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Powered by personal mythologies: Castro Smith on meaningful engraving and jewelry

Filipino-British engraver Castro Smith has made bespoke pieces for A-list actors, professional gamers, scientists, and athletes. Mantle talks to him about the art, how he takes his coffee, and working with the naked eye.

Many of the habits of Castro Smith’s life have been dictated by the intricacies of his work. Among them is sugar. Specifically, just one packet of sugar in his coffee. He has a sweet tooth so he has to regulate his sugar doses. He also has to closely regulate his intake of coffee. Because the engraving he does necessitates carving very small details with surgical precision on precious items and rings made of gold that are just a few millimeters wide, the margin of error is so minute that keeping his hands steady isn’t just a trick of the trade, it’s absolutely crucial.

“I don’t drink too much coffee now and for some time a while back I just stopped drinking all together,” Smith said, walking down the center of London on our Zoom call, past brownstones that were around since the time of Charles Dickens. “I have to keep my hands steady. You have to remember I’m engraving and since you’ve seen my desk, I don’t have goggles. I don’t use any equipment to see better. It’s just my eyes.”  

His firm hands have literally made his custom work sought after by an international clientele, while his ready-to-wear retail items are sold on Dover Street Market—the original London fashion Mecca that has since expanded to branches in Tokyo and New York. It’s there that Smith’s engraved work sell beside fine crafted items by the usual luxury brands like Prada and Vetements but also able to stand shoulder to shoulder with an avant garde jeweler like Repossi.

“A new 9karat heavyweight heart ring in a larger more heavy signet in a Caledor Blue.”

Curly-haired and olive-skinned with Eurasian features, the wiry Filipino-British engraver takes me for a brief Zoom video tour of his workshop at Cockpit Arts at the center of London. He introduced his team and points out how hand-push engraving is the most commonly used process for those who employ the intricate bulino work they do.

Smith points to a huge copper bowl he’s been engraving as a commission for Ketel One Vodka, interlacing fine and heavy lines scrawl across it to form waves and whorls. On another table under an overhead lamp, held in a ball clamp by what appears to be a gunsmith’s vise, is a custom ring that has the texture of pickles.

Pickles? “It was commissioned by someone who I think had pickles as an important meaning in his life. I don’t think it’s because he loves pickles,” shrugged Smith.  

“2020 Workshop action when Ibby Waaled and Hawa were on the late night shift cleaning pendants.” Photo by Hawa Al-Najjar

Signet rings are Smith’s specialty. A quick look at the Castro Smith shop and Instagram proves that his eye for detail is a literal cut above the usual engravers. He cites that motion is the breath of soul that makes the images on his signet rings or medallions literally come alive. A pink hare is frozen mid jump over a brush. A crimson heart with flowers blooming out of its ventricles appears to be pulsing. Heavy wind lifts the sails of a magenta ship at sea. A cerulean serpent cavorts across a thin gold band.

The recessed style means the image is inverted on the material. While the aesthetics have greater interplay of shadow and light in them, inversion also protects it from the elements and any inevitable bumps or scrapes that would damage the image if it was embossed and protruding from the material instead of buried. It’s slow, involved, and necessary for highly detailed decoration. It also means they last way longer.

His work is beautiful, but it’s the bespoke process that makes Smith’s pieces pregnant with meaning. When people come to him to mark events, celebrate anniversaries, or cement personal symbols on jewelry that’s when a custom piece transcends the material. It becomes an object of personal mythology. Something beyond jewelry. Something edging closer to totemism.  

Pink Phantoms

“I love the custom process because it’s not about me having what I want. It’s the customer having a part in that piece,” said Smith. “It’s all a little bit of modern magic in terms of symbolism and what things mean to people. Definitely personal mythologies and what we have linked to our beliefs. How we symbolize that is I think what all the work is today. How we want to be represented is the same as always. People even before today would also try to symbolize themselves by certain animals or things. It’s a very human thing. And we still want to do that.”

