Editors

The Jewelry Industry Remembers Castro: A Complicated, Magical Designer

EditorsJul 29, 2022

The Jewelry Industry Remembers Castro: A Complicated, Magical Designer

Before his sudden death last week, the designer had reached new creative heights.

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Jewelry designer Castro, who went by one name, was known for his unique design point-of-view. He died last week at age 50. (Image by Simon Groneberg)
Beyond the obvious difficulties of interviewing bereaved individuals and contemplating the loss of an artist in your field, obituaries are taxing to write because it’s tricky to speak about the dead.
 
As a society, we’re not comfortable contemplating death, let alone speaking about it. That is why people so often revert to cliches and platitudes when describing a loved one who has passed; there’s a desire to pay respect and a fear of saying the wrong thing. In a time when we’re more open with our lives than ever, death may be one of the last taboos.  
 
So when someone dies, as a reporter, it’s perhaps the most difficult time to get a sense of who they really were, a conundrum I encountered time and again when trying to write about Terry Castro—who went simply by Castro—the designer behind Castro NYC who died of a heart attack July 18 at his home in Istanbul at age 50. 
 
In interviewing sources for this story, I perceived an overwhelming desire to speak about Castro checked by a reticence to define him or his legacy. 
 
People who knew him tended to refer me to another source, who would in turn refer me to another. The more I learned about him, the more enigmatic he grew in my mind. 
 
At certain moments, trying to understand Castro felt like a frustrating goose egg hunt. For as many people on social media who were posting about his impact, I wondered how many really knew him.

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Friend Nghi Nguyen took this picture of Castro in Paris in front of the Centre Pompidou. It’s Nguyen’s favorite picture of him. (Image courtesy of Nghi Nguyen)
 
Fellow designer and close friend Nghi Nguyen confirmed as much, telling me, “Castro was very intense and very passionate. Not many people ‘got him.’”
 
I thought about the futility of attempting to establish a record of someone’s life, and how many stories die with a person.
 
Of course, as a jewelry designer, Castro’s work—eccentric and unusual—is his own life’s account.  
 
Portrait of an Artist
I never met Castro. Based in Istanbul for the last several years, he has only become widely recognized in the last two years.  
 
Castro NYC wasn’t a brand in the sense that every jewelry designer is technically a brand. Castro was strictly a creative. He had no publicist, no e-commerce. He made roughly 35 pieces a year.

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One of Castro’s most recent signature figurines. Among friends, he referred to them as his “angels” or his “babies.” (Image courtesy of Muse)
 
“Commerce can be so hard for those of us who make things with our hands,” said David Rees, one of the designers behind TenThousandThings and a friend of Castro’s. “He was a pure artist. He really was connected to the creating of the piece.”
 
Rees compares him to an Outsider artist within the contemporary art world, meaning someone who is self-taught and doesn’t play within the boundaries of an industry’s typical practices. 
 
Castro’s jewelry life began in 2006, when he founded Castro NYC. He landed in New York via Chicago via Toledo, Ohio where he was born in 1972. 
 
He sold his early brass and silver work as a street vendor in SoHo. That’s where Rees met him. 
 
“[Ron Anderson of TenThousandThings] and I fell in love with his work and started to collect it. The pieces he made certainly didn’t look like anything you had ever seen. His vision was very singular and magical,” he said of Castro’s “goth, very detailed, and talisman-like skeletons.”
 
Discerning collectors, artists, and designers finding Castro and attempting to mentor and guide his career was a common thread among those I interviewed. He drew people in. 
 
“His jewelry was very much like him—complicated, very unusual, a little wild, a little crazy, and very unexpected.” – Jennifer Shanker, Muse
 
Friend Katherine Wallach, a fellow designer and a member of Castro’s inner circle, told me that he called his mother in Ohio almost every day. 
 
Nguyen described Castro’s mother as “a leading figure in his life, and his muse as well in some ways.”
 
Just as people believed in him and his artistry, I also got the sense that many had the urge to take care of Castro throughout his life. 
 
Designer and gallerist Stella Flame, who sells his work, was an advocate, as was entrepreneur and investor Carmen Busquets, who connected him with Jennifer Shanker, founder of sales showroom and retail store Muse. 
 
Busquets was one of Muse’s ambassadors for its “Have a Heart” charitable initiative, which raises money through jewelry sales for various philanthropic organizations. 
 
“It was super-important to her to include some of her favorite jewelers whom she collected and with whom she was quite close friends,” Shanker said. “Castro was the first designer she connected us with. It was a good match. [Busquets] is super-smart and wanted him to be more commercial and was pushing him and challenging him for years.”
 
The obstacle confronting Shanker was, like others before her, figuring out how to translate Castro’s artistry into its most commercial-yet-authentic version.

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A recent lock pendant (Image courtesy of Muse)
 
“He normally didn’t listen much to people. He prided himself on doing his own thing and holding his ground.”
 
