Image - - Contents - PHO­TO­GRAPHS BY AL HIGGINS

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.”


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.

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