Claremonter treats eyeglasses like a work of art
David Wilson may not be your typical artist, paintbrush in hand and canvas in place, but his masterpieces have been among the town’s most visible, seen up and down the streets of Claremont for the last 25 years.
As the owner of Pigale Optical Parlor, Mr. Wilson lives for giving his customers the gift of improved sight while relishing the artistic flair that comes along with his job.
“It’s jewelry, ” he says of his array of eyewear, much of it custom-made and manufactured in his tiny Claremont boutique. “Of course now there is a technical side, we have to make them work, but what we sell is jewelry.”
For over 40 years, Claremont residents have been eagerly buying the one-of-a-kind works found at Pigale, which has also made a name for itself among Claremont’s art scene for displaying the works of other prominent local artists alongside Mr. Wilson’s eyewear. One such person is noted artist and Pigale customer Barbara Beretich, whose art has been on display at Mr. Wilson’s store for the past decade, though she has been a customer since long before.
“[David] has great taste and is very sweet to work with,” said Ms. Beretich. “People like David contribute to the warmth that attracts people to Claremont. He personified what Claremont is all about.”
Mr. Wilson inherited Pigale Optical Parlor from his father-in-law John Frantz, who opened the shop in 1970. Previously a vice president at the Federal Employees’ Distributing Company (Fedco), Mr. Frantz decided to open up a store closer to home following the department store’s downturn.
Pigale, originally named “Pigalle,” began as both an optical parlor one door down from the current location and a French-themed gift store where the eyeglass shop currently resides. The name was chosen upon suggestion from a friend, Pigalle being the name of an area in France. However, when Mr. Frantz eventually discovered that Pigalle also referred to France’s largest red-light district, one of the “Ls” was quickly removed and Pigale as it is now known came into being. Though the gift shop closed 2 years later, the optical parlor remained.
Famous about town for its unique spectacles and out-of-the-ordinary eyewear, Mr. Frantz’s optical parlor first made a buzz for its quirky interior design, much different than typical optical departments of its time.
“The industry was used to white walls and doctors with white coats,” Mr. Wilson explained. “This was half art gallery, half optical shop.”
Mr. Frantz, a Claremont man, paid homage to the town’s love of art and design with wood paneling, a hot design element at the time, unique pieces of furniture and art. The optical shop can still be seen in its original glory, with wood paneling harkening to the store of old. Mr. Wilson is happy to continue on in the tradition.
“It just makes it fun, not so sterile,” he said. “To me it depicts that 60’s and 70’s Claremont that hasn’t gotten slick yet.”
Mr. Wilson—a Claremont native and member of Claremont High School’s Class of 1969—enjoys the trip down memory lane he receives each time he steps into his store. He remembers fondly the small-town feel of the Claremont of the early 1970s, and his apprenticeship at Pigale, where he discovered his calling as an optician.
“We would go out to lunch at Yiannis and leave the door open and put up a sign, ‘Shop around. If you need us, go over and get us at Yiannis,’’’ he remembered of those days.
When he left Claremont for a time to hone the skills given to him by Mr. Frantz, stepping outside his comfort zone afforded him once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. It was while working as an optician in Beverly Hills in the early 1970s that he received a phone call from a famous Hollywood director.
“The man on the other end of the phone said, ‘Hi, this is Roman.’ I was thinking, ‘Roman who?’” Mr. Frantz recalled of his first conversation with Roman Polanski, who hired Mr. Frantz to bespectacle his actors for the acclaimed film Chinatown.
Within 3 months, Mr. Wilson put together 60 pieces of eyewear for the likes of Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and John Houston.
“They didn’t have the reproductions like they do now, so a lot of it was going out to thrift stores and antique malls and other vendors and back to Roman trying to come up with pieces,” Mr. Wilson said.
He was also charged with coming up with the iconic broken pair of glasses found in the pond near the film’s end: “You think it sounds easy, but you have to sit back and think, ‘How do you make a broken pair of glasses?’” he said.
Though Mr. Wilson would never work in the movies again, he can at least say he worked on an Oscar award-winner. After 20 years away, Mr. Wilson was granted the chance to return to Claremont in 1989 to take over his father-in-law’s business. He takes pride in continuing his father-in-law’s work, providing customers with unique selections.
“As we sell inventory, we try not to buy that same piece again,” he said. “That way, the store is constantly evolving, keeping things a little different. The one thing I would never want is to see 50 pieces of the same thing on the wall.”
Keeping his items unique and varied means looking outside the store walls and the borders of Claremont to the latest trends in New York and Los Angeles, and by watching his fair share of television and movies.
“We spot trends just by watching film or Entertainment Tonight to see what they are wearing,” Mr. Wilson explained. “When Terminator came out, we knew those black sunglasses he wore were going to be big. Same with Men in Black. When Chinatown came out, nobody knew I did the glasses, but there was an instant craze for the ‘40s glasses.”
The current trend continues to be 1950s-inspired unisex frames or “Geek Wear,” says Mr. Wilson.
Mr. Wilson likes keeping his shop small, honoring his father-in-law’s wish to keep it a community affair: “I don’t have a need to have a thousand frames in here.”
The staff remains equally sized, with just Mr. Wilson and one employee, Jessica Mauriz, running the show. Though recognizing the challenge that presents, Mr. Wilson says it gives him the chance to give his customers the personal contact they have come to expect from Pigale.
Mr. Mauriz says despite the workload, she finds her job to be extremely relaxed.
“It’s super-easy to come to work, Dave is a great person to work for,” Ms. Mauriz said. “It’s so laid-back.” She also gets the perk of access to Mr. Wilson’s eclectic inventory, including a pair of large, tortoise-shell geek-wear frames.
Despite moving to Lake Arrowhead 2 years ago, Mr. Wilson is happy to make the 2-hour round-trip commute to be reunited with his friends, his faithful customers and the work he loves.
“When I come to work, it’s like coming home,” he said.
Pigale Optical Parlor is located at 230 W. Bonita Ave., between Yale and Harvard Avenues in the Claremont Village.