A Dublin Jeweler Believes ‘Every Creation Starts With a Stone’

DUBLIN — At a bench in his atelier in the city center, Sam Lafford attached a floral headdress to a small skull he had carved from Siberian jet. The flowers had been cut from vintage pieces of blue chalcedony, kyanite, citrine, topaz and carnelian. And the muse was Frida Kahlo, the Mexican artist known for her elaborate flowery crowns.

The piece was a work in progress when we spoke. Next, he planned to set two demantoid garnets, each 2.5 millimeters wide, as the eyes. And then he would attach the skull to an enameled Art Nouveau-style pendant, about 4 inches long and 1 inch wide, decorated with diamonds attached to a lattice so they would look as if they were floating.

“She’s called Frida Rogerette and when she’s finished will probably cost around 25,000 euros,” or $25,685, Mr. Lafford said.

The pendant would be part of the jeweler’s second Jolly Rodger collection, named after the death’s head on the traditional pirate flag. The first collection — nine unisex lapel pins, brooches and pendants of what he called “whimsical, rock ’n’ roll” characters like Hipster Rodger, Dr. Rodger and Punk Rodger — sold out at prices from €1,800 to €24,000.

Mr. Lafford, 46, was born in Zimbabwe and moved to South Africa with his family when he was 7. As a teenager, he went to a technical secondary school and started making jewelry for his mother. “I made earrings, pendants and bracelets from feathers, beads and anything I found — which she very sweetly wore,” he recalled.

After he graduated, Mr. Lafford followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. “I did a traditional apprenticeship,” he said, qualifying as a tool, jig and die maker and then producing custom parts and tools for racecars until he left South Africa for Ireland in 2001.

“At first, I took a sales job in a hardware company, just to do any job,” but then he spotted an advertisement for a yearlong jewelry training program run by an Irish government agency in collaboration with the Company of Goldsmiths of Dublin.

He signed up for the class of 2003 and spent the first weeks learning the basics — filing, piercing, soldering, engraving, casting and forming — from the course instructor, Tony Lee.

“Sam stood out,” Mr. Lee said. “It was a big help that he already had hand skills and knowledge of working with metal. It’s no surprise to me that he’s very successful now.”

By night, Mr. Lafford said, he pored over jewelry technique books by experts like Oppi Untracht, Jinks McGrath and Erhard Brepohl. And six months into the program, DesignYard, a fashionable Dublin jewelry store, agreed to sell a collection of silver chain mail earrings and bracelets that he had designed and made.

Part two of the course was a work placement at ESL Jewellery in Dublin, doing what Mr. Lafford described as “melting gold, shaping rings and bangles, slowly getting into repair.” He worked there for four years, then briefly at a luxury Dublin jewelry store before the 2008 Celtic Tiger economic crash pushed him into going freelance.

In 2009, he began accepting commissions to restore and create pieces for John Farrington Antiques, a jewelry specialist. “That’s when I realized how little I knew about jewelry,” Mr. Lafford said, describing how he drew on his training to understand vintage techniques, even inventing new tools. “I found so much joy in figuring out how the old masters assembled these things,” he said. “There was a lot of trial and terror.”

Fast forward to 2014, when Sabina Higgins, the wife of President Michael D. Higgins of Ireland, wore a daisy cluster necklace and earrings commissioned by Farrington and created by Mr. Lafford to a state banquet at Windsor Castle.

“The necklace was handmade in platinum and antique diamonds. It took three weeks to make, including doing all my own setting,” he recalled. “The earrings, antique diamonds and sapphires, were also mine.”

These days Mr. Lafford works independently, operating from his workshop, Studio Lafford, and sells his jewelry directly or through DesignYard. And while he primarily works alone, “in 10 years, I’ve trained nine jewelers,” he said. “I’m against holding onto information and skills. We need to keep the cycle going.”

Mr. Lafford describes himself as a “style chameleon,” adapting to whatever would be best for the antique gems that he has collected over the past 12 years.

“Every creation starts with a stone,” he said. “Antique stones were cut to sparkle in candlelight; they are even more dazzling under modern lighting. They were hand-cut so each stone has more character.”

His current collections include the Contemporary Quattro range: rings, earrings and pendants (from €2,500 to €10,000) featuring antique diamonds, rubies and sapphires in settings inspired by the quatrefoil symmetry of Arabian and Victorian styles.

The Lizbeth collection — which Mr. Lafford describes as “my take on the cutdown setting of the Victorian period,” a style that uses almost no metal along the sides of the gems — includes a 4.14-carat blue Ceylon sapphire ring for €28,680.

And his Hand range is a series of sculpted hands worn as pendants — available in silver, 18-karat gold or platinum, starting at €230 — conceived during the early days of the pandemic. “Mental health is an important issue for me,” he said, “and I wanted this jewelry to convey the idea of a helping hand.”

Mr. Lafford also remodels antique jewelry, like the antique ruby and diamond ring that Grace O’Riordan, a retired pilot, bought in the South of France. “I loved the stones but not the design,” she said.

He suggested incorporating a reminder of Ms. O’Riordan’s 27-year flying career into the ring’s design, so the finished piece features the original ruby, surrounded by antique diamonds from Tiffany & Company, but also features Art Deco-style wings engraved in platinum on the ring’s under side.

“It’s a showstopper,” Ms. O’Riordan said. “At first, I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. Now I wear it every day! ”

Róisín Ní Mhórdha is the activities director for Foster Supply Hospitality, a hotel and restaurant group in upstate New York, who described herself as a “lifelong collector of jewelry.” She discovered Mr. Lafford’s work through the Irish fashion designer Peter O’Brien — who, she said, was an aficionado of Mr. Lafford’s Rodger collection.

Ms. Ní Mhórdha’s first purchase from Mr. Lafford was a blackened silver pendant from the Hand range. She then commissioned a gold bangle studded with 25 azure-cut diamonds and a diamond within a heart-shaped azure cut on the underside of the band. “Sam goes over and beyond your expectations,” she said. “He combines exceptional technical skill with exceptional visual creativity. His attention to detail is impeccable.”

She has since commissioned another Hand pendant, five rings, a pair of Tahitian pearl earrings and still has “an eye on many more gems” in his collection. “I joke with Sam that I might as well just hand over my paycheck,” she said with a laugh.

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