Orla Neligan meets goldsmith Nigel O’Reilly
Mayo goldsmith Nigel O’Reilly’s expert craftsmanship has seen him win international acclaim from US Vogue, The Financial Times and The New York Times, but ORLA NELIGAN is
delighted to meet a master whose meteoric rise has not marred his ego.
Football jerseys – Italia ’90 ones to be exact – were what inspired master jeweller Nigel O’Reilly from an early age. He wasn’t holed up in his bedroom sketching diamond rings or lavish necklaces. “I grew up in Mayo with three brothers, so I was never surrounded by jewellery, but I do remember being fascinated by the AC Milan soccer jersey. It was black with red stripes and just seemed so exotic,” he laughs. While his brothers were watching football, he was designing jerseys in a sketchbook. In school, his severe dyslexia pushed him to seek out hand-based skills and subjects that didn’t require written exams and, while his friends were out partying, he was diligently completing his apprenticeship in precision engineering, spending
any spare time making jewellery on a lathe at work. It wasn’t until he was taken under the wing of the late goldsmith and gemstone cutter Erwin Springbrunn that he honed his skills. “The first piece I made was a ring carved from wood. I had to solder it using water to keep it cool and stop it from catching fire,” he smiles, recalling the memory. It did catch on fire, he admits, but that only improved it, giving it “character”.
For O’Reilly, jewellery is wearable art. Guided by the philosophy that jewellery should become part of a woman and complement her naturally, his pieces have character; they aren’t shy, but colourful and bold. They make a statement, but don’t shout too loudly. They aren’t trend-led nor are they throwaway costume, but instead timeless gems,
expertly made with hidden details that only the wearer knows about, whether it’s concealed diamonds or expertly crafted lattice work that only the wearer can see. “A customer once said to me that wearing my pieces was like wearing fine lingerie; you felt confident and sexy, and yet nobody knew what it looked like underneath,” he laughs. “I think that’s a great way to describe them. I think some jewellers miss the point that pieces should enhance someone’s beauty. A ring has to flow with the hand. Earrings have to be comfortable and function well and not overpower the wearer. Any piece of jewellery should enhance confidence.”
Earrings, in particular, fascinate him. They are, in his words, “the perfect combination of engineering and fashion. You could just stick a butterfly clip on the back, but the movement and function have to be right, and they have to be beautiful. Plus, they can be seen from the back and the front, so everything has to work.” It is this attention to detail and expert craftsmanship that sets O’Reilly apart in the sea of mass-produced jewellery, talents he attributes to his favourite designer, Alexander McQueen. Without him, he admits, it might have been different. “He is by far my favourite designer. He worked as a tailor first, so he knew how to make clothes. Similarly, my engineering background has taught me that you need to know how things work to design. But McQueen’s ability to push design to the limits while making it look like a second-skin was incredible.”
Like McQueen, he clearly fits the fashion mutineer role, championing freedom of expression in favour of trends. Meetings with US Vogue, features in The Financial Times, The New York Times and a growing celebrity clientele show he has hit his professional stride, penetrating the thick-skinned industry pelt and yet, ask him about his big break and he is quick to skirt the attention. “I don’t feel that I’ve made it as a designer. But that’s probably because I’m never fully happy with any of the pieces. I’m constantly improving.” A perfectionist perhaps? “Definitely,” he laughs. “I find it difficult to let a piece go until it’s absolutely perfect. It’s one of the reasons my pieces could never be mass produced. I need to oversee every single piece.”