Shanker and her team helped edit his existing collection into pieces that were the easiest to reproduce for Have a Heart, tweaking designs along the way. “He took the project seriously,” she said. 
 
The relationship settled into the right balance between art and salability, and Muse continued to work with him beyond the initiative, bringing his work to the Couture trade show for the first time in 2022, though Castro did not attend.
 
Shanker said, “His jewelry was very much like him—complicated, very unusual, a little wild, a little crazy, and very unexpected. He was intense. He was funny. He took himself really seriously and his jewelry really seriously but also didn’t. He was a real character.”
 
Muse started its relationship with Castro in mid-2020, which was the moment he really began to gain mainstream traction. 
 
In New York City, Castro had graduated to fine jewelry, still making pieces himself, but it was upon moving to Istanbul several years ago that he really elevated his work. 
 
There, he worked alongside Armenian craftspeople and Turkish artisans with roots in classic Ottoman jewelry-making. He outsourced certain production elements to world-class makers in Geneva and Athens.
 
“You would find this rich, layered collection of influences all intersecting in his work, from hip-hop jewelry to gothic references and the animal world.” – Tanya Dukes, jewelry editor 
 
In terms of recognition, his renaissance came in 2020, as the jewelry industry began highlighting Black designers in the wake of the United States’ racial justice movement, which happened to coincide with the peak of Castro’s creativity. 
 
Arguably, the Castro 2.0 coming-out moment happened in The New York Times, when longtime jewelry editor Tanya Dukes featured him in a Q&A alongside Lauren Harwell Godfrey of Harwell Godfrey and Vania Leles of VanLeles. 
 
Being profiled in the prestigious publication shot him to the forefront of jewelry’s collective mind, where he had once been bobbing at the periphery. 
 
“I wanted to talk to [Castro] as one of the few really prominent Black men working at the very highest level of creativity in the fine, precious jewelry world,” said Dukes, who had been in touch with the designer for a few years before the Times profile ran. 
 
“As jewelry editors and writers, you look for a distinct voice and he had that in spades. He created this far-out world of magic and fun that had so much narrative behind it. You would find this rich, layered collection of influences intersecting in his work, from hip-hop jewelry to gothic references and the animal world.”
 
The feather in Castro’s cap came in 2021, when he was featured in Sotheby’s “Brilliant & Black: A Jewelry Renaissance” exhibition in New York, curated by Melanie Grant. 

“He was challenging himself and feeling good about his work as an artist,” said Shanker. “He was finally feeling recognized and taken seriously.” 
 
For close friends and distant admirers alike, Castro’s “Antique Bisque Doll” was a show highlight, a provocative and daring departure from fine jewelry norms, a veritable artist’s statement by way of jewelry, defining his ethos and inclinations.
 

The design transformed an antique doll into a pendant replete with vibrating bejeweled wings and a bird mask in the vein of his many skeleton-inspired pieces. 
 
“I loved the idea of repurposing and bejeweling an antique piece like that. It calls to mind Cartier incorporating ancient Egyptian pieces or Hemmerle using 18th century cameos,” noted Frank Everett, vice president and sales director for the Sotheby’s New York jewelry department, who called the doll pendant, “one of the most special pieces of the exhibition.”
 
“He was an amazing force. It’s been really moving to hear from other designers in the exhibition who are all inspired by him. He was influential in this world.”
 
Everett said Castro’s personal style, which “matched what he created,” was part of his allure.
 
Before starting his jewelry line, Castro worked in fashion. 
 
“He was one of the few to connect the fashion world to the jewelry world,” his friend Nguyen noted, a transition few designers successfully make.
 
If some see parallels between Castro’s jewelry designs and Outsider art, others, like his friend Wallach, venture that he was also a bit of a performance artist, whose life and work were impossible to separate, and his style was one important aspect of his life as performance.
 
“He would walk down the street in Paris in his very worn-out white shoes and his hat that looked like somebody had blown a hole through it, made out of felt and perfectly cocked on his head, as though it took no effort,” Wallach laughed, “but believe me it all took effort.

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Castro’s “Money Brooch” pendant, featuring Muzo emeralds, was also presented at Sotheby’s “Brilliant & Black” exhibition. (Image courtesy of Sotheby’s)
 
“Castro was somebody who, from the looks of him, was this really unusual, powerful, dreadlocked creature with such a presence that he just could not help but attract everyone’s attention in the room. Then he would work that attention and really perform.”
 
Nguyen agreed that Castro’s entire life, including his work as a jeweler and designer, was an art unto itself. 
 
“I don’t think there’s any separation between his professional aura and his life. It’s all intertwined,” he said. 
 
Knowing the Real Castro
Nguyen met Castro in the Diamond District in New York City in 2010. The two forged a friendship that spanned New York City, Paris, and Istanbul, where Nguyen spent a great deal of time. 
 
The two bonded over their “unconventional path into high jewelry,” as well as their upbringings. In Ohio, Castro wasn’t close to his father, Nguyen said, but was extremely close with his mother. 
 
