At his studio, Castro Smith is arched forward as he wields a burnisher in one hand, carving out lines that resemble bird feathers on a silver surface. On the other, he grips a rotating dome-like device that keeps the pendant in place. The subtle blue walls are lined with his tools — pliers, hammers and pushers — while his wooden desks are occupied by unfinished metal works-in-progress.
The 32-year-old jeweler is best known for his signet rings. His most famous work features seal engravings of varying forms of skulls, ships and serpents amplified by different shades of gold, black rhodium, and silver. His background in painting and illustration surfaces in his work — with intricate imagery of soaring ravens and fishes from folklore carved on the exterior of a ring.
The signet rings often sell out fast at Dover Street Market and have captured the attention of a long list of A-list celebrities such as Elton John, Jeremy Strong, and Anya Taylor-Joy, who have gone straight to Smith to commission pieces. Characterized by intricate and complex engraving, Smith’s signet rings take somewhere between a day and a year to be finished.
While he was born and raised in England, Castro says home is Nazareth, Cagayan de Oro. His Filipino heritage informs his style and approach. “My grandmother was from a very strong religious background where they were taking demons out of each other,” said Smith. Memories of his family — spread out in Bohol, Siquijor, and Nazareth — have shaped his perception of how things are. “Half of my aunties don’t want to question my other aunties because they believe they’re witches,” he said.
Complexities and details Smith picked up in his early childhood spent in the Philippines influences his art. “Myths of aswangs, that’s what I link to,” said Smith. “And bugs! Bugs make the planet go round.” He has vivid recollections of giant tarantulas crawling between windows and metal meshes and cockroaches freely walking around. This fascination with insects and biology trickled down to his early encounters with drawing. As a kid, Smith used to draw his own card games by hand. “I used to make my own mythical and magical creatures and characters. I drew my own kind of lands, worlds, and maps,” he shared.
Smith confessed that his decision to learn traditional hand engraving wasn’t intentional but rather fueled by the need to make a living. After working at different bars and clubs around Europe, he landed an apprenticeship at The Goldsmiths’ Company — located in London’s jewelry district — where he spent the next six months engraving every day. “At the time, I was just taking any job that wasn’t in a bar,” said Castro. “And I landed the job because I could draw.”
He then developed his skills by mastering intaglio seal engraving at Rebus Signet Rings, the UK’s premier destination for finely crafted signet rings and personalized jewelery. And in 2017, he was awarded the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust scholarship which allowed him to travel to Japan. This was where he learned metal working, engraving, and patination under Japanese masters Hiroshi Suzuki and Kenji Io.
Everything Castro knows about making jewelry he learned by observing. His early days in a studio were spent looking over the shoulders of experienced craftsmen as he cleaned the workshop, organized desks, and polished large sheets of metal in between. When he was able to join the Goldsmiths Guild of London, he underwent an apprenticeship that granted him more room to discover his style.
“I like things that are strange and awkward,” said Smith. “It’s harder to express things in metal because the material is rigid, but it stays there and there’s a deepness to it — that’s the advantage — that whatever you carve in won’t ever change.” Mastering the technique of seal engraving — carving in features and designs inward rather than traditionally outward — lends timelessness to Smith’s work and the promise that his pieces are made to last. “Signet rings act as a defense to the detailed imagery,” he said. “Because it's inverted, the ring is protecting the image itself and it keeps its clear form.”
“The inversion creates shadows,” said Smith. “With my jewelry, it’s not about how shiny it is or how much it looks like bling. This jewelry speaks in the shadows and that’s [what] I base my style on.”
For his bespoke commissions, the first step of the process is meeting the customer. Smith’s schedule is filled with commissions from a diverse client pool spanning award-winning actors and best-selling authors to herbalists and heart surgery patients. He explained that most people contract him for personalized pieces after going through a traumatic event. In the other end of his clientele spectrum are people who want to commemorate themselves after going so far in their career, such as writing a book or completing a research paper. The initial conversation between Smith and his customer is woven with intimacy. “It’s a very cathartic process just to identify things you want to remember and share those memories that mean something,” said Smith. “I find that [bespoke signet rings] are always wrapped around identity.”
Smith also believes the nature of signet rings are cyclical. When it comes to creating family rings — apart from a list of symbols they’d like to engrave— he requests clients for information surrounding important life events, children’s names, children’s dates of birth, and where the parents are from. “Some things that when you write it all down, there is a cycle that speaks,” he said. “There is a story that speaks in itself and that way, this ring completes this family.”
Once the client selects their desired metal shade and ring, they are then fashioned to the right size before the design is carved by hand. What’s unique to every purchase of a bespoke signet ring is that it comes with Smith’s original sketches, birthed after the ideation phase.
Through commissions from Filipino customers, Smith also develops a deeper understanding of his heritage and culture. He cites a ring remake project as an example — a piece featuring carabaos with little micro diamonds for eyes, mangoes in rose gold, and rice in white rhodium. On the inside, “Mahal” in old Baybayin script is engraved.
Smith dreams of returning to the Philippines — where he’s met kids whom he describes as “ten times more talented than him” at drawing — and collaborating more closely with local craftsmen. “Camiguin is my favorite place,” he said. “I’d love to build a workshop there one day.”
Visit castrosmith.com for more information.