Just recently he refused an offer from a large investor that would have taken him global. “I look back at the small artisan producers that started in Rome or Paris, who became known for being masters of their craft. If I go down the other road, I fear the quality will suffer. Plus, being here every day at the bench is fun,” he adds enthusiastically. It’s clear his meteoric rise has not marred his ego one bit. Self-effacing and down to earth, he talks about his craft like a proud parent. When probed on his favourite piece, he’s evidently confused. “It’s like asking to pick your favourite child,” he laughs, finally settling on the Molecular Cloud ring. The moonstone was a gift from his much-revered mentor,
Erwin, for his wedding. It sat in a safe for
nine years before he felt confident that he wouldn’t “mess it up”. In the end, it was David Bowie who inspired his idea to create a ring placing the moonstone in the middle and other gems around it, mimicking a solar system, set on a bed of pink sapphires and rubies. The stone is set from the back so that the cabochons look like they are floating. It was more challenging technically than most of his designs, but it doesn’t look like it, and that’s the point. Representing personality is integral to the design process. If he had to design for anyone, it would be an edgy, geometric, gothic creation for Lady Gaga, who, like McQueen, always pushes the boundaries.
As the business grows, O’Reilly spends less time than he’d like on “the bench” making jewellery, but still manages three to four days a week. It is working with the materials, in particular 18 karat rose gold, and designing the pieces that excite him most. There is only one project he can remember that really challenged him in a way that he’d rather not repeat. “A designer commissioned me to make a neck piece for the Hong Kong Jewellery Fair. It had 15 components and 1,400 stones, and I only had five days to complete it. That wasn’t much fun,” he adds with a sigh.
All this chimes with the fact that O’Reilly takes huge pride in his work, never taking for granted the responsibility he has for the end result and for the person who will be wearing it. “It probably sounds vain, but I really believe that if you’re looking at something beautiful on your skin, it will make you feel better. Jewellery is so personal, and I take great responsibility in ensuring it’s perfect for that person who will be wearing it every day.”
With collections that have riffed on everything from the landscape of Louisburgh in Mayo to his love of fashion, inspiration is found in his growing collection of fashion magazines and the beauty of the West of Ireland.
I’m interested to know how home informs his work. “It’s everything about here: the rugged landscape, the colours.” The Labyrinth ring, for instance, is a nod to Louisburgh in Mayo, where he married his wife Tracy, combined with his love of architecture. “I tried to capture that burnt green landscape of Louisburgh. There’s intricate latticework all around the ring and hidden diamonds underneath. The ring is a representation of everything that’s beautiful about here.” O’Reilly credits having grown up in Ireland, a country on the edge of Europe, and in particular Mayo, the last stop relatively speaking, as integral to his design. If he was to listen to all the “advice” urging him to move to New York or London, he may not have the same business he has today. “Living and working here has built up a certain level of resilience,” he says matter-of-factly. “Success for me had nothing to do with geography. The important part is creating, and I do that best here in the West of Ireland.”
His studio in Castlebar, designed by his artist wife Tracy, is a space that imbues the same casual luxury of his jewellery designs, a combination of his innate colour sense with a healthy dose of cool. “My friend once said to me that he’d rather choke on brilliance than cruise on the coat-tails of mediocrity. That kind of stuck with me,” he muses. “Cool” may not be his choice of words, but it’s clear that his designs are a world away from mediocrity. “My personal fashion motto? ‘Just not look too scruffy,’” he laughs amiably. “I prefer the jewellery to do the talking.”
CLOCKWISE FROM FAR LEFT Argentus pear shaped 1.17ct diamond engagement ring, €10,800; Nigel’s notice board with sketches of previous works and ideas; salon area in Nigel’s studio; Plato’s Beryl ring of 4.93ct green beryl set in 18ct yellow gold with 140 yellow, cognac and green diamonds, POA; an Infinity ring in the making.
“A customer said wearing my pieces was like wearing fine lingerie; you felt confident and sexy, yet nobody knew what it looked like underneath.”
CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT
Nigel in his studio; Dante’s Zircon ring of 14.56ct orange beryl, 344 coloured diamonds and sapphires set into 18kt rose gold, POA; setting sapphire in an Infinity ring; Labyrinth signature ring of central green tourmaline with 62 diamonds set in 18ct yellow gold, POA.