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

Irish Examiner - Weekend - - Inside - Nigel O’Reilly: 094 900 4994; www.nigelor­eilly.com

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

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