In that respect the unnamed client who wanted the ring that referenced pickles is no different from Smith’s A-list clientele. Talking out what they want with Smith to imbue their piece with mythologies precious to them. Like a fable for one.

Actor Jeremy Strong—Golden Globe winner for his part in Succession—had a pendant engraved that, in interviews, he called a talisman full of images he treasured. There’s a Byzantine angel on one side holding the London BT Tower like a sword in one hand and a Yale lock as a shield on the other. On the reverse is a footprint of one of his daughters. Queen’s Gambit star Anya Taylor-Joy came to visit Smith’s studio to talk about different ideas. “She had so many,” said Smith in an interview. In the end she settled for something creepy with flowers.

Jeremy Strong showed his hand engraved Castro Smith pendants on The Late Late Show with James Corden.

From A-list actors to professional gamers, scientists to athletes, every bespoke piece by Smith includes the sketches and drawings that he’d drawn during the ideation phase. Testaments to the storytelling progression that the ring went through before it got committed to something wearable and tactile.  

“A lot of it can be a kind of psychotherapy,” said Smith, when I mentioned that the bespoke process sounded a lot like self-confrontation method in psychoanalysis. “A therapeutic way of manifesting oneself, solidifying these beliefs. You know a lot of people who buy my rings often they don’t collect jewelry. It’s just the one piece. They’re like: well, I don’t even wear jewelry, but I guess I’ve got to wear this one because it’s mine. It’s like a whisper to yourself. I love that not many people are going to be able to see, even standing next to you, those details. Even if someone else looks at it, they don’t have the understanding of what it means to you. They may be able to tell “Oh that’s the Hubble Space Telescope’ but not what it means to you.”

I love the custom process because it’s not about me having what I want. It’s the customer having a part in that piece

Though it was developed intensely during the Middle Ages, Smith is part of a very ancient line of craftsmen that goes way back to Pyrgoteles, Alexander the Great’s gem-engraver who was the only artist permitted to carve signet rings for the king. The industry has since made great strides in mechanized automation and digital modelling, but despite the advantages of modern tools, the hand-made technique is still the highest level of the art of intaglio carving found on jewelry, on firearms, metal weapons, and even musical instruments.

Raised in Newcastle, England, Castro Smith was born of a British father and a Filipino mother. Two elder brothers. Two sisters. The mother’s side hailed from Camiguin, but when the constant eruptions of Mount Hibok-Hibok pervaded in the early 1950s, most of the family moved to Cagayan De Oro City. It was there, at visits to his extended family all over the Visayas and Mindanao mostly during Christmas reunions, that Smith imbibed the magic realist nature of life in the archipelago.  

“Life in the Philippines definitely fueled my imagination,” said Smith. “I feel like you can’t avoid stories about aswangs, even if it’s just a joke. Be careful! Don’t go too far over! Watch out for the people over there, they’re aswangs! Because some of my relatives are also from Bohol, some branches of the family are also superstitious of some other parts of the family! There’s always superstition. When I am leaving the Philippines, my lola she gets me to kneel down and she’ll do like 20 Hail Maries before I can fly.”

Green Ęyed Räven. A little reverse set Tsavorite on an 18 karat white gold ring.

Smith recalls vividly something that happened about seven years ago, on one trip where he’d had too much to drink and went tripping on a beach in Siquijor. There, he met some young motorcycle drivers who displayed sleight-of-hand folk magic for his amusement.

“These kids were the habal-habal drivers, they showed me magic tricks,” said Smith, still astounded by the force of the memory. “I couldn’t believe it! They were making things float and keeping water in glass while turning it over. I was absolutely stunned and taken in. That was a great experience to have as an adult.”

