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Zoltan David -“Cool” Story

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Bee Cave, TX
URL: www.zoltandavid.com
Owners: Zoltan and Patti David
Founded: 1980
Opened Featured Location: 2008
Area: 1,800 square feet (880 square-foot showroom)
Architect / Design Firm: PPDS
Employees: 5 (3 full-time, 2 part-time)

 

By TRACE SHELTON

 

Freedom. To jewelry designer and store owner Zoltan David, it’s not a cliche’ or buzzword — it’s something to be pursued relentlessly.

"I’m not a jewelry retailer, I’m a jewelry artist. I’m motivated by what sets me free," he declares. Why, then, would a man who’s been recognized as one of the top designers of his era tie himself down to a retail location?

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Because, according to David, working directly with consumers brings about the very freedom he craves. "With wholesale, you sometimes have to damp down the extraordinary in favor of mass appeal. But when the consumer asks you to run with a piece, you have many directions available and you can run as far as you want," he says.

And so, after beginning his training as a goldsmith and diamond setter in 1972 and establishing his own designer brand in 1980, David chose to open an appointment-only showroom in 1995. Then, last year, he and his wife of 15 years, Patti, unveiled a truly public showroom in the new Hill Country Galleria in picturesque Austin, TX.

Like Zoltan, Patti loves retail. "For me, retail is more rewarding than wholesale," she says. "I get to talk to the people who wear the pieces. And I know that our jewelry becomes part of their story."

 

DEEP IMPRESSION

Under a blue Texas sky and hot Texas sun, a man and a toddler, holding hands, wander the stained-concrete sidewalks of the open-air Galleria. Green trees, vivid flowers, and stately white Hill Country limestone surround them as jazz music alternately drifts and pulses to put shoppers in a buying mood. They stop, pulled in by the oval window displays and the fascinating jewelry held therein.

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Welcome to Zoltan David, where even the sleek logo font sends a message that this is not your average jewelry store.

The exterior fac,ade is contemporary, formed of multiple pieces of stained wood, but with no hard edges — everything is rounded. The doorway, slightly recessed, entices shoppers to move inside where they’ll find cool air and an even cooler jewelry shopping experience.

The first thing one notices is the space: There are no showcases in the middle of the store. The rich brown rosewood floor meshes perfectly with red oak showcases for a luxurious yet unintimidating feel. Above the showroom on the back feature wall, a distinctive, slashing "Z" crest overlaid by a medieval Hungarian sword speaks of heritage — and at the same time, conjures images of the dashing swashbuckler El Zorro of Mexican tradition.

A large round ottoman covered in leather and cowhide rests smack in the middle of the showroom floor, adding a particularly Austin flavor. An airy silk chandelier floats overhead, matched by drop lights above the wet bar in the corner. They hang from a 16-foot-high barrel ceiling, faced in a natural wood veneer imported from Japan. A hallway at the back leads to a private viewing room, an impressive restroom, and the 500-square-foot shop, the Dancing Metals Studio. "For the average jewelry workshop, we have a lot of space. But for the kind of work we do, pleasantness is important," Zoltan says. "What’s going on in your head affects what comes out of your fingertips."

Alcoves to either side of the hallway hold six of Zoltan’s past awards. "It feels great to have more awards than alcoves," he laughs. The jewelry that earned those awards rests glowing in the showcases to either side of the gallery. Every piece is distinctive, little resembling anything a customer might have seen elsewhere. This only heightens the sense that one is actually browsing an art gallery.

For a typical retail jewelry model, this space might seem constraining. At Zoltan David, it feels refreshingly spacious. By shopping here, a customer is doing something special — something to be remembered.

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PERSONAL CONNECTION

In a silk shirt, jeans, and black leather boots, Zoltan David is the consummate Austinite. He appears relaxed, yet he chafes at being away from his sketchpad or bench for too long. Seated next to him, Patti, wearing a casual black dress, is friendly and effortlessly elegant. As they discuss the process that brought their store and jewelry to life, they complement each other perfectly — Patti gives motion to retail sales and operations, while Zoltan focuses primarily on his design work. Both have a vision for the business, and both are creative (Zoltan designed the store’s exterior, while Patti is responsible for the look and feel of the showroom itself).

