In October this year, a young Irish high-jewellery master was personally selected by Sotheby’s to showcase his finely crafted pieces at their Important Jewels auction in New York. The jewellery master and goldsmith in question, Nigel O’Reilly, works with his artist wife, TNG member Tracy Sweeney. The pair work as an inseparable team from their rural west coast of Ireland studio. There, they create fine art – both through the mediums of fine-jewellery and painting – and are quickly gaining a reputation as a ‘creative powerhouse’ in Ireland and beyond.
In this article, Tracy writes about her experience collaborating with her husband to combine their respective practices.
Nigel grew up in rural County Mayo, Ireland, the son of a farmer and a teacher. Although academia may have been a logical option for him, he has what he describes as “severe dyslexia,” which made learning difficult:
“School was not fun, so when I finished, I didn’t want to go to college; I chose not to get back into that conveyor belt kind of education system again.”
Instead, Nigel took an apprenticeship as a precision engineer and spent years making injection moulds for vascular surgery.
“There is no room for error when it comes to medical devices; it taught me great precision & aptitude, which stands for each of my creations today”.
It was around this time that the two of us met.
“I wanted to impress her, so I crafted a ring for her in steel”.
It was me who literally pushed Nigel headfirst into jewellery and it has been an obsession for us ever since. Jewellery melds together the precision of engineering alongside the creativity of art; the ability to express yourself and use all aspects of imagination. If you couple this with the personality of the final wearer you physically create wearable art. Whether that’s a collector’s item or an engagement ring, each piece must stand the test of time but capture the spirit of the client.
When we started this artistic journey together, we didn’t know what to expect, but we both agreed to put our heart and soul into it. It’s become an obsession ever since, crafting the most exquisite pieces of art and jewellery and showing them to the world.
I trained in Fine Art at the Galway Mayo Institute of Technology and earned my BA in 2005, after meeting Nigel. We decided to train further in our specialist areas by traveling to Kilkenny to train in goldsmithing with the Crafts Council of Ireland under Jane Huston – an established goldsmith who had previously worked with the jeweller to the HM Queen Elizabeth in London, Andrew Grima.
We both knew at this stage that in order to become the best at what we could potentially do, we needed to train as much as possible and put 10,000 hours into refining our craft, mine with painting and Nigel’s with jewellery. We took the German model of the ‘apprentice system’ seriously and for a number of years travelled to work under master goldsmiths and artists, to learn as much as possible.
They say ‘education is never free’ and we certainly thrived on the frugality and creativity of what we could learn whilst we had no family commitments or ties. When you have no safety net, some beautiful ideas can develop and blossom, you can ‘paint’ with gemstones.
We travelled to Europe to allow Nigel to spend a decade creating bespoke works for some of the world’s most luxurious jewellery houses in Stockholm, Sweden and Bond Street in London. While Nigel’s skills in diamond setting developed, I painted and sold works through two Swedish galleries, subsequently winning a Pollock Krasner award from New York.
Alongside visual arts projects, I helped Nigel develop pieces of jewellery and took on the practicalities of building a business; from the artistic visuals of jewellery photography and design to developing relationships with galleries and editors. After having our first child in Sweden, we returned to Ireland in 2012 to open an atelier in our home county, a rugged landscape that continues to inspire us both to delve deeper into creativity.
Our choice to return to the west was not a difficult one. It meant that we could continue working towards technical perfection, taking the time to use innovative technology along with tradition to ensure that every angle of every piece was and is open to microscopic scrutiny. It was also a great choice for raising our children, surrounded by close family.
We believe that a successful creative business also develops a ripple effect in a community, allowing the community to thrive further. Whilst our peers told us to move to London or Dublin, it was never an option for us, we needed the rawness, the wildness of what this location brings to the creative table.
Nigel maintains that the studio’s rural allure attracts international visitors whom we also meet by request in the renowned and luxurious Ashford Castle nearby. In the years prior to the pandemic, Nigel developed a network of private clients worldwide, along with establishing his relationship with a US agent; Thierry Chaunu at BeauGeste in New York’s Chrysler Building.
Describing Nigel, Chaunu notes; “O’Reilly has this David Bowie streak of inspirational irreverence along with being highly personal. He is a perfect choice for a new generation of high-jewellery buyers who want to assert their own style and develop their own heirlooms for future generations”.
Our bespoke craftsmanship was represented in Sotheby’s Important Jewels auction through two signature rings from their haute-joaillerie collection. Both rings were hand selected by Frank Everett, Sotheby’s Senior Vice President of High Jewellery in New York, who has quoted Nigel’s name “as a young designer to watch”.
Indeed both pieces sold: The ”Damask Rose”, consisting of folded petals of 18kt rose gold featuring 757 individually hand set rubies, embracing an inner central 0.54ct DVVS1 pear cut diamond, sold for USD$25,200 while “Plato’s Garnet”, a central 10.69ct umbalite garnet, set with pink sapphires, rubies and cognac diamonds in a honeycomb of 18kt gold, sold for USD$18,900.
Nigel’s jewellery has been highlighted internationally in the New York Times, Financial Times, Town & Country, FORBES, Rappaport among others and worn by celebrities including Saoirse Ronan, Hadley Robinson and Jazmin Grace Grimaldi in the US.
For now, we both continue to develop new works together, collecting the finest gemstones and incorporating them with precision and skill into pieces of wearable art. We believe that each should become an heirloom, a piece of art that sets the wearer apart from the rest, a break with tradition that elevates the craft to new heights. We’re working hard to break the mold.