Smith apprenticed in seal engraving under the Goldsmith’s Company in Hatton Garden, London’s jewelry district but trained as a painter and printmaker early on, thinking he could have a career as an artist on videogames. He also trained at RH Wilkins, one of the largest engraving firms, at Rebus Signet Rings, and at Tom Wood before he launched his own business in 2016. As a specialist in metal carving, Smith has been feted with many accolades when he was still in traditional apprenticeship, including the Podolsky award and the Theo Fennell award. He also accepted an Apprentice of the Year award at St James’ Palace in 2017. That same year, he was granted a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust scholarship and studied for a year in Japan learning metal working, engraving, and patination at the studios of masters Hiroshi Suzuki and Kenji Io. But prior to becoming an engraver Smith had bounced around Europe—painting theater backgrounds in Sweden, sketching around Germany, managing a cocktail bar when he landed back in England.

Green snake pair in yellow gold. Green snake pair in rose gold.

All through out, the trips back to CDO and his memories of the humid Northern Mindanao evenings, of fist-sized mosquitoes pushing against the kulambo and cockroaches the size of lizards scurrying on the street informed his art and dreams.  

“When I went back before the pandemic, those big insects weren’t around anymore,” Smith said. “I swear there used to be more insects there. They really fueled my imagination but I was kind of like, scared at the same time. I was so interested in something so fearful. They’re like little demons in themselves.”  

As his international clientele list blossomed, Smith was able to take more trips back to CDO, linking up with local craftsmen on almost every trip. One of those Filipino jewelers is 13 Lucky Monkey, back then already known for their intricate skull rings. Smith was the one who eventually hooked them up with the Dover Street organizers and now 13LM is one of the homegrown Pinoy talents able to showcase their wares at the Ginza branch.

It’s all a little bit of modern magic in terms of symbolism and what things mean to people. Definitely personal mythologies and what we have linked to our beliefs.

The duo of 13LM have nothing but admiration for Smith’s work. “Untainted ‘yung gawa ni [Castro]. Right balance ng sophistication and rawness. Same sa personality niya,” said Noli Coronado of 13LM. [His work is untainted. The right balance of sophistication and rawness. Same as his personality.]

“A true master of his art. I have long been an admirer of his work,” echoed Dante Dizon. “If not for him we would not be able to reach the global stage. Castro’s work is masterful and whimsical at the same time, he gets ideas from the most obscure of references and turns them in to masterpieces.”  

Now in his early thirties, Smith hopes to one day make a little Filipino collection of signet rings, not only to explore his own identity and heritage but to engrave in permanence his own experiences of how the frisson of life, the way real and unreal overlap, flows on the islands.

“I’d for sure love to have a place in the Philippines some time, my own workshop,” said Smith, noting how he’s gone minimalist over time.

As he trained more, he learned to stick to his naked eye and rely on his aesthetic instincts. Used to be, he had plenty of eye-enhancing tools, glasses that made things larger for detail work. But he got a headache from all the shiny metal reflecting back at him.

Castro Smith for Gucci Vault

“If I wanted to, I could get a microscope and spend a month carving up a crocodile or a bird,” he explained. “But what would be the point of the other person couldn’t see it with his naked eye? Now I just use my eyes. I’m not trying to do a big crazy show off, just an image for the person.”

Smith recalls seeing in person one of those o-yoroi and do-maru samurai ceremonial armors during his time in Japan. Armor that he surmises likely took dozens or more craftsmen working for months who were specialists at their craft to complete. He’d love to make something so beautiful and intricate.

“But who would buy that?” he asked me. “It’s all about being a living craft, not being an antique. What’s great about [my] rings is they have a purpose. As I go through the custom process with the client I definitely get a better understanding and strengthening of ‘Why am I doing this?’ The people who wear [my rings] enjoy them. Even more so when they come in and can meet the team to see how passionate we are about what we do.”


You can check out the shop to see more of Castro Smith’s work or follow him on Instagram to see what he’s up to. For enquiries, you may contact kobayashi@castrosmith.com. All photos from @castrosmith.