The third instalment in our series of Meet the Maker celebrates one of Kildare – and Ireland’s most iconic and recognisable brands – Newbridge Silverware, and charts their journey from a tableware company to one of the country’s most celebrated jewellery brands across the country.
Tell us about the history of Newbridge Silverware?
My family didn’t start it off. The history is interesting it dates all the way back to the early part of the last century. At the time, Newbridge housed a significant number of troops and the army engaged in a lot of different craft enterprises because they were self-sufficient and had their own saddles and equipment so it was an industry in itself. At one stage there was up to 3000 troops in Newbridge alone. Most of the trade the other side of the road were providing services for the military so as a result of that there was a lot of craft in the area and skills and know-how.
The British army left in 21 and the town because pretty impoverished because of an economic black spot due to a lot of emigration out of the area like other places in Ireland. The military barracks was lucrative for people in the area and then it laid dormant for 10 odd years.
The situation continued to disimprove, and a notable individual called Senator Cummins became a driving force and formed a committee as he believed that investing in industry would become the answer. The buildings were there and particular equipment left behind that really suited our industry. He raised some funding and created a committee and spent a couple of years doing research. For our particular business, he made his way over to Sheffield which was the home of the industry and he succeeded in gathering sufficient knowledge and encouraged five families to move here to transfer the knowledge, and one of those families stayed in this town to this day.
The business grew out of that very quickly because at that stage, a new industrial business was protected by tarot barriers and court houses, so it didn’t really allow for competition. You couldn’t buy imported cutlery so at that stage we employed about 600 people producing a high amount of goods.
It was a highly inefficient operation because you couldn’t get saws, sterling silver tea pots or cutlery in Ireland so we did a bit of everything.
At that time there was a lot of grant aid going into the hotel industry and they were reequipping so we had significant business in providing silverware to most hotels as well as most of them would have had silverware.
Then came our entry into the common market and the protective ring was no longer there anymore so we were competing with the Japanese who were quite low cost at the time.
The market became flooded with cheap product and the company nearly ended. A group of local businessmen were gathered to buy it as it was a public company about to be liquidated.
The local group of businessmen were hardware merchants, dentists, my dad who was a butcher and a man who worked in Kildare Chilling and another guy from Dublin.
They pulled resources and bought it, however, the only way it was going to survive was to downscale so it went from about 600 people to around 50 and their sole focus was on making silverware.
At this stage, it was the mid – 70’s and there was a reasonably good patch through the 70s that went on to the mid-80s and then Ireland went into another economic wilderness again.
We had such a long, drawn-out recession in the 80’s, we were doing okay as we had some export business in the UK and Scandinavia but the product was somewhat traditional and looked like it was from another era.
Come the mid-90s people were becoming more casual in their dining styles and fashion so people weren’t decorating tables in linens and silverware anymore. We were at another cross roads, we were in trouble in fact. My dad had passed away at that stage. He had saved it and kept it going, having eventually bought out the other shareholders. I was doing summer work here with in the 70’s in between college.
My first job here was in 1977 when there was a postal strike which lasted for six months. No one refers to it anymore, but it was chaos in the country. You couldn’t send an invoice out or a statement and your customer couldn’t send you a cheque so, I took to the road for four months with statements and invoices.
I had two summer jobs then my plan was to go to America because everyone else was. People were going to America in numbers, I had friends there and had just graduated so I was going to go too and then my dad asked me to do another summer, so I stayed here.
Then came 1983 and more trouble again because demand for the product was not there to the same extent anymore so we went to a three-day week and could have closed at that stage.
What would you say was the turning point for the company?
In the early 80’s, we got the idea to make use of what we have in skills to produce something different, and so, jewellery grew out of that and that’s how we initially discovered we could make jewellery.
We had little success for two to three years because the trade couldn’t get the story that we were a tableware company and now we were producing jewellery.
We were Newbridge Cutlery at the time so that’s when we decided to change our brand name to Newbridge Silverware, which made a little bit more sense but they were still a bit resistant until they were forced to take us seriously.
We had a visit from a TV Presenter one day, her name was Barbara McMahon and she hosted the fashion show ‘Head to Toe’ and ‘Off the Rails’.
She came in one day to buy some canteen cutlery and the showroom was very small then, we asked could we take her picture and she wanted to tour the factory and have a look around then.
