world.

A company based out of the basement of the Santa Maria Novella church in Florence, Italy, is also home to one of the world’s oldest active apothecaries.

Officially selling products to the public since 1612, the pharmacy has a withstanding history creating perfumes, candles and soaps from natural ingredients. Though the world around the church may have changed over the centuries, the way the products are produced remains the same, and is considered a sustainable practice to Coleman.

“That’s the type of thing I steer people toward because it’s got the history and it’s well known, but still special,” Coleman said. “It may not be as weird as a crystal carved into a skull or some of the other items we carry. I mean this is art with a story behind it.”

From impressive sculptures and historic soaps to just about everything else one could think of, Gold Bug is giving guests a chance to see that not everything is what it seems. Coleman encourages shoppers to come in the gallery of wonders with an open mind, ready to ask questions about why the pieces have a spot in her store.

Gold Bug
34 Union Street, Pasadena
626-744-9963, goldbugpasadena.com.