Simon MacLachlan is an unlikely looking aesthete. Thanks to his penchant for Chris Bonnington-type knitwear and a voluble demeanour reminiscent of a young Brian Blessed, it’s easy to imagine him as the captain of a rugby club. Instead he presides over Piccadilly Vaults, an engaging cabinet of curiosities, jewels and gewgaws that opened in London’s Piccadilly Arcade last year. While the Piccadilly part of the name is obvious, customers must descend the narrow staircase to the “vaults”: a wall of gleaming safety deposit boxes rescued from the former Barclays Bank that is now The Wolseley and repurposed in this den that doubles as a whisky bar.
MacLachlan is a raconteur par excellence; it is not unusual to enter his shop and see him surrounded by a small circle of admirers, spellbound by his orotund magniloquence. Ask him about any of the objects in the vitrines – the 1770s memento mori pocket watch-cum-music box (£13,000), or the 1970s Bulgari shot-gun-cartridge-shaped pill box (£7,900) in yellow and rose gold – and he will declaim in sonorous, RSC-worthy tones until you either buy it or ask him about another item.
He found his calling at age nine, when he became separated from his grandmother at the Olympia antiques fair. “She found me at the stand of a leading art deco dealer, examining the jewellery with a loupe.” He ended up working for the dealer, but also found time to get his qualifications from the Gemological Institute of America and rove the world. “I spent four months in Cape Town learning about diamond cutting from a lapidary. I visited India to understand emerald cutting. I traded gemstones in Cambodia and Russia.”
It’s a packed CV for a man just out of his 20s, resulting in an astounding curios collection. The women’s jewellery ranges from the Renaissance to the 1980s, and from the showstopping – a brilliant bombé ring (£7,850) in 18ct gold set with 60 Burmese rubies and a “bright slash” of diamonds; a 1920s carved opal scarab beetle brooch (£6,300) in a vibrant combination of diamonds, emeralds and enamel – to the classical, such as an Edwardian diamond “boat head” ring (£6,850) and midcentury diamond-drop earrings (£19,950).
There are mantiques aplenty too: bar equipment (a 1920s Farber Brothers Krome-Kraft pitcher, £700), smokers’ requisites (1930s gold cigar cutter, £685) and cufflinks (1940s sapphire and gold wirework, £2,600). And he never has fewer than 40 stickpins in stock – from an art deco ensemble of emeralds and diamonds (£2,650) to a whimsical 1920s French 18ct-gold and cabochon garnet conker (£2,450).
MacLachlan also works with a few modern producers who “use old craft techniques or ancient materials” to produce Siberian meteorite cufflinks (from £900) “with classic chain fittings”; numismatic rings (£750) carved out of early-1900s US coins; and Octopus candelabra (£300-£1,200) cast in pewter to chime with the Vaults’ logo – “chosen to fend off attacks from the sharks that dominate the antiques business”, explains MacLachlan. “The octopus is fabled to be the only thing that can kill a shark.”