A cut above - how Stuart McGrath became a jewellery designer after serious bicycle accident
After a cycling accident left Stuart McGrath unable to work as a sculptor, he turned his skilled hands to jewellery design. Now, with vogue italia amongst his champions, the in-demand Dubliner has never looked back
The great American jeweller Harold Winston may have died in 1978 but he left us with a wonderful aphorism that Stuart McGrath clearly abides by: "People will stare. Make it worth their while."
Stuart's jewellery, sold under his Armoura brand, is, in modern terms, the ultimate eye candy. Anyone lucky enough to own his high-end handmade confections will undoubtedly draw admiration and envy in equal measures. Bling seems too crude a term for these jewelled fancies. Bearing all the hallmarks of the great jewellery houses of the world, they go one step further by delivering a visual story married with exquisite detail, humour and precision. Essentially we're looking at the haute couture of the jewellery world, but don't just take my word for it.
It seems these shiny trinkets have caught the eyes of the most important magpies of the jewellery industry - the stylish signore of Vogue Italia.
The Italians know their jewellery, so when this team of style mavens continually champions Stuart's rings in Vogue Accessory you know he's hit the big time.
Humble, eloquent and smart, the jeweller from Killiney admits to his delight when he realised he'd hit Vogue's radar. "They took a liking to my work at Vogue Jewellery and kept sharing pieces on their Facebook page, which has now been amalgamated in to Vogue Accessory."
With over 335,000 followers, Stuart's work was suddenly on screen in the homes of stylish folks around the world, providing incredible exposure for someone who has never spent a cent on marketing. "I got loads of enquires from Italy and have had a lot recently from Dubai and across the United Arab Emirates. I should be heading out to the Middle East in a few weeks as I've had an enquiry to design a range of jewellery for somebody in Saudi Arabia and someone else wants to stock a lot of my new work in Dubai."
Despite his clear talent as a jeweller, it wasn't his first choice as a profession. The Dubliner did a four-year degree in art at Dun Laoghaire College of Art before moving to the UK. Here, at the City & Guilds of London Art School, he did a post grad in sculpture, the history of architectural sculpture and sculptural detail in interiors. Though he didn't know it at the time, this training was also laying the foundations for an unexpected and sudden career change.
Upon graduation, Stuart decided to stay in London where he was in demand designing new stone features for buildings. "It was the Celtic Tiger era and a fun time. I designed a lot of new memorials and monuments too. People were moving on from traditional statues to more contemporary pieces." He also worked on the restoration and conservation of buildings and monuments, and was never short of work.
Ireland drew him back in 2006, to family and friends, and his skills were in demand here. All was going well until he was returning from a cycle with friends one evening. Approaching a corner at speed he fell from his bike, smashing his left arm and its ball joint to pieces. "And that was that," he remarks reflectively.
"I couldn't move my arm for over six months and didn't know if I would ever get my mobility back." He knows that he could have woken up without any arm but was lucky to have talented orthopaedic surgeon, Hannan Mullett at Santry Sports Clinic, piece him back together.
He shows me a photo of his post-operation X-ray; his shoulder is a mass of metal joints. "I couldn't look at that picture for a while," he admits. "The first time I saw it I was freaked out. Now I know how lucky I am. I have great movement and mobility again."
Used to working with large pieces of stone and on buildings, it was clear Stuart's days as stone carver, sculptor and memorial designer were over. During his long recovery he read a lot of books on jewellery, something that had been a casual hobby before. "I watched tutorials online too and took classes with silversmith Cormac Cuffe in Monkstown and Deirdre O'Donnell in the School of Jewellery in Phibsboro."
It turned out that his niche skillset was a perfect fit for this new direction. "Everything you do with jewellery is like a miniature version of stone carving. All the tools are exactly the same, except they are micro. The processes are all exactly the same." Sure, he had to learn about new materials, which proved a huge learning curve, but his impressive portfolio leaves no doubt that he more than mastered the transition.
"The three-dimensional thinking, or how to go about something in a negative or positive space, was already there. In sculpture you have to think five or 10 steps ahead, and the process is exactly the same with jewellery because everything has an order."
His fantastical pieces are a departure from his mainstream Riverdance collection, created for the global dance phenomenon and sold at their shows throughout the world. Affordable and wearable they're for a very different market to this high-end collection, which is all made to order.
With his big designs there was trepidation in the beginning. "Doing things to this scale was worrying. I knew they weren't like anything else out there and part of me wondered: 'Is that because nobody wanted to sell them or nobody had thought about making them?'"
Having designed collections for other brands and companies for years, Stuart had been used to hearing 'let's save 2 cent here or 3 cent here by changing that, or taking off a crystal'. By comparison his Armoura rings are not money-saving at all. "There's no holds barred, no consideration for accounting whatsoever and just seeing what happens."
Stuart likes to think of his rings as haute couture, like you see on a runway. "Some see the fashion shows and think, 'Who would wear that?' but people do and have an interest in design that is out there and impractical."
His Fibonacci ring, with its 42 pointed sapphires and rubies is a case in point. "I get a lot of enquiries about it, especially from Italy. The stones have to be specially cut and I usually use six of each colour, but they can be mixed and matched." It feels quite heavy, like solid cast iron on your finger and costs about €25,000, including VAT. Stuart thinks Madonna would like it.
I'm shocked his jewels haven't been snapped up by any modern-day fashion icons, but feel it's only a matter of time. Who else, I wonder, would he like to see wearing them? "I'd love to see the Trilliant ring on Victoria Beckham - the clean and modern lines would suit her clothing and bag designs. My platinum, black and pink Deco Tower ring would be perfect for fashion-forward Gwen Stefani."
His Hanami Cherry Blossom ring features a specially cut pink diamond crafted by a master lapidary (specialist gem cutter) alongside 84 smaller stones, and costs anywhere from €30,000 to €500,000, depending on the quality of stones you require. That might seem eye-wateringly expensive until you consider the work involved; designing, stone sourcing, cutting and crafting each piece by hand. "The Rainforest or Glacier rings take about 300 hours each; the more contemporary designs such as the Arclight, Fibonacci or Trilliant, take half that time," he explains. And Stuart's most expensive commission to date? "A €120,000 ring for an Emirati." There was also an €80,000 one made for someone in London. "It was ordered by a client who fancied a little treat for themselves!" Nice work, if you can get it.
Stuart at work
I'm inspired by…
Nature, which stops me in my tracks, whether it's a place of great scenery or a magnificent cherry blossom tree. Architectural style and size also plays an important part as I often try to distil and capture a grand scale into tiny pieces of jewellery. Whether in a jungle in South East Asia or cities such as Miami, New York or Paris I'm always drinking in the sensations and surroundings thinking: "How could I embody that experience into a design?"
My favourite metal is…
White gold, which has a beautiful purity to it, similar to porcelain. When polished it really reveals the true form of a piece. It will show any inaccuracy in the sculpted shapes, but when you get it right it really sings.
My favourite stone is...
Difficult to choose as there are so many fantastic sparkling gifts from nature, from the brilliance of light shown by diamonds to the complexity of opal. Perhaps sapphire would come out on top due to its versatility.
My favourite art movement is…
Art Deco, which attracts me back again and again, with its strong geometric forms and shapes that draw from the ancient civilisations of the Aztecs, Mayan and Egyptians as well as African and the Far East. Art Deco also has very contemporary lines that imbue a feel of the future.