Off she went and when she came back, she said she loved the story of the jewellery. We had all but abandoned it at that stage but she had seen something in it.
She said she would love to do a story on it but we told her there was no point really, but she came back that day and said she had a crew organised and the whole show ready to come down the following week.
We agreed and said okay you can come down and film. When she came down we didn’t think anything would come of it but it just took off.
Barbara McMahon came down and produced that programme and then all of a sudden media in general were interested. The Irish Times wanted to come and do a story, the Irish Independent wanted to do a story, all the colour publications wanted to do something.
We went off then and got a model and made it all look pretty. Then all of a sudden retailers wanted to stock it and they had to stock it because there were customers coming in looking for it.
Shortly after that, Nationwide wanted to do a programme. When they were leaving then, they asked for some samples and said they might have a friend who would like it. We were watching the news that night then and Anne Doyle wearing one of our pieces and then the next night she wore w another piece. This carried on so I met with her and thanked for her help as everyone was asking to buy what she was wearing.
She did that for us for 20 odd years and became good friends with everyone here, it was just really good fortune.
Then we started to plough back the profits and we started to significantly invest into building the brand good and notable and relevant so we became significant advertisers and discovered the worth of strong PR and media endorsement.
The tableware then just stayed as it was and we still make it, it wouldn’t sustain the business but it still exists so we are still manufacturing it. We manufacture most of the jewellery as well and then we outsource some. We became a cool brand from a table ware company to a fashion company.
Tell us how the Museum of Modern Icons came about?
The showroom was still small and we needed to grow bigger so then we ended up with the museum. The museum was a bit of an accident because okay we were in the jewellery business and very focused on the brand and continuing to build and enhance it. But, we discovered the power of the news and positive PR and both really help to build brands awareness.
We saw an Audrey Hepburn dress was coming on the market and had the idea that somehow, if we bought that, it would help our brand. We bought the dress for more than expected but it generated instant news around the world because it was the most expensive dress that ever existed at that moment, so we put it in a glass cabinet in the showroom and so many people came to see it. We had a press reception and everybody turned up, Gay Byrne even turned up to see this dress! We didn’t expect that kind of interest at all. Then we got a phone call from a company in Hollywood that specialise in the sale of possessions of celebrities. One of the directors was Irish but was out of the country for a number of years. He said they were about to embark on a world-wide tour with a collection of Marilyn Monroe gowns before they went on auction. As he was Irish, he said he would love to start it with is in Newbridge Silverware. So, I agreed and we had to build that museum in two months. Not only did we open a museum and have a Marilyn Monroe event but we had a gala event. We had barely got the staircase in before the gala event started!!
There was more and more interest people started coming from everywhere to see this collection which we had for one month and then had an empty museum again. That company then lent us garments for a while. Over 10-12 years then we made a collection. That company brought all sorts of exhibitions to us, really interesting ones. We got the sale of Michael Jacksons entire belongings, another collection of Marilyn Monroe’s that came back. We have had so many events. In recent times, Olivia Newton John was here, Joan Collins, we currently have Brendan Grace.
The factory tour then, the thinking behind that was that we would give a greater reason to visit. It was working well too. It took a little while but the word got out and it’s interesting and different. It worked really well and I am sure next year it will pick right back up again.
What do you think were the most successful exhibitions here at the Museum?
Our biggest successes were one dress belong to Marilyn Monroe, the famous birthday dress she wore for John F Kennedy’s birthday. People came from all across Europe to see what. That ended up selling for 4.5 million. It was incredible. Olivia Newton John’s visit was recent enough and generated enormous interest as well with flights in, visitors from abroad. She was a really lovely person. There was huge interest in her collection from Grease. Her outfits sold for millions. We had a Michael Jackson exhibition here before and there was queues all around the car park. Linda Grey from Dallas had two visits here and people came from around the country to see that as well.
What’s your favourite place to eat out in Kildare? Has to be Ballymore Inn
What’s your favourite movie: The Sting
What’s your favourite song? Anything from the Beatles
What’s your favourite thing to do in Kildare on day off? Play at the Curragh Golf Club
For further information on Newbridge Silverware and the Museum of Modern Icons, visit :
Newbridge Silverware™: Irish Jewellery, Cutlery & Giftware