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