Inspired by shamanic visions and vivid dreams, jewelry designer Castro of Castro NYC seemingly creates from a realm beyond ours.
Born in Toledo, Ohio, Castro moved to NYC where he worked as a designer in women’s wear, but a friend convinced him to concentrate on jewelry design. During what was meant to be a short break from fashion, Castro traded seams for stones and a forge. Established in 2012, Castro never went back to women’s wear and Castro NYC was born.
“Dollies” are Castro’s jewel-encrusted antique porcelain doll pieces, which are nothing short of divine. His work navigates the extravagant but remains cool and supremely unique. The mix of metals and flurry of stones in his pieces banishes any whisper of stuffiness often associated with fine jewelry. Expanding on the sense of rarity inherent in his work, Castro only creates 35 pieces a year.
Mr. Castro in NYC has an incredible ability to transform stones and metal into something sacred. Each piece possesses its own energy and personality. He notes that his work has a West African feel. We were able to ask Castro a few questions about his design process, his dollies, and the struggles of being a Black jewelry designer.
What does your design process look like?
Good question. It starts with a dream, vision, or maybe just me thinking I’ve seen something. But when I look again, it is not there. I look for meaning or details in what I’ve seen. Sometimes I go to museums and then bring out what I’ve seen in 2D or 3D. I do storyboards to take it out of my head. I have too many things inside. From there, I rearrange and collage until it all makes sense. A story. Then I start to work in the waxes at home, look at the cache of stones, and get to work. It’s a long process for me. I am an overthinker.
How would you describe your customers?
Women and men with confidence. My work is not for the faint of heart—on purpose. I’ve noticed they also tend to be adventurous and well traveled.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
From past collections of mine, West African medieval art and traditions (masks shields, armor, regalia), antique porcelain dolls, old picture frames, the solar system, and animals (the totems of animals in relation to ancient cultures).
Are you drawn to certain materials or stones?
When it comes to materials, it’s my belief you have to make your own rules and break away from the traditional. Anything is game to be used. I do love bronze, silver, and gold due to their history and durability. I also like the lightness and strength of aluminum and, of course, porcelain.
As for stones, I am drawn to opals for their mystery and diamonds, sapphires, and rubies for their durability, dazzle, and radiance. Zircons also. I love bicolored ones. All have to speak to me. Call me. They have to choose me.
Tell me about your dollies. When did you start those and why?
I made the first doll in maybe 2014 I think. A friend and I were scouring an antique market and came across two porcelain dolls—one black and the other white. She asked me to make something Castro with them. Honestly, I didn’t have a clue. I sat on it for a year before I put one of my birdcage skulls over their faces because I felt like they were staring at me. I wanted to hide their faces. I thought they looked freaky, which I liked.
I took one and put a magic diamond in its belly button and gave it black diamond eyes. I sent pics to my friend, and she wasn’t getting it, but I loved it. Took it out for a spin that night. I put it on leather and wore it around my neck to an art gallery opening. Everyone commented on it. Then I was getting food at my favorite Indian restaurant, and the Indian woman told me she loved it. That is when I knew I was onto something hot. Indians tend to favor their own jewelry.
Last but not least, not thinking about it, I went to have lunch or dinner with Ikram and Josh Goldman of the Ikram store in Chicago. After we ate and talked, when we were saying our goodbyes, she noticed the doll around my neck. She insisted that I give it to her right then and there and that it was so weird and different that she could sell it. I said okay but had my doubts that it was too far out.
After two weeks, I called the store to have them ship it back for Paris Fashion Week. They told me they couldn’t ship it back, and I asked why not. The girl on the line said, “Because we sold it.” Maybe I dropped my phone and did a little dance in the street. The rest is history. I had sold an art piece. I made a decision that day to focus on developing art pieces.
Why is jewelry important?
Jewelry is for the ages. People have died out, but jewelry has not and will not. It might get melted and transformed into new jewelry. People love to adorn their bodies. People love to shine. Black people for sure. Africans were the first ones to do it, and we do it well.
Wearable art is like a tattoo but better. It takes pure confidence to pull it off. You have to be regal with it on. The piece has a life of its own, and it stands out in the crowd like Prince on his bodyguard’s shoulders. You can’t help but see it and appreciate the genius. Also, you can change it into a new piece, whereas a tattoo is permanent. Get the wrong one and you are screwed for life.
What has your experience been like as a Black jewelry designer? Recently you told Vogue UK that Black jewelers lack visibility and recognition. I’d like to know the unique struggles you face as a jewelry designer.
Wow. The list is long. I can start with having my own showroom in Paris and buyers coming in thinking I am the help. Then they’re so surprised and shocked when I tell them I am the designer. People getting sticker shock and thinking because of who I am, my prices should be “affordable.” Like, what is affordable?
Stone dealers being nervous (visibly shaking) when they open the door and see me. The higher up I go, the more covert discrimination I get. When I go to a gem show, I have to pay for stones with cash on the spot. Caucasian jewelers I know do not. The dealers give them a memo. Black women might have a different experience, but as a Black male, they just don’t trust me.
As for recognition, I don’t know the reasons for sure why up to now I really haven’t gotten any traction. What I do know is if you google “Black fine jewelry designers,” there isn’t any information except for what was posted after George Floyd’s death. This means that the media has been blind like Ray Charles, trying to find sight. I just hope that this media attention some of us are getting is not just a passing wave and that journalists and media do a better job of digging and finding those hidden gems—and not just the shiny ones sitting on the surface. We will see. Only time will tell.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity)