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McTeigue & McClelland Are in the Business of Enchantment

[review full article]

Posted by: Marilyn Bethany
Posted on: Monday, August 15, 2011


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Rural Intelligence StyleFor nearly a century following its founding in 1895, McTeigue & Co. was one of the most respected hallmarks in the fine jewelry trade, selling only to elite retailers such as Tiffany & Co., which in 1990 acquired and absorbed the family-owned business into its own. Yet as he was growing up in Westchester County, young Walter McTeigue III (near left) dreamed, not of taking over the family business, but of becoming a farmer. He thought about farming all through his troubled school days and after, even as he halfheartedly entered the ancestral trade. Then in 1992, he quit his job in the estate jewelry department at Harry Winston and moved to Hillsdale to start an organic dairy farm.

“Fortunately, it did not work out, ” McTeigue says, adding, as if sharing breaking news, “Farming is really hard, and it’s almost impossible to make a profit.”

With farming blessedly behind him, when Walter III told Walter II what he intended to do next, the elder McTeigue reportedly behaved as if he thought (and not for the first time) that, as his son puts it, “I had lost my marbles.” Yet, thirteen years after its launch in 1998, McTeigue & McClelland, makers and retailers of some of the finest jewelry in the world, flourishes. Instead of a large manufacturing plant making jewelry for others to sell from hushed salons in centers of wealth, its headquarters, both manufacturing and retailing, is in an enchanting cottage on the edge of Great Barrington, the setting through this weekend and all of next week for an exhibition of rare, loose gemstones.

“We design and make jewelry, one piece at a time, and deal with customers one at a time,” says the jewelry-designing half of the team, master goldsmith Tim McClelland, describing the very aspects of their business plan that led the elder Walter McTeigue to predict its demise. “We are not looking to go play golf. We love this. We hire people who are going to be part of this family”—a family of nine, four of whom “sit at the bench” alongside McClelland crafting his designs. 

Rural Intelligence Style
Bridal represents about 50% of McTeigue & McClelland’s business.  Rings start at around $10,000; the one pictured here, a 5.03 carat Asscher Cut diamond in their Classic Flora mounting, $88,000.
McClelland, who apprenticed “under an Austrian taskmaster” at Shreve, Crump and Low in Boston, explains that the metal in “95%, at least, of all jewelry” is shaped via a lost-wax casting method that he likens to making ice cubes—“you can make 100 as fast as you can make 10.” In contrast, each metal element in a McClelland design is heated and hammered by hand, “similar to a blacksmith,” then ground and polished, as if it were a tiny sculpture. In their basement workshop, the only piece of equipment that would not have been used by a jewelry maker a century and longer ago is a high-tech laser welder that permits individually-sculpted elements to be joined with the greatest precision possible. 

Rural Intelligence StyleOnce the metal “sculpture” is assembled, the gemstones that inspired its design are set in place. The 27 matching sapphires in this recently completed bracelet, “sat on Tim’s workbench for a year,” according to McTeigue, before the designer came up with a design that would incorporate them all to best advantage. Similarly, after a long period of cogitation, a set of diamond and ruby buttons became a cuff.

“Walter is not going to tell you this,” says McClelland, “but he is one of the foremost gem experts in the world.” What McTeigue will cop to is being “discerning, picky, and neurotic about quality.” Gem traders worldwide know that when they come across something rare, such as the large, perfect orange sapphire currently in house, McTeigue is one of the few potential buyers who will understand it and know what to do with it. Alerted by a cutter, McTeigue recently bought a padparadscla, a rose-colored sapphire “much rarer than a ruby,” from Sri Lanka. It and other equally fabulous stones will be in the exhibition, which is intended as much to entertain and edify the community as to spark local sales.

Rural Intelligence StyleIn a stair hall of the cottage hangs a world map with pins to indicate just how sprawling McTeigue & McClelland’s customer-base is. And how, exactly, does, say, an Australian who’s in the market for a $50,000 engagement ring find a jewelry store that does not advertise and that is tucked away in rural western Massachusetts? “On the internet,” McTeigue says. “Or maybe in a bridal magazine. The editors like us.”

With good reason.  If a piece of jewelry is a masterpiece, it has a better chance of enduring the ages than a marble sculpture.  But unlike a marble sculpture, jewelry that misses the mark is easily dismantled so its parts can be recycled.  McTeigue & McClelland do it all the time themselves, both with pieces they’ve acquire and with their own self-proclaimed “flops.”  (They chalk those up to R & D.)  But a winner is impossible to miss.  A multi-carat diamond ring that comes across as gently charming is a triumph of finesse over intrinsic razzle-dazzle—a neat trick that only the best designers can pull off.  The great Lalique did it routinely.  McTeigue & McClelland seem to have the knack, as well.  Pieces that, by rights given their component parts, ought to come across as trophies, are something much subtler and finer here.

Rural Intelligence Style
Dandelion Puff pin, 18 karat white- and yellow-gold, enamel, and 133 round diamonds, $8,500
Walter McTeigue recalls having breakfast with his father, now deceased, a few years ago at the Red Lion Inn. “He told me he was blown away. McTeigue & McClelland is the real deal”—a highly regarded hallmark that, despite the company’s size and location, has secured its place in history.

McTeigue & McClelland
597 Main Street
Great Barrington
Tuesday - Saturday 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Salon Show of Unusual Diamonds and Rare Gems
August 18 - 27
Opening reception: Friday, August 19, 4 - 6 p.m.