Jewellery shop clocks up 200 years in Wicklow town

Gelletlie’s, which is also a watchmakers, was a favourite of Seamus Heaney

Joan Gilletlie with Marie Heaney at the Gilletlie watchmaker and jewellery shop in Wicklow town which has just celebrated 200 years. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Joan Gilletlie with Marie Heaney at the Gilletlie watchmaker and jewellery shop in Wicklow town which has just celebrated 200 years. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Behind the counter of Ireland’s oldest jewellery shop, 16 antique pocket watches hang in a wooden cabinet.

It’s a fitting display case for a 200-year-old family business for which keeping time is a way of life.

The current generation of TJ Gelletlie gathered to toast their bicentenary on Friday in a small green park on Main Street in Wicklow town. Across the road, their jewellery and watch-making business, a modest storefront and workshop, stands much as it has since opening its doors in March 1818.

Gelletlie, one of Ireland’s oldest clockmaker and jewellery is marking 200 years in Wicklow town.
Gelletlie, one of Ireland’s oldest clockmaker and jewellery is marking 200 years in Wicklow town.
Gelletlie, one of Ireland’s oldest watchmakers and jewellers, in Wicklow town. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times
Gelletlie, one of Ireland’s oldest watchmakers and jewellers, in Wicklow town. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

“The business has survived major upheavals, rebellions, famine, land wars [and] has seen the foundation of the State,” said Marie Heaney, wife of the late poet Seamus Heaney, addressing the crowd.

“To put its longevity into proportion I would like to point out that the shop had been in existence 28 years before Charles Stewart Parnell, another great Wicklow man, was born in Avondale. ”

As longstanding family friends, the Heaneys had jewellery commissioned and restored at Gelletlie’s. They are part of a loyal customer base that has helped preserve a legacy of lifetimes.

Local churches

The family’s current generation were all raised above the shop – Tom Gelletlie (64) remembers travelling to local churches where his father Cecil would mend their clocks. “He had to climb up a ladder to fix them; I have that memory,” he says.

Guest of honour Marie Heaney, wife of the late Seamus, speaking to the crowd at the Halpin Monument in Wicklow town with current owner, goldsmith Joan Gelletlie (left) and husband Richard (right). Photograph: Andres Poveda
Guest of honour Marie Heaney, wife of the late Seamus, speaking to the crowd at the Halpin Monument in Wicklow town with current owner, goldsmith Joan Gelletlie (left) and husband Richard (right). Photograph: Andres Poveda

Peering into the window outside, Bernadette O’Toole (85) can remember getting her ears pierced here as a 15-year-old, for ten shillings. It is only one of two shops in the town that was there when she was born and its tenacity is of little surprise to her.

“Because they are always very pleasant,” she suggests, thinking back. “[Most] people wouldn’t know how to give you the time of day.”

In truth, there is more to it than good customer service. Recessions, shifts in business models, family disputes – small Irish businesses have disappeared for myriad reasons.

“I think it survived because the ordinary people in the town liked it and buying something was special,” says Helen Gelletlie, another of the children, who has spent time researching the shop’s history. “I think Gelletlie’s was kind of a brand.”

The Gelletlie family: Mother Joan (in black) and father Richard with daughters Lucy and Sarah, and guest speaker Marie Heaney. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
The Gelletlie family: Mother Joan (in black) and father Richard with daughters Lucy and Sarah, and guest speaker Marie Heaney. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Goldsmith

Even now people come in from around the county with old clocks made here long ago. Today, the business is run by Joan Gelletlie, a goldsmith married to Helen’s brother Richard.

With rising metal prices, much of her work now is reimagining and recasting old pieces. The next 200 years face more modern challenges.

“Online [shopping] is diabolical for the likes of ordinary jewellers,” she says. “You can’t buy what we have online.

“A piece of jewellery . . . you have to hold it, feel the weight of it, see the colour of the stone. Everybody thinks [the internet] is going to kill it but it’s not going to kill us.”