“She was a strong figure and he really admired her. They’re very similar in character,” Nguyen explained. 
 
Ohio didn’t offer the creative outlet that cities like Chicago and New York City later would and that Castro needed. Accordingly, Castro would regale Nguyen with “crazy, wild stories of getting in and out of trouble” in his childhood. 
 
“I don’t think there’s any separation between his professional aura and his life. It’s all intertwined.” – Nghi Nguyen, designer and friend
 
Nguyen sees these early, defining experiences as “a reflection of his sensibility and his no-holds-barred aesthetic.”
 
“I think because of that, he didn’t follow the general path of jeweler or designer. He acted on impulse and how he felt.”
 
Nguyen and Castro felt a kinship over the sameness in design they encountered in fine jewelry and their aversion to it, a topic they discussed often as they navigated their careers. 
 
“[Jewelry] can be very closed-minded in terms of artistic sensibility. We talked about fighting to open it up a little bit, to bring in more angles of people’s experiences and other people’s cultures and not only measure work by the normal standard of what is precious—the European standard or judgment of design.”
 
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Castro’s “Drip” earrings from the Sotheby’s sale (Image courtesy of Sotheby’s)
 
Castro’s work was unapologetically different, with his many totem-like figurines, which Nguyen liked to half-jokingly refer to as “voodoo.” 
 
“I see him as a magician,” he said. “He brings his soul into his pieces. It has a dark angle reflective of his upbringing and character.”
 
In Castro’s Istanbul era, Nguyen also saw his friend’s work transform, in part thanks to what Nguyen says was an incredible ability to ascertain the world’s best workshops or most unique materials, then share these sources with his friends. 
 
“His work evolved dramatically into complicated designs with more precious materials. I really admired and respected his ability to evolve his craft into such a high realm in a short period of time.”
 
When Wallach saw Castro’s necklace at the “Brilliant & Black” sale, she realized Castro was “at the top of his game.” 
 
“His perseverance and belief in himself brought him to where he really wanted to be. Everybody was so impressed with his development. I think he was even impressed with where he was and his designs absolutely showed it.”
 
To Wallach, nothing else in the room “held a candle” to Castro’s creation. 
 
Her reaction is fitting given their level of camaraderie, showing their work during Fashion Week in Paris alongside Nguyen, even crashing in the same hotel room on trips and “getting into some very funny adventures.”
 
“He believed in me more than I believed in myself at certain times,” she said.
 
“[Jewelry] can be very closed-minded in terms of artistic sensibility. We talked about fighting to open it up a little bit, to bring in more angles of people’s experiences and other people’s cultures.” – Nguyen 
 
Friends like Wallach and Nguyen helped me to understand what people meant when they called Castro “complicated,” a descriptor I heard again and again.
 
He was a man full of contradictions and surprises. 
 
Wallach described him as “classy” but blunt, and “without tact.” He was an expert career advice-giver to his designer friends yet prone to losing things or calling in a panic with an emergency business question. 
 
He was conversely full of bravado and “absolutely impervious to any sort of judgment,” Wallach said, yet sensitive and deeply loyal. 
 
“He’s like a gangster, mama’s boy jeweler,” Wallach laughed. “I don’t think I’ve ever met or will ever meet anyone like him again.”
 
Now, the industry mourns an artist who seemed to just be hitting his stride. 
 
“He was talking about how he always wanted to get better,” said Dukes, “and he was seeing breakthrough after breakthrough and really getting so much attention. It’s such a loss for all of us that we’ve lost this amazing artist who was really coming into the peak of his powers. There was just so much more that he was going to do.”
 
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Nghi Nguyen, Castro, and James Taffin de Givenchy, the designer behind Taffin. (Image courtesy of Nghi Nguyen)

Writing this article, I vacillated between the comfort of knowing Castro’s work is a legacy that surpasses a human lifespan, just as jewelry always has been, and the realization that his entire 50 years was an almost-cinematic performance, jewelry merely a fraction of it—that it was important to get at his essence if I were to even begin to define his art.  
 
“Castro was more of a star as a person to me than as a jewelry designer. His work was secondary to him being a work of art,” Wallach said. 
 
But she also reminded me of the most important reason we write obituaries or remember loved ones—not for our own catharsis, but to comfort the people closest to them. For Castro, that includes friends like Nguyen and Wallach, his beloved mother, and his son, Sir King Castro. 
 
Also residing in Istanbul, Wallach told me Sir King makes his own versions of Castro’s figures, or “angels” as he called them, which she described as very different from his father’s. 
 
She told me, “I just hope Sir King knows how much the jewelry community is there for him and how his father so believed in him. He can carry this very bright and unusual torch now and not be intimidated by it but embrace where he comes from, who he comes from, because Castro is in him even stronger now.” 
 
Ashley Davisis the senior editor, fashion at National Jeweler, covering all things related to design, style and trends.

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