Nigel O’Reilly and I meet for a pre-interview of sorts. It’s back in the good old days, the ones before social distancing. We are in The Westbury Hotel lounge, a spot hit hard by the current Covid-19 crisis. Travel, hospitality and luxury seem a particularly precarious mix right now. He arrives with a small unmarked box. The contents are colourful, creative and beyond anything you’ve ever seen before.

O’Reilly is a jeweller who creates wearable art, optimising the sparkle and shine of coloured gems and white diamonds and is renowned for his fine pavé settings and high-polished 18k gold. The settings are as beautiful as the stones they hold. It is a real life treasure chest.

By the time we speak again, he’s been to New York and London. This time we’re talking by phone. I’m in Dublin, he’s in his studio in Castlebar, Co Mayo. The crisis is now a pandemic and as a fully signed up, card-carrying member of the luxury industry, O’Reilly is apprehensive about the future. “Who knows how long this will go on for?” he says. “My rent is reasonably low, staffing levels are easy to control. We’re still making stock, although on a limited level. If I were operating from Dublin right now, we’d have had to close and the rent would still have to be paid. We can maintain ourselves for a long time, keeping things niche. If I were sitting on a stock of 10,000 rings that I had to sell for a fiver each, then I’d be more worried.”

O’Reilly is optimistic the crisis will shift consumer behaviour in a positive way. “What has shown up is the amount of people who say their work isn’t made in China, but is. Just because they stick the label on it in Europe doesn’t make it so. They’re going to be hit hardest because their workforce is gone, nothing can be made there at the minute. Hopefully, this will show people we don’t have to be consuming lots of cheap stuff. Buy something that will last a lifetime.”

He has other grounds to be upbeat. After 15 years making jewellery for some of the best names in the business – Garrard, Boodles, Shaun Leane, Ben Day, Fabergé, Stephen Webster – he’s created his own high jewellery collection and is being lauded internationally for his efforts. Luxury stores and auction houses in New York have come calling, hence the transatlantic air mileage.

He’s also just landed himself an American agent. Not just any agent, but Thierry Chaunu, founder of BeauGeste Luxury Brands, who represents artistic jewellery and Swiss watch brands. “You don’t often encounter someone who combines excellence in design and workmanship,” says Chaunu. “O’Reilly brings a certain edginess that is refreshing. Then you meet him and discover how humble he is about his work, it endears you even more to his impressive technical mastery as a truly gifted designer.”

A pearl ring designed by Nigel O’Reilly. Pic: Richard Foster

With prices ranging from €15,000–150,000 his pieces are investments, but it doesn’t phase Chaunu. “In the US, there’s a new, younger clientele – young socialites – who are in Beverly Hills, Aspen, Dallas, Palm Beach, New York and want something fresh and different from the venerable, traditional ‘high jewellery’ brands. They want heirloom pieces and to choose them for themselves. It also applies to those of an older generation with disposable income who invest in bespoke, one-of-a-kind pieces. These patrons appreciate the personal, one-to-one interaction in the way that the older established and grand houses of high jewellery that came before him used to operate. I see Nigel as a high-jewellery designer for a new generation.”

Dyslexia, design and keeping it in the family

Nigel O’Reilly with actress Saoirse Ronan, who has showcased many of his pieces.

This newfound attention is exciting, but comes with added pressure. O’Reilly is ready. He’s used to stepping up. The son of a farmer and a teacher, he struggled at school. At the age of eight he was diagnosed with severe dyslexia. “I was probably the only eight year old doing grinds back then,” he jokes. “Dyslexia was viewed very differently in 1988 to what it is now. I was never told I was stupid, but it’s hard not to feel it when you’re in a class and everyone else is getting it. It even happens now when I’m emailing people. I make what I do, but I can’t spell the word ‘beautiful’. My mind is at its most peaceful, when I’m making jewellery because I’m not thinking, it just works. But when I’m emailing or trying to write a word, and I get stuck, it’s like hitting a wall. Also, why did they have to make dyslexia such a hard word to spell?”

