Diamonds and old classmates are a girl's best friend
Ann Chapman and Michael O'Dwyer's glittering jewellery careers began in Kilkenny and stretch from Dublin to Stockholm, writes Andrea Smith
When friends of Michael O'Dwyer's then girlfriend learned that he was doing the Crafts Council of Ireland's goldsmithing apprenticeship course in Kilkenny, they enviously presumed he was showering her in jewellery.
"He spends his time cutting out squares and circles," she replied, and indeed it was only in year two that the students even got to try to create something as complex as a ring.
I visited Michael at his gorgeous atelier in Stockholm in the company of his old classmate from that course, Ann Chapman, who stocks Michael's designs in her Westbury Mall store and studio, Stonechat Jewellers.
Both are great fun in person and exceptionally talented, and they look back on their time in Kilkenny with immense fondness and appreciation. There were only 12 students on the two-year course and it was extremely hard to get a place on it. It was, and still is, run by Jane Huston, mother of former RTE presenter, Jenny Huston - now a jewellery designer herself.
Jane was an exceptionally brilliant tutor, they say, and a hard taskmaster who locked them out of class in the courtyard of Kilkenny Castle if they were even a minute late. They spent a week at a time learning to cut one shape out of gilding metal initially using a sawblade, striving to get it perfect to meet Jane's exacting standards, and slowly and gradually, they progressed to making more complex shapes and designs.
"We'd all spend a week trying to get something exactly right, but Michael would cut out a shape in a few hours and bring it to Jane," Ann recalls, adding that they were only allowed to use rudimentary tools to help train their eye by learning the hardest way. "She would reject it and send him away to redo it over and over again, but by the end of the week, Michael was able to produce in a day what it had taken the rest of us a week to achieve."
Poring over Michael's "book" from the course, which contains all of the metal pieces he made from week to week, you can trace how he honed his craft, literally, over the two years. His beautiful designs are now worn by royalty and celebs, not that he'd tell you that himself as discretion is one of the hallmarks of his business.
Originally from Dun Laoghaire, the 40-year-old stumbled into the career when he got a part-time job in Facet Jewellers after completing his art history degree at UCD. He was instantly captivated and spent four years studying gemmology by correspondence with The Gemmological Association of Great Britain.
He then embarked on the Kilkenny course, which is where he met Ann. Originally from Howth, Ann completed a degree in European studies at Trinity, because her father, George Sevastapulo, who comes from a Greek family, taught geology there and was keen on her having an academic degree. During her Erasmus year in Paris, she fell madly in love with jewellery, and completed a jewellery-making course with FAS in Baldoyle after graduation. She carried out her work placement with the Steensons in Glenarm, Antrim, where Bill and Christina generously allowed her to work on her own designs in the evening in their workshop, having worked on their jewellery during the day.
This helped secure her place in Kilkenny, and she and Michael became instant friends and actually discovered that they had bought houses practically beside one another in the town.
It was through Michael that Ann met her English husband, Tim Chapman. A keen rock climber back then (and an extreme sports enthusiast
now), Michael had become climbing buddies with Tim. He and Ann got together at a party near the end of the course, and Ann claims Michael was shocked when she and Tim started dating as they're very different in personality. Michael protests that it occurred to him a few months earlier that Ann and Tim might make a good couple.
Ann and Tim are now married with two children, Eve (8) and Katie (4) and live in Dublin, while Michael moved to Stockholm as his (now ex) wife was Swedish. He went via Antwerp first, where he specialised in microscopic stone-setting with the famous diamond setter, Alexander Sidorov.
Ann (38) was more drawn to goldsmithing during the course, and after graduating, she went to work with Design Yard on Nassau Street, ultimately becoming general manager. Noting a gap in what they were offering, she asked Michael to design a collection of diamond wedding bands, which is how his studio, O'Dwyer, (www.odwyer.se) was born in 2009.
He borrowed the money from his mum for that first collection and it was a big hit. His high-end designs are now sold in 18 outlets worldwide. His work is stunning and so perfectly and intricately crafted, and he and his team consistently produce outstanding work by hand. He loves working with coloured stones in particular, like morganite, amethyst, sapphire and tourmaline.
Michael has a daughter Tiarna (9) from his first marriage, and a stepson Vidar (6) with his partner Linnea, with whom he also has two girls, Hilda (2) and two-month-old Alva. Hilda was actually born in Holles Street hospital two months early when Michael and Linnea were home on a visit, but all ended well.
Ann decided to open up her own design studio in Dublin in 2012 because she really missed making and designing. Her brother Colm came up with the name, Stonechat Jewellers, after the Irish bird of the same name. As well as designing and making her own gorgeous ranges of jewellery with her in-house team, the uber-talented Ann stocks ranges from 11 other jewellers, including O'Dwyer. She also offers a bespoke service and a popular remodelling service, where you can get your own jewellery reworked into a new piece.
Aside from the business connection between Ann and Michael, a deep friendship has endured between the two. Michael is godfather to one of Ann's children and her husband Tim has reciprocated with one of Michael's.
They have an intrinsic understanding of each other's design and thought processes, which is what makes their collaborative process so successful. "Ann and I have helped each other grow and we bounce ideas off each other all the time," Michael says. "She is definitely much stronger than I am on the business and technical side and she's super organised and has great vision. There's a real mutual respect there."
Ann Chapman and Michael O'Dwyer's collections are both available from Stonechat Jewellers, 3-4 Westbury Mall, Dublin 2. Tel: 01 671 0203
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