Oasis of Artisanry in the Berkshires

New York Times, Nov. 17, 2014

GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass. — This small New England town in the heart of the Berkshires, a hilly region of rural western Massachusetts, welcomes a summer influx of city dwellers from New York and Boston drawn to its tranquil setting, colonial-era charm and plethora of cultural goings-on, from museums to symphonies.

Surrounded by orchards and dairy farms, the area is not the most obvious place to buy high-end jewelry.

And yet, on any given afternoon, some of the country’s most astute collectors can be found browsing the cases at McTeigue & McClelland, a jewelry showroom, workshop and Great Barrington fixture for the past 18 years.

The firm makes modern-day heirlooms that combine the gem-sourcing talents of Walter J. McTeigue — a fourth-generation gem dealer whose great-grandfather procured stones for Tiffany & Company at the turn of the 20th century — with the jewelry-making skills of Tim McClelland, a classically trained metalsmith enthralled with the history of alchemy and the oeuvre of the Art Nouveau master René Lalique.

Their atelier is something of an anomaly. Unlike rival emporiums on Madison Avenue in New York or Bond Street in London, McTeigue & McClelland doesn’t advertise in glossy international publications, nor does it wholesale. Yet clients from around the world venture to the showroom in search of bespoke engagement rings, collectible gemstones and art jewelry made using centuries-old techniques such as niello, an ancient Egyptian method that mixes copper, silver and sulfides to create a black inlay on metal.

“It’s always flattering when someone will make the effort to come here,” Mr. McClelland said in late August as he led a visitor around the firm’s new showroom, located in a landmark historical building on Main Street. He paused before a world map peppered with pins marking the locations of the firm’s global clientele, including Singapore, Doha, Tokyo, London, Adelaide, Moscow and New Orleans.

Mr. McTeigue and Mr. McClelland were themselves tourists before they decamped from New York to Great Barrington in the early 1990s. In 1996, they opened a small atelier down the street from their current location. Over the years, it became clear that the size of their 1,225-square-foot boutique hampered growth.

In 2012, the business partners learned that a Dolomitic limestone building with a commanding location on Main Street was for sale. Built by a local physician in 1850, the 6,000-square-foot space was owned by a church for 90 years before Mr. McTeigue and Mr. McClelland bought it and devoted a year to renovation.

The grand opening in August marked a new chapter in the firm’s history. “This building is now worthy to travel to,” Mr. McClelland said. “The old place was fine, but now there’s a big payoff.”

While the company’s bridal selection — distinguished by antique stones in graceful settings that can be customized to suit individual tastes — is what lures most buyers, the cases are stocked with plenty of eye candy to keep browsers occupied. Take one of the store’s prized pieces, a 10.51-carat padparadscha sapphire mounted in a signature McTeigue & McClelland ring style known as Flora, referring to a piriform motif that recalls the shape of petals.

Named after the Sinhalese word for lotus blossom, the orangey-pink padparadscha sapphire, famously found in Sri Lanka, is often compared to a tropical sunset. In the gem trade, discovering a sizable specimen in its natural, unheated form is like stumbling upon a snow leopard. The coveted gems are so elusive that people can spend years searching for one.

That Mr. McTeigue was able to acquire the stone — which is priced in the high six figures — speaks to his extraordinary grasp of gemstone rarity, beauty and price, not to mention his connections. His great-grandfather, Walter P. McTeigue, founded McTeigue & Company in New York in 1895. The firm became an important supplier of gemstones and 18-karat gold jewelry to some of the most famous American names: Tiffany; Black, Starr & Frost; Shreve, Crump & Low.

In 1990, Mr. McTeigue capitalized on that legacy by taking a job as director of purchasing at Harry Winston. His two-year stint there gave him a crash course in the business but left him feeling disenchanted. He sought refuge in the Berkshires, where he tried his hand at dairy farming. He maintained his connection to the jewelry business by making frequent visits to New York. On one of those visits, he was able to persuade his friend Mr. McClelland — the two met in 1984 in an elevator in the city’s diamond district — to relocate to Great Barrington.

Mr. McClelland, a talented jeweler who studied at Boston University’s now-defunct program in artisanry, complements Mr. McTeigue’s gemstone expertise with a deep knowledge of long-forgotten jewelry techniques.

The padparadscha ring, rendered in platinum and 18-karat bloomed yellow gold, offers a good example. “Blooming” is a chemical process from the Victorian era that strips the alloy from the surface of the gold to create a silky, burnished patina. Mr. McClelland discovered how to re-create the technique by researching old books and consulting a chemist who had restored the patina to the Statue of Liberty.

“A lot of what we do is take the bling off,” Mr. McTeigue said.

McTeigue & McClelland’s commitment to understated elegance characterizes everything in the showroom, from the custom-built showcases handcrafted of American walnut wood to the Italian-made forms used to display the jewelry, dyed to match a precise shade of chocolate brown.

“There’s a lot of soul and thoughtfulness to what they do, and they found it by sticking to what’s true to them, which is staying in the Berkshires,” said Talya Cousins, a New York-based jewelry consultant who helped style the showroom on the eve of its grand opening.

A bookcase displays objects chosen for their connection to the founders and the history of jewelry making, such as a crystallized version of “The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini,” a Renaissance-era goldsmith whose niello formula Mr. McClelland has co-opted for his own inlay work. The curiosities underscore McTeigue & McClelland’s appreciation for the childlike fascination that jewelry inspires.

“If you had one thing to say about me, it would be that I like to make jewelry that doesn’t have a lot of context, that tries to get to the wonder of it,” Mr. McClelland said.