April 17, 2000 12:00 PM

For jewelry designers Michele Quan and Robin Renzi, opportunity knocked—or rather, buzzed—one day two years ago. The pair were toiling in their Manhattan studio when the intercom sounded. “I pick up the phone,” Renzi recalls, “and the man downstairs says, ‘There’s a woman here looking for you.’ I said, ‘We’re not a store; we’re not open.’ But the woman got on the phone and said, ‘Hi, this is Julia Roberts, do you make jewelry? Can I come up and see it?’ ”

Before Renzi, 43, a spunky ex-dancer, and Quan, 36, a funky former model, could say “Holy Hollywood!” the box office queen walked in with beau Benjamin Bratt. The designers were only too happy to show Roberts and friend their Me & Ro line: silver and gold necklaces, earrings and bracelets, many engraved with Tibetan and Sanskrit symbols for such words as perseverance and clarity, that sell for $45 to $25,000 for pieces encrusted with gems. “I absolutely fell in love,” Roberts told IN STYLE. Sure enough, filming her hit comedy Notting Hill a few weeks later, she sported Me & Ro baubles in nearly every scene.

The business that pals Quan and Renzi started in 1991 promptly exploded. They notched more than $6 million in sales last year through such tony stores as Saks Fifth Avenue and Barneys New York, as well as through their five-month-old Manhattan boutique. Among their converts: Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow, Camryn Manheim (who wears Me & Ro on The Practice) and Elizabeth Taylor—a lady who knows a thing or two about jewelry. “I love their stuff,” enthuses Marisa Tomei. “When I give their pieces as a gift, I feel like I’m giving something from my heart.” Richard Sinnott, a creative director for designer Michael Kors, agrees. “Everybody wants to wear Me & Ro,” he says. “No one will ever match that kind of quality.”

The duo believe their success stems from a hunger for substance in an often shallow world. “Our jewelry shows who you are and what you mean,” explains Renzi. Adds Quan: “It’s great for self-expression.” Buyers are particularly attracted to the designers’ personal connection to their work. “If you ask them about a piece,” says Cynthia O’Connor, a consultant who helped launch their business, “they can tell you a story, like, ‘It came from a pendant I had as a child.’ ”

And as a child growing up in Holliston, Mass., Renzi had a yen for the shiny. “When I was little, I remember my grandmother taking off her diamond ring, and I’d be quiet for hours playing with it,” she recalls. The daughter of Bob, now 71 and a retired insurance consultant, and Roselyn, 69, a homemaker, Renzi started crafting jewelry at age 13, making gifts for her three sisters. Though she went on to become an avant-garde dancer, Renzi was always making jewelry on the side.

For her part, Quan, the Vancouver-born daughter of Art, 70, a retired real estate executive, and Vicci, 57, a business manager, hit the runways at 19. The modeling business didn’t suit her personality. “I was supershy,” says Quan, who went on to study art instead.

Each moved to New York City, where they met in 1986 while waitressing at hot spot Indochine. When Quan admired a ring that Renzi had made, Renzi taught Quan jewelry making. They would sit with butane torches “and make things for hours,” says Quan.

After selling many pieces to pals, Renzi and Quan launched Me & Ro—Me for Michele, Ro for Robin—nine years ago with a few thousand dollars in savings. Today they still handmake the prototypes for each of the dozens of designs in their line; a staff of 25 does production and detailing.

With steady boyfriends, they live happily in separate apartments just blocks from their store. Their main worry? Running out of ideas. “I’ve had moments where it’s like, ‘God, what other kind of earrings can I make?’ ” says Quan. Maybe they should ask Julia.

Sophfronia Scott

Cynthia Wang in New York City

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