Phyllis MacNamara owns Cobwebs at 7 Quay Lane, Galway, which sells antique and vintage jewellery, fine diamonds and engagement rings as well as an eclectic mix of small antiques.
What’s your background?
I grew up in Galway in a house on Taylor's Hill and went to school at the nearby Dominican Convent. My father, Jimmy Lydon, who died aged 96 last year, ran a large catering business (Lydon House in Galway and Tea Time Express in Dublin) and my ambition was to join him as soon as I could. In 1968, I went to Trinity to study business studies but by the end of the first week I knew I had made a dreadful mistake. There was no scope there for my artistic nature and I hated being one of five girls among 97 boys. But one good thing was that one of those boys turned out to be my husband, Michael, to whom I was blissfully married for almost 33 years until his tragic death nine years ago. In my second year I changed course, studying Music and Visual Arts with English and Irish. It was heaven, and there began the training of my eye which was to stand to me when I went into the antiques business.
How did you get into the business?
Just as I finished university, my sister decided to open an antiques shop. I offered to help for a week – and stayed for 45 years. She left after a year to care for her family. People thought we were mad opening a shop in an area surrounded by warehouses. I have always loved the area by The Spanish Arch with its stunning views over Galway Bay. I’ve been running Cobwebs for the last 45 years, in a building which I own and love. In 1996, I decided to go to London to study the history of jewellery at Sotheby’s Institute and it turned out to be a life-changing experience. I had the opportunity to handle jewels of the highest quality and to meet people who collected, bought and sold jewellery. Many of these friendships remain and led to further study in America and Europe. My passion for jewellery and its history has never waned; I write about it, give talks and lectures on the subject and, above all, enjoy finding the perfect piece for each customer.
I have had many interesting clients, including Barbara Streisand who came into the shop wearing a peaked cap, dark glasses and collar up but I recognised her immediately by her voice. She bought a ring. Another customer, who bought emerald earrings, I discovered was Jennifer Tilly [the Hollywood actress and poker player] when I recognised her while watching an in-flight movie. But nothing beats the excitement of selling an engagement ring to a couple who are madly in love. I know I am an old Romantic, but it's such a happy time and being part of it is wonderful.
I held a jewel that had belonged to Catherine of Medici, in my suitably gloved hand, in the bowels of the British Museum. It had been given to her when she was leaving Italy to become the queen of France. It send shivers down my spine. I was invited to appraise some of the Duchess of Windsor jewels. I tried on her sapphire bracelet, and yes I took a selfie, as I did at the Cartier private collection in London. No matter how many exhibitions I see nothing measures up to the joy of having a piece in your hand and trying it on – jewellery is meant to be worn. I climbed into tombs in Italy to see where all the Etruscan jewels were found, with the society of jewellery historians, and had a private view of the jewels donated to different popes.
What advice would you give to collectors/investors?
Try to choose a piece that represents its own moment in time, ideally a signed piece in its original fitted case. A good buy now is Victorian jewellery which is not as fashionable as it was so is therefore more affordable.
What do you personally collect and why?
There are so many things I love. I collect bronze incense burners – they were the Jo Malone scented candles of the early 19th century – I love their classical shapes. I collect eye jewellery, c1820s, little paintings of eyes, these little jewels were exchanged secretly between lovers; needlework pictures from 19th century, my collection includes one made out of human hair, bit strange but I also have some very pretty ones of children and cats and dogs. I think I had the collecting bug since I was a child , I still have my dolls’ house. The love of collecting came from my mother who always made us feel that every object had a life of its own and had to be cherished.
What would you buy if money were no object?
I would build a concert hall in Galway, where we could have world class performers and where I could indulge my love of classical music and opera.
What’s your favourite work of art and why?
The portrait of Queen Elizabeth 1st, known as The Ditchley Portrait, painted in1592 by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. Here is the first woman who uses jewels to create an image that asserted her right to rule. This is a fashion statement as well as a power statement. Her jewellery says it all. What a great customer she would have been.
In conversation with Michael Parsons