At the age of eight, Nigel O’Reilly was aware that the “normal” course of education was not on the cards for him, but today – though not yet 40 – he has become one of the most talked about jewellery designers in the country.
“They thought I was not catching up because mum was my teacher, but it turned out that I was badly dyslexic,” says O’Reilly, adding that the thought of college was daunting.
Instead, he undertook an apprenticeship at toolmaking and ended up making injection moulds for vascular surgery in Galway. It was to impress a woman that he made his first ring, when he met Tracy Sweeney at a nightclub in Galway.
“She was just so cool and I was really intimidated by the art crew that she hung out with, but I made a ring for her from the medical grade steel I was working with.”
Four years later, Sweeney – now an established artist whose highly textured work won her the Pollock Krasner award in 2011 – accepted another ring from the jewellery designer who would later become her husband, and he credits her as being the “driving force behind me”.
Sweeney encouraged O’Reilly to think of jewellery design and he undertook a course run by the Craft Council in Kilkenny.
“Up to then there were no jewels at home, except mum’s engagement and wedding rings, Dad was a farmer and I grew up surrounded by footballs and tractors.”
He admits his family thought he was mad giving up work as a qualified toolmaker, but after enrolling in an apprenticeship with jewellery designer Jane Huston, "for the first time in my life I thought 'this makes sense'". A year of apprenticeship with the late master goldsmith and influential jewellery designer Rudolf Heltzel followed.
“He really did not want to take me on at all, but I kept showing up. Rudolf taught me the craft of making – rather than design – which is so important. You have to learn what metals do and how they react before you can think of design.”
Further learning came with Erwin Springbrunn, the late prizewinning master goldsmith who was described as "one of the finest gem-cutters in Europe".
He was a heavy influence on O’Reilly, not just in matters of design and gems, but for his ability to live and work in the west of Ireland. He “moved to Frenchpark in Roscommon to get away from all the craziness”, says O’Reilly.
“He had a presence like Gandalf [the erudite wizard in JRR Tolkien’s novels].”
Ninety per cent of all the stones O’Reilly uses have been cut by Springbrunn, who died in 2016, and O’Reilly says one of his proudest moments was when his name appeared beside Springbrunn on the Sotheby’s catalogue last year.
O’Reilly made history when two of his rings sold at the auction house’s Important Jewels sale in New York, making him the first Irish jewellery designer to feature in a Sotheby’s New York sale.
The latest edition of high-end New York magazine As If, features Academy Award-winning actress Julianne Moore on the cover and inside, clad in jewels by O'Reilly.
And his orb ring was recently chosen by the Design and Crafts Council of Ireland as part of Portfolio; Critical Selection 2021-2023 and will represent Ireland in upcoming design exhibitions in Dubai and Geneva.
He sells through two online portals, one of which is for bespoke jewellery, using gemstones cut by the late Springbrunn (O’Reilly says he is currently in talks with a potential new cutter in Hawaii) and a second site selling engagement and wedding rings.
He also resets outstanding gems, and his Instagram account gives a blow by blow account of how he dreams up the solutions. He cites one large rose cut diamond (about 6 carats) where the cut allowed the colour of the finger to come through the stone, so it gave a pinkish tinge. O'Reilly's solution was to mimic the facet on top by making a grid of diamonds underneath the stone. To reset a gem costs in the region of €15,000.
Now with a team of six, the 39-year-old is based at his studio in Castlebar.
“I worked in Stockholm for a while and on the way back to Ireland I was called an ‘idiot’ and ‘daft’ for wanting to set up a jewellery business in Mayo. Here my kids go to a three-teacher school, where they don’t have to be baptised to get in.
“I’ve a beautiful studio at a fraction of the cost of what a shoe box would cost in Dublin, so I can concentrate on design rather than selling rings to pay the rent. And, from Knock, I can be over and back to London in the same day.”
O'Reilly's orb ring, part of the Conjuring Form and Critical Selection 2021-2022 by the Design and Craft Council is now on exhibition at Doneraile Court in Cork until September 12th.