The Galway jeweller who engraved for US presidents at Tiffany's
David Courtney was a talented and charming master engraver who went from near-poverty in Galway to Tiffany & Co in New York
David Courtney at Tiffany & Co in Brown Thomas, Grafton Street, Dublin in 2008. In New York, he engraved pieces for three presidents: Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy, and for first lady, Jackie Kennedy. He also engraved a silver cigar case for Winston Churchill. Photograph: Eric Luke
David Courtney, who died in July, aged 86, was one of the last of his kind – a master engraver whose skill in hand-carving intricate designs in gold and silver took him from near-poverty in Galway to working for America’s most iconic jewellery store, Tiffany & Co, in New York.
When 24-year-old David boarded the Greek liner, the New York, in Cobh, Co Cork in 1955, he was just one of thousands of young Irish people who were fleeing a country in financial ruins. It was the decade of “doom and gloom”; Ireland’s rural economy was in decline, and the State had failed to develop new industries to replace it. During the 1950s, around half a million Irish emigrated, out of a population of three million, prompting some to dub it “the lost decade”.
Most of the Irish arriving in New York would be hoping to get jobs as labourers or factory workers, but David had a special talent: he was a qualified jeweller and engraver, having apprenticed with Galway jeweller Frank Pilkington. So when he set out to look for work in downtown Manhattan, he passed the building sites and stopped instead at a plush-looking jewellery store on 5th Avenue called Tiffany & Co and decided to try his luck there. As soon as he walked in he felt he’d made a mistake – the vast art deco space exuded luxury of the kind he’d only ever seen in movies, and he stood on the deep pile carpet in his scuffed brogues and gazed in awe at the huge display cases filled with dazzling gold and silver jewellery.
Somehow, he managed to get a job interview, and, after a demonstration of his skills to the chief engraver, he joined the store’s crack team of hand-engravers, employed to create intricate work for America’s high society. During his career at Tiffany’s, he engraved jewellery for film stars, business tycoons and royalty – and for their mistresses too. He engraved pieces for three presidents: Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy, and for first lady, Jackie Kennedy. He engraved a silver cigar case for Winston Churchill, and engraved verses of the song Galway Bay on the inside of a Claddagh ring for the King of Siam.
One of David’s toughest tasks was engraving the alphabet on the head of a pin. This wasn’t a commissioned work, but a common challenge taken up by engravers in their spare time, the ultimate test of skill and steady hand. He went through more than 100 pins before he finally got it right. Once the feat was achieved, the pin was tossed aside and forgotten about.
While working at Tiffany’s, he also wrote a column for the Irish World newspaper called Courtney’s Corner, a sort of social diary about the new Irish arriving in New York. This entailed attending many prestigious balls and dinner-parties, and he often found himself rubbing shoulders with such stars of the day as Roddy McDowell, Carol Channing, The Clancy Brothers, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.
His earnings at Tiffany’s meant he could afford to return home for a holiday, and it was on a visit to Galway that he met his wife Anne, a friend of his sister Angela. With no time for a long courtship, he and Anne were married within three weeks, and she joined him in New York four months after their wedding day.
David Courtney was born in Galway city in 1931, one of 10 children growing up in a tiny terraced house on Prospect Hill. His father, Tomas, had been an IRA man, part of the Castlegar regiment, and some of his exploits during the Rising had been fictionalised and used in Galway writer Walter Macken’s novel The Scorching Wind. David grew up in a time of extreme austerity, when rationing was part of life in the Emergency, but he had a happy childhood, much of it spent pursuing his favourite pastime: fishing on the river Corrib. His most outrageous exploits were “snatching” salmon, an illegal practice involving skilful use of a line and a fearsome-looking three-pronged hook to spear the salmon.
He was also a keen amateur dramatist, appearing in local theatre, and acting in plays written by his cousin Patty Shiels, who went on to publish the best-selling fantasy novel The Hounds of the Morrigan under her married name, Pat O’Shea.
Armed with a boxy 8mm film camera, David would make short comedy sketches and homemade documentaries. He filmed St Patrick’s Day parades in New York, and filmed his young family on summer days out at Jones Beach and at Christmas visits to Macy’s. His passion for amateur filmmaking continued when he and his family returned to Ireland in the early 1960s – he would recruit his kids and whoever else happened to be around to star in his many comic sketches, and he filmed local events such as the annual King of Dalkey festival. Once, at a free concert in Blackrock Park, he filmed a young, unknown rock band performing on the stage. It was probably the earliest-ever footage of Thin Lizzy. Years later, the footage was used by Shay Healy as part of his RTÉ documentary on Phil Lynnott.
The family settled in Glenageary, south Dublin, and David ran his own jewellery manufacturing business. He bought and refurbished an old cottage in the Gaeltacht town of Carraroe in Connemara, spending many a holiday there, pursuing his passions: fishing, painting, playing traditional music (he played a banjo mandolin, known as a “banjolin”) and speaking Irish.
He and Anne emigrated to the US for a second time in 1981, living in Jacksonville, Florida, and running a jewellery store in the heritage town of St Augustine, called the House of Heraldry. They returned to Ireland in 1993, and lived in Loughshinny in north Co Dublin, eventually settling in Blackrock, Co Dublin to be closer to their children and grandchildren. When Tiffany & Co opened a store in Brown Thomas in Grafton Street in Dublin, this paper interviewed David about his time working for the world’s most famous jewellery store in New York. The article was headlined “A full Irish at Tiffany’s”.
He was a mentor and teacher, a generous soul eager to pass his considerable skills on to others. He was keen to keep the art of hand-engraving alive, and taught many young jewellers how to use a graver.
In his later years, David suffered from vascular dementia, and it robbed him of his short-term memory and, more painfully for his family, of his sparkling, witty conversation. He was a great raconteur, who would hold a room in thrall with his stories and anecdotes. Sadly, as his dementia progressed, he withdrew into himself, although the sparkle would flash for a wonderful moment every now and again. He still painted, though, during his weekly visits to Beaufort House day centre in Glasthule.
He is survived by his wife Anne, his children Kevin, Deirdre and Ursula, and his grandchildren Jack, Robert, Hayley, Daniel and Matthew.