In the private consultation room where they sit, a framed cover story about Zoltan from ROBB REPORT magazine graces one wall, discussing his specialty, the laborious "cold-forged" technique that involves compressing and shaping cold metal using hand tools; the metal is then softened with heat and allowed to harden, resulting in a stronger, more dense metal. It also discusses his signature jewelry design: a finely detailed inlaid pattern set with tiny diamonds or gemstones, for which Zoltan was awarded a U.S. patent.

Clearly, Zoltan is dedicated to design and jewelry work — and has been for almost four decades. In fact, when asked about his hobbies, he struggles to think of anything beyond designing before coming up with martial arts ("I started at 17, and even taught for a while"), music (he plays guitar, flute and saxophone), and enjoying nature.

"For me, the creation process is my lifeblood," he says. "It’s a two-edged sword: It brings me satisfaction AND dissatisfaction. It imprisons and liberates me at the same time."

He is a true Hungarian, born in Budapest and knighted by the Hungarian government-in-exile in 1988 in honor of his father for heroism in World War II. "Aside from being a war hero, my father was an engineer and inventor," he says. "My mom was a well-known cake decorator. So, jewelry is a perfect fit for me: part engineering and part fantasy."

And although he’s lived in Vancouver and Laguna Beach, CA, he’s also a true Texan. "I love Texas. The most powerful characteristic of Texas is its independence," he says. "I hold individuality in very high regard. A store could come into Austin from New York and announce: ‘Hey Austin — Manhattan’s here!’ And Austin would respond: ‘Whoop-de-doo.’"

This value system is, perhaps, part of what attracted him to Patti, a native Texan, in the first place. "Patti and I bounce things off each other. That division of expertise helps us work very well together," he says. "The other thing about Patti is, I really like her. If I want to have a beer with someone, I’ll go have it with Patti."

With more designs on the horizon, a newly minted Cool Store, and a house on the lake, life is good for the Davids. But it hasn’t always been easy.

"It’s a huge challenge to be an independent business owner," Zoltan says. "You have to walk a path that only you can walk. The independence, though, is well worth the price."

 

5 Cool Things
 

Doors of Delight
1. Zoltan David features not one, but two, of the most interesting doors in the country. The front door, designed by David himself, has so much glass as to resemble a window itself, with thin lines of wood crisscrossing in weblike fashion. The door leading from the showroom to the shop was the front door of the store’s last location, and the Alice In Wonderland concept comes courtesy of a Manhattan woodworking artist.

 

Full of Emptiness
2. Space: the final frontier of jewelry store design? The Davids thought so, constructing a showroom with plenty of empty space in the middle, which makes it feel more like an art gallery than a jewelry store.

 

Wooden Countenance

3. Wood connotes warmth and natural beauty, both qualities that the Davids cherish. As such, the Zoltan David showroom features not one but FIVE different types of wood, including Brazilian rosewood (floors), Spanish cedar (bar, molding and doors), mahogany (ceiling), red oak (showcases), and Texas mesquite (consultation room desk). They’ve received so many positive customer comments on the wood scent that they changed their minds about adding aromatherapy.

 

Extreme Visuals

4. Like many jewelry stores, Zoltan David features a flat-screen TV, but the footage customers watch here is far different from what they might see elsewhere: extreme water sports, and Discovery Channel’s "The Planet" series. Both are incredibly visual and have nothing to do with jewelry … which works quite well, actually. "These are things people like to watch," Zoltan says. "And it’s enjoyable even without sound."

 

Designed to Succeed
5. Zoltan David was a world-renowned designer before he ever opened a retail space. His dozens of awards include being the first designer in the history of the JA Show to win both New Design Talent and New Designer of the Year (1994), multiple AGTA Spectrum Awards, and being selected as one of the Top 100 Designers of the past 30 years in a poll conducted by National Jeweler Magazine (2007). His latest honor was winning "Best of Silver" in National Jeweler for his Gypsy Bracelet (April 2009).

 

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Nature scene on a billboard
On one of the main highways leading into the area, there was a section of pristine roadway which was becoming overrun with billboards. Zoltan and Patti contracted one of the larger vacant billboards and put up a picture of a blue sky with clouds and simply wrote: "Courtesy of Zoltan David." For the first few months the billboard was up, they had people coming into the store every week thanking them. They are trying to start a movement in the area to beautify the billboards and make them objects of art while still conveying a marketing message to the public.

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