Put a ring on it: ‘You should look down at your hand and feel happier every time’

Fashion: Nigel O’Reilly’s Irish jewellery can compete with top luxury houses’

Precision tool making and jewellery may not have a lot in common, but a Mayo goldsmith has transformed those skills in remarkable ways to produce fine jewellery that can compete with some of the world’s most luxurious houses.  “You should look down at your hand and the ring should make you feel happier every time,” says Nigel O’Reilly, whose Castlebar workshop with its sophisticated technology he reckons to be the most advanced in the country.

Situated in a modern building off the town’s main street, the stylish reception area on the second floor designed by his wife Tracy, a visual artist, displays his collections alongside the workshop studio. “I have invested everything in this place because I want people to have a different experience of jewellery,” he says.

Stones are pieces of art in themselves, and it is my job to make them into something else. Every aspect of the setting is special

The white gloves come out as he handles a showpiece ring that has caught my eye called Seed Takes Flight and explains its unusual tapered winged setting. Centrepiece is a huge golden south sea pearl with 931 individually set diamonds, sapphires, rubies and tsavorite garnets in 18ct rose gold. (You quickly learn about stones.)

Another signature ring called Labyrinth with a linear architectural shape has a large tourmaline with hidden diamonds under the stone. A love of fashion and particularly Alexander McQueen inspired Dante’s Zircon - a rare orange beryl surrounded by the bold colours of sapphire and yellow diamonds. The setting of each piece is as dramatic underneath as above with finely detailed and meticulously crafted honeycombed or gold fretwork patterning sometimes including a hidden motif.

“Stones are pieces of art in themselves and it is my job to make them into something else. Diamond setting is very hard work, but every aspect of the setting is special and there is always a little surprise at the back for the customer”, says O’Reilly, who inherited several boxes of rare jewels from one of the finest gem cutters in Europe, the late German master jeweller Erwin Springbrunn who used to source gems for Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

In one box alone are expertly cut sapphires, topaz, morganite (a variety of beryl), amethyst, rhodolite, garnets and green diamonds. He explains that zircon is a stone that reflects more light than diamonds.

“I always start with the stone and inspiration comes from a lot of places. I am surrounded by nature here in Mayo but I also love London and city life and am inspired by people who push the boundaries of what you can do. People said I was mad doing fine jewellery in the heart of Mayo, but you would not have the freedom anywhere else.” Already he has showcased his work in New York and his collections are now on display in Ashford Castle’s new boutique in the hotel.

From Claremorris, one of three sons of a farmer and a teacher, O’Reilly, who is dyslexic, studied precision engineering and toolmaking in Galway for four years, but was always interested in jewellery. “The course was all to do with hand skills and precision work, but there was no creativity though it did teach me discipline.” He started to make small pieces and looked into becoming a goldsmith and was one of twelve selected for the Kilkenny jewellery design course run by Jane Huston in 2005. After that he spent a year with the renowned craftsman Rudolf Heltzel in Kilkenny and during his time with Huston met Springbrunn at his studio in Roscommon. “He had made a tabernacle for Foxford and tiaras for statues in Knock and both he and Heltzel became my mentors”.

Driven to learn more about new diamond setting technology and to combine it with traditional methods, O’Reilly then moved to Stockholm where he quickly established an international reputation for his high standard working with luxury houses in London and Paris and though there were many job offers in those cities, his plan was always to return home to Mayo.

“Tracy and I got married in 2011 and our first child was born in Stockholm. When we moved back to Ireland, we initially set up the workshop in Straide and living half an hour from Knock I could go back and forth (to London and Paris) from there.”  Enjoying the lifestyle in the west of Ireland, he now cycles to work in Castlebar every day along the Greenway, has two boys aged 5 and 7 and remains close to his parents “who have been hugely influential in my life”.

What I make looks completely different to what you get in shops, and you set yourself apart with this pernickety high level of work

Wedding and engagement rings are a speciality and a recent commission came from an Irish couple who had seen his work in Ashford Castle and were taken by its originality and creativity. “What I make looks completely different to what you get in shops and you set yourself apart with this pernickety high level of work. Much jewellery looks the same because it is all made in the same factories in China and all based on the centre stone and the carat.”

With four full time workers and one part time, he continues to develop his pieces on the bench and has also inherited from Springbrunn some of the master’s tools. Currently experimenting with anodising titanium – different coatings over metal - he finds himself returning again and again back to rose gold and gold. “People told me that no one would buy high end jewellery in Ireland and no company would send me work. But that has not been the case. In the end my job is to make women look beautiful”, he says. Prices start from €1,500 for wedding bands and from €12,000 for signature rings.

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