All that glitters
Remember the name: Mayo-based goldsmith Nigel O’Reilly is set to compete with top luxury houses around the world. Annmarie O’Connor gets up close and personal with his dazzling creations
Meet jewellery designer Nigel O’Reilly
Dazzled. That’s how I feel sitting with goldsmith Nigel O’Reilly and his collection of signature gemstone rings. I’m trying on a showpiece entitled Dante’s Zircon, which boasts 344 coloured diamonds and sapphires, and a 14.56ct rare orange beryl, before I’m introduced to Seed Takes Flight, a behemoth of 931 diamonds, sapphires, rubies and garnets and a 14.8mm golden South Sea pearl. I guess he wanted to start me gently.
“These are my ‘let’s see how far I can push it’ pieces,” O’Reilly tells me. Although I’ve just met him, this somehow doesn’t surprise me. At 36 years old, the Claremorris native is just starting to get his big break. Meetings with couturier Don O’Neill, the jewellery editor of US Vogue and The American Historical Museum on 5th Avenue, are just some of his diary entries for the next few weeks.
Not that he takes any of this for granted. Disarmingly unassuming, his backstory is a testament to the alchemy of drive, passion and Shaolin-like focus.
“When I was in school, I was very dyslexic,” he says of his childhood. “Luckily, my mother was teaching me at the time and she knew that I wasn’t lazy or stupid, but I literally just couldn’t get anything in.”
With that, O’Reilly pursued the Leaving Cert Vocational Programme, which allowed him to use his hands and do project work, one of which was a case study on a jeweller. Inspired by the career path, but, having no idea how to go about becoming one, he chose, instead, an apprenticeship as a precision engineer/toolmaker working in the high-tech field of vascular surgery.
“I loved that discipline of it,” he admits. “You’re working toward microns, so there’s no discrepancy whatsoever. When I got more confident in the work and I had more spare time, I started making up rings on the lathe, probably when I should have been working. It’s been years now, they won’t give out to me,” he jokes. Goldsmith Nigel O’Reilly, his studio in Castlebar, and a signature ring, Dante’s Zircon, which boasts 344 coloured diamonds and sapphires and a rare orange beryl.
What started as an interest soon became an obsession. In 2006, he applied for a two-year intensive course in jewellery making run by the Design and Crafts Council of Ireland in Kilkenny. With no art background, he spent a year on a bench in his room creating portfolio pieces for his interview submission. The bet paid off.
“You couldn’t imagine how exciting it was to be educated in something that you love doing…. The thing I loved about the course in Kilkenny was that it wasn’t arty. You have to learn how to make something before you can learn to design something. That’s what we did. We’d sit there soldering the same piece hundreds of times just to get it right and that takes a certain calibre of person just to stick with it. I would be there from 8am and I wouldn’t leave until 10pm.”
It was on this course he met his mentor, the late goldsmith and gemstone cutter Erwin Springbrunn.
“When I found out that he lived only 40 minutes away from my home, basically every weekend I could, I’d drive down to him. Then I started working full-time with renowned goldsmith Rudolf Heltzel in Kilkenny. He didn’t want to take on an apprentice either, but I just kept turning up.”
O’Reilly continued pushing the boundaries of his craftsmanship and, in 2009, he accepted an opportunity as a diamond-setter in Stockholm. He and his wife Tracy lived there for twoand-a-half years, with Nigel honing his skills in reputable jewellery houses in London and Antwerp.
“We had our first child in Stockholm and we moved home to Ireland 11 weeks later. Everyone was telling me I was mad to move back. It was the middle of the recession, but to move to Mayo, the middle of nowhere, they couldn’t see it.”
He proved the naysayers wrong — again.
“My house is right beside Knock airport, a half an hour away, so two weeks after moving home, I flew to London. I had a few contacts built up from my days in Stockholm and I was working for six of the biggest houses on Bond Street. That’s basically how I built up my workshop, by doing trade work for all those I businesses.” n 2012, O’Reilly set up a small studio in Foxford and followed, in 2017 with his current ‘by appointment’ studio in Castlebar: A luxe space (part consultation room; part workshop) where clients can discuss having bespoke jewellery made and also view Nigel and his team at work.
As I take in the minutiae of his eight-piece show collection, selection of earrings, and engagement rings, the respect for his trade and technical excellence is evident. I turn one of the rings upside-down and spot a ‘honeycomb’ design inside its base — “it’s special for the person that’s wearing it. They are the only one who knows that’s there” — while a green tourmaline beauty hides set diamonds underneath the stone to make it catch the light. Simply incredible.
More incredible still is that each of these showpieces is unique – made with stones cut by his dear friend Springbrunn, who passed away two years ago. “I had a huge selection of his work. They were just sitting in the safe and I was like: ‘OK, you have to do something. You have to push it.’ It was quite emotional, since he passed away and every stone I had was the last there was going to be, so I had to make a piece that was fitting, because the stones are pieces of art in themselves and you have to try and take that and make even more art out of it.”
To think, people told him nobody would appreciate this kind of work in Ireland. When O’Reilly tells me that he wants to be a collectable goldsmith, I’m already certain of his future success. Never say it can’t be done. This man will prove you wrong.
Everyone was telling me I was mad to move back. It was the middle of the recession, but to move to Mayo, the middle of nowhere, they couldn’t see it