After school, he took an apprenticeship working as a precision engineer making tools for vascular surgery, where he gained practical skills and a masterclass in discipline. Around the same time, he met Tracy Sweeney, an art student and the pair started dating. Attempting to impress he made her a ring, with some lines engraved into it. That simple band secured both his romance and career.

Following some brief formal training he worked closely with, and learned from, the late master goldsmith and gemstone cutter Erwin Springbrunn as well as Kilkenny-based master goldsmith Rudolf Heltzel. “Working with Erwin and Rudolf was great. They are as old school as you can get. Rudolf still uses a typewriter. He taught me precision. Everything had to be perfect.”

Hungry for more, O’Reilly became interested in new techniques using microscopes to set stones and pneumatic engraving. “With my engineering background I knew if I mixed old techniques with new equipment I could make something special. I had an opportunity to go to Stockholm and train. Tracy and I got married and three weeks later we moved to Sweden.” Two and a half years later their son, Tadhg was born. “The moment he was put into my arms, I realised I had to go home. I had to go back to Ireland.” They returned to the west coast, rented a house and set up a studio in his spare room. He flew over and back to London, working on commissions for most of Bond Street to fund the materials for his own collection.

“I knew if we incorporated CAD we could create different techniques, so I suggested he work for me. He’s amazing, just a different level.”

Alongside Tracy, who has proven invaluable to almost every part of the business, he employed his two older brothers, one he trained to be a diamond setter. “He didn’t know anything about jewellery. He had been in the building trade. He’s excellent. His work is all over the world now. We just did a load of Fabergé work and who knows what red carpet that’ll end up.”

The other, a trained engineer and CAD designer was a stay-at-home dad looking for a job with part-time hours. “I knew if we incorporated CAD we could create different techniques, so I suggested he work for me. He’s amazing, just a different level.”

With their help he has managed to grow the business exponentially, opening a studio two years ago and creating two brands, NO’R being the more commercial option, while Nigel O’Reilly Goldsmith houses the high jewellery collection. His work has attracted royalty, A-listers, and prominent business people. Saoirse Ronan and Grace Kelly’s granddaughter, Jazmin Grace Grimaldi were among the first personalities to wear his designs, while the majority of his Irish customers are high income earners.

“One told me how she’s usually the only woman in board meetings with all these men who have their watches and cars and there’s only so many types of dresses you can wear to make you look high powered. My work is the kind of jewellery she wants to represent her when she’s in those kind of meetings.”

Sourcing materials, turning down investment

Sourcing good quality materials is costly, particularly when your mission is to make the best jewellery in the world. “There’s a bit of an attitude in Ireland about being proud because the work is Irish. No, you should be proud because it’s the best in the world, and it’s also Irish. I love living in Ireland, I love living in Mayo. But I don’t want that to be the reason people buy my work. I want them to buy it because it’s the best. So when you’re buying the best material it’s expensive, but it’s what you have to do.” 

Despite two offers of investment, O’Reilly has, for now at least, decided to go it alone. “One just didn’t get me at all. He wanted me to move to New York. Told me ‘you’re never going to make it if you’re making the pieces yourself, you’ve got to outsource, you’ve got to make a cheap product and quickly. But I feel there’s so much rubbish in the world, so many cheap pieces of jewellery, overpriced, under designed, badly made. I don’t want to be part of it. I’d prefer to make 12 pieces a year I can be proud of than 12,000.”

“He thinks I change my accent, but I tell him if I went full Mayo they wouldn’t understand a thing I was saying.”

O’Reilly’s determination is paying off. “People told me nobody in Ireland buys fine gems or unusual work. But they weren’t buying it because no one was making anything interesting. I knew it would only take one person to change that.”

Lest all the praise and Hollywood hobnobbing go to his head, his family are keeping him grounded, Irish-style. “My brother laughs at me when I talk to my London clients, he thinks I change my accent, but I tell him if I went full Mayo they wouldn’t understand a thing I was saying.”