Smith makes a blank canvas out of the flat surface of signet rings with highly detailed engravings.
When browsing through Castro Smith’s selection of rings, the viewer is confronted with skulls, snakes, menacing green-eyed ravens with sharp knife-like beaks, and veiny anatomical hearts overgrown with slightly dubious flowers. It’s a universe that registers as somber. Baudelairian.
Couple this with the mythic lineage of seal engraving—his technique of choice, tracing as far back as ancient Egypt—and the harrowing physical charge sometimes demanded by this craft, and you get a mental portrait of Castro’s personality. One imagines a brooding artist: silent and mysterious, hunched over his work desk for hours on end.
It takes one look at Castro’s smiling face and warm, welcoming energy to dispel such presumptions. He is in Vicenza, Italy, waving at me through his phone camera. Spending a few days at Scuola d’Arte e Mestieri, he and his team are meeting Italian master craftsmen, exchanging expertise on tool creation and gemstone setting. “I’m hoping it will show us new ways to move the metal and attach gemstones with the engraving,” the Filipino-British designer says, before continuing: “It also makes good for the team having new knowledge to adapt and get better every year.”
He is calm and collected, which makes sense. A Castro Smith piece is painstakingly detailed, carved with minute precisions on such a tiny scale. Each filament on a leaf, individual whisker on a frenzied hare, and wrinkle on a tensed knuckle, all these clearly fleshed out from the few shy millimeters of a signet ring. No nerves, no jittery hands were involved in the making of these. To be a craftsman is to know your body, to respect and care for it. “Of course, tools are made to do the work for you, but at the end of the day, it’s my eyes and my hands,” Castro shares.
This discipline and attention to detail is applied to each step of the way, from the elaborate conceptual sketches to the careful chemistry of blending various enamels to arrive at the specific hue desired. It is in Castro’s bespoke process, however, that this rigor is the most pronounced and where he shines.
This starts with sitting down with the client, getting to know their references and motivations, inspiration and moods, what the piece would mean for them. “I sometimes feel like a stand-in therapist,” he confides. “The process is very cathartic and the conversation could get quite deep.” In crafting the design, custom-made clients are forced to look inward, to think about hopes and dreams, yes, but also to reflect on fears, previous wounds, and losses.
Raised in the United Kingdom, Castro’s Filipina mother ran a translation agency. As the business expanded, there was increasing demand for less familiar languages, and he was tasked to scour the city, looking for native speakers in these tongues. “This experience made me realize that everything is a translation, that drawing and design is a language,” he notes, “And even now when I meet clients, I always ask myself, what are they really trying to say?”
This meditative and arduous creation process results in a piece that is specific and personal. Jewelry is in and of itself already quite intimate. Trinkets that are worn close to the skin, often passed down through generations or offered as sentimental symbols to mark certain milestones, steeped in affective value.
Castro’s craft takes this and pushes it even further. He promises material finesse and craftsmanship all while weaving your story within, creating something more potent, something yours. It is no wonder then that his brand counts Elton John and Anya Taylor-Joy among his fervent bespoke clientele, together with a long list of people desiring a personalized porte-bonheur.
It all waxes mystical, but not in a New Age, crystal-obsessed way. (Although the deep blue on his Sapphire rings is captivating and electric, almost whistling with potent energy.) We can talk about alchemy, playing with fire, transforming and merging different kinds of materials to synthesize something more precious. Or devotion, pouring one’s heart into a creation and in turn imparting a chunk of life force onto it: “I’m happy that I can make these bits of metal have a little more heart to them,” Castro shares.
We can also talk about cultural heritage, with his periodic visits to the Philippines marked with local superstitions, pockets of prayers, island life esoterism, and family squabbles on which aunt put a spell on which cousin. All these he recounts in a light-hearted manner, but it is clear how this is deeply-rooted in his philosophy and effectively informs his passion for his craft.
It’s easy to understand Castro’s appeal and his subsequent success. While it must certainly contribute—who wouldn’t want a ring with a ruby-eyed tiger or a miniature galaxy of diamonds—his work is less about the human affinity for bling and all things shiny. It is more about telling stories, crystallizing personal anecdotes through a craft that is slow and considered, touching in its fine intricacies, and ultimately captivating.
This story was originally published in Vogue Philippines’ December-January 2023 Issue, out now. Subscribe here.
Sittings Editor: Renee De Guzman