A piece of silver jewellery being drilled by hand

Newbridge Silverware: Forging excellence

The remarkable legacy of Newbridge Silverware

by Anthology
Factory photos DOK Photography
Archive photo Irish Photo Archive

As Newbridge Silverware approaches its ninetieth year in business, it’s fitting to reflect on the key events and individuals that have helped to shape the company into the thriving business it is today.

How Newbridge Silverware started

When the company was founded in 1934, Ireland was still finding its feet in a new post-independence era. There was a global depression following the collapse of the American economy in 1929, and the Economic War with Britain (1932–1938) further weakened the Irish economy. Additionally, the withdrawal of British Army forces from Ireland in 1922 had serious financial consequences for the country. Newbridge Barracks, which had accommodated up to 3,000 military personnel at its peak, left a void in the local economy as the shops and craftspeople that had served the armies struggled to fill that gap. Poverty was rife, and traditional skills such as blacksmithing, farriery and saddle-making were no longer in high demand.

At this time, the newly formed Irish Free State government was promoting the development of new manufacturing enterprises that would reduce reliance on imports to the country and foster greater self-sufficiency. In Newbridge, a local committee was established by Senator William Cummins, a schoolteacher, William Norton, a local politician and leader of the Irish Labour Party, and Joe McGrath Snr, who had played a major role in the Treaty negotiation of 1921. Five skilled steelworkers from Sheffield, England, were relocated with their families to Newbridge. Mr J.W. Haigh, one of these men, was appointed the first managing director of the Newbridge Cutlery Company, and a factory was established in the unused military barracks. Twenty-five local craftspeople were trained by the Sheffield men, using the metal forging and finishing equipment left behind by the army. Thus, a unique enterprise, later known as Newbridge Silverware, was born.

Archive image of a woman working in the Newbridge Silverware factory in 1958
At work in the original Newbridge Cutlery factory in 1958

Twenty-five local craftspeople were trained by the Sheffield men, using the metal forging and finishing equipment left behind by the army

World War II

The company faced its first major challenge during World War II when there was a shortage of steel. As it couldn’t be imported, the company recycled old Dublin tramlines to keep production going. Despite the tough economic climate and a major fire in the plant, profits increased, and the workforce grew to 600 by August 1948.

The 1950s

In post-war Ireland, what had been an under-performing economy slid into deep recession. While the whole country was struggling amid severe austerity and massive emigration, Newbridge Cutlery recognised some business growth opportunities and successfully diversified into hollow-ware. They began producing tea sets, coffee sets, condiment sets, pots and kettles, water jugs and platters to complement their existing cutlery range. The company became the preferred supplier of silverware to the finest hotels and stately homes in Ireland and was listed on the stock exchange.

Ireland joins the EEC

In 1973, Ireland joined the European Community (now the European Union), necessitating the abolition of protectionist policies that had imposed restrictions and tariffs on imported goods. This change posed an uncertain future for Newbridge Cutlery, now facing unprecedented competition from unrestricted imports. The endangered company was bought out by Harcourt Irish Holdings who planned to sell it off. Fortunately, a group of local businessmen rallied around the incumbent MD, Donal O’Rourke, and purchased it. One visionary among them was Dominic Doyle, who played a crucial role in helping the company to maximise its potential and optimise profitability.

A new era for Newbridge Silverware

The factory was moved from its original location on the site of the military barracks to its current home off the Athgarvan Road. William Doyle, who spent his summers in the factory since his father Dominic became involved, joined the business and worked alongside his father to refocus the brand on unique and high-quality tableware. He took the helm in the late 1980s.

Anticipating an increase in disposable income and the growing demand for luxury items such as high-end jewellery, William began encouraging and developing in-house training to orientate the company towards designing and crafting jewellery. The company’s name was changed to Newbridge Silverware, but initially there was limited success with jewellery sales as the business was still perceived as primarily a manufacturer of tableware.

The first big breakthrough in the promotion of the jewellery line came when Barbara McMahon, who presented the very popular lifestyle and fashion television show Head To Toe, featured the story of the jewellery line. Following the show, other media outlets began to show an interest, and enquiries from retailers wanting to stock the brand started pouring in.

Today, a whole new generation recognises Newbridge Silverware as a major name in design for a wide variety of modern lifestyle pieces

The power of advertising, and strong PR and media endorsement was not lost on William. Indeed, this has become one of the hallmarks of the company. The list of celebrities, sports stars and public figures who have worked with and represented the Newbridge brand is impressive. They include the Princess Grace Foundation, the Audrey Hepburn Estate, the Greta Garbo Estate, the family of Kurt Cobain, and Maureen O’Hara. Supermodels Naomi Campbell, Sophie Dahl and Yasmin Le Bon have also participated in photo shoots.

The success of the jewellery line came at an opportune time in the 1990s, when people began to favour more casual dining styles and were less inclined to decorate tables with linen and silverware.

Today, a whole new generation recognises Newbridge Silverware as a major name in design for a wide variety of modern lifestyle pieces – jewellery, accessories, gifts, kitchenware and interiors. The craft facility is the last fully integrated cutlery manufacturing plant of its kind left in Europe with a team of fully skilled craftspeople continuing to create whole ranges of cutlery and jewellery. In June 2018, after 84 years, the Newbridge Silverware factory opened for public tours, cementing the Newbridge Silverware Visitor Centre as one of the key tourist attractions in Ireland.

The Factory Tour

A visit to the Newbridge Silverware factory is a unique opportunity to learn the rich history of the company, from its humble beginnings to its present-day success, and to observe skilled artisans at work as they create stunning silverware and jewellery. An experience not to be missed, the tour gives visitors a glimpse of jewellery and tableware-making skills that have remained virtually unchanged since the company was first founded.

  • ‘Newbridge Silverware: Forging Excellence’ is published in Anthology Volume 19. Read more features from this volume or buy it now.
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