A bit of a shift for this weeks Art of The Craft. We’re moving from one of Galways newest businesses last time around to quite possibly its oldest! Today i’m with Jonathan Margetts, owner and the ringmaker of Thomas Dillons Claddagh Jewellers.
Located at 1 William Street at the corner of Quay Street and Cross Street Thomas Dillon Claddagh Jewellers has been in business since 1750. It wasn’t always based here but its original location was on Shop Street where the Galway Camera Shop is now located. Jonathans’ grandfather bought the business from William Dillon in 1920 and at that time it was already a 3rd generation family business.
When he himself was only a teenager Jonathan began working in the family business. It wasn’t long before he was sent to spend 2 years training with O’Connors in Harold Cross road in Dublin, a large jewellery manufacturer at the time, who have since closed down. The conditions there were particularly traditional with Jonathan describing them as “practically Victorian”.
Since that time many a Claddagh ring has passed through his hands on its way to being perfected for the public. We spent some time talking about how they are the original makers of the Claddagh Ring and as such are the only people to have the word “original” stamped on every ring. This comes at a cost – rings must be regularly sent to the Irish Assay Office in Dublin Castle for testing. They return to the shop with a small section cut out thats kept for tests. It was this type of a ring that Jonathan worked on while I took photos as he restored it to their high standards for retail.
There is a real sense of authenticity and honestness to watching him work. I commented on the workbench and how it obviously had a huge volume of work done on it to be informed that this itself was the second one he’s had. I can only imagine the amount of rings that must have been made on the first one for it to actually break. The first step was to saw down the edges to make them even for joining. The blade was so close to his fingers at this point I genuinely thought I would be seeing him cut his hand but it was done with unbelievable precision.
After this and some minor adjustments with the pliers it was time to solder the gap back together with some silver. Once soldered the ring must be dipped in sulphuric acid, not too quickly or it would be rendered brittle but take too long and its ruined. Again this was done by pure instinct and we moved on to the next step.
It was time for the polishing and finishing which is a lot more involved than you would think. Initially Jonathan started with whats called “400 grit wet & dry” to work on the larger pieces to be smoothed off. At this stage it was literally impossible to see where the joint on the ring was made. Afterwards he moved onto the tropeli or lustre as some call it and after that the rouge. These were used in conjunction with a “finishing mop” – a high speed cloth wheel to really add a high shine. Jonathan remarked on how he remembered when these would have been operated by a foot pump rather than machine and without extraction systems – resulting in the worker being practically red when they finished their days shift. Its easy to imagine back in the day, a lifetime of exposure to all this dust and the impact it would have had on the craftsmans health.
The final step is a steam clean and the ring was ready to be put on the shelf for sale. The whole process was remarkably fast considering the fine work thats involved and the detail with which it must be done in order to produce a ring that must meet the standard of the “original Claddagh Ring.” One of the biggest draws Jonathan tells me for their American clientele who make up a large amount of their trade is the fact that they can have a ring resized right there and then as they watch.
The shop also houses a small museum described as “the smallest museum in Europe with the biggest gift shop”. Its home to all manner of interesting items including the worlds smallest Claddagh ring, some of the very first Claddagh rings made by Goldsmiths Nicholas Burge, Richard Joyce and George Robinson from the 1700’s and a copy of Walt Disney’s signature – a past happy customer. For anyone with any interest in Galway history at all I’d encourage you to call in and have a look and I’m sure Jonathan would be only too happy to show you around. His enthusiasm for this aspect of the shop is very evident as he talks about the various items and photos on display and their particular story.
I truly enjoyed the time I spent on this shoot. Jonathan has craft in his blood coming from a family history steeped in skills with their hands. He showed me some of the models he works on in his spare time, many of them with intricate details that even to look at I was afraid of breaking! He’s a man with many a story to tell and they’re all worth listening to. If you see him around town or even out and about for lunch, doubtless with a book in his hand, stop, say hello and I promise you’ll get a good story in return.
If you want your very own Claddagh ring you can call into the shop, call them on 091566365 or even buy via their website
You can also see all the previous Art of The Craft installments here
If you’re interested in this project or know someone who would be a good candidate to have their skills showcased please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org or call me on 0867279638. For general enquiries or prices for photography packages feel free to get in touch as well or use the contact form.