Jewelry Journey Podcast
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. Today, my guest is Castro, founder and owner of the jewelry line Castro NYC. Castro designs and makes one-of-a-kind jewelry of silver, gold and gems, and he also uses fur and porcelain doll parts. His jewelry journey is as unusual as his jewelry is, and we’ll hear all about that today. Castro, welcome to the program.
Castro: Thank you for having me.
Sharon: So glad to have you. Tell us about your jewelry journey. What’s the winding path to becoming a jewelry designer?
Castro: I’ll try to make it short.
Sharon: We’re interested. We want to hear.
Castro: I went from being a kid to getting in legal trouble as a youth. Then I got married and had a son. That slowed me down. It made me think about things. Then I went to jewelry school, and I went from jewelry school to opening up a jewelry shop, then closing it. Then, I got into the clubbing scene and started making clothes, because I needed clothes to go to the club and I didn’t have a lot of money. From that, I met some lady who said, “Hey, come work in my cool store in Chicago.” So, I went to Chicago and then to New York to pursue fashion. I was just standing on the street corner in Soho, next to Prada, with a table, working with somebody selling jewelry because I had to pay bills. It was in New York, and I was like, “Oh, it’s cool. I’m standing here and seeing girls. I just moved here and I’m meeting the people.” I went from doing that to survive, to abandoning fashion for jewelry. I ended up doing jewelry full time. I left the street selling—or vending as they call it, which is a good name for it—to selling to different boutiques and stores internationally. Now, I just create what I want. I joined my wife in Istanbul sipping chai instead of staying in New York in the rat race. When I transitioned from fashion to jewelry, more specifically, it was about finances more than anything.
I moved to New York to do fashion, and I wasn’t winning financially. I was working with sellers, and they were giving me prices and I was just paying. It was all new to me and I was naïve. Before I knew it, I was broke and all my savings were gone. Like I said, I was working with someone on the street, and then me and that person, we moved on from each other. I set up my own table, and that is where I got into jewelry more. A client of mine I was selling to, I was speaking to her and I was like, “I feel like I’m working for people on the street and I don’t feel like I’m doing this for myself,” and she said, “Why don’t you do your own line?” I was like, “What’s that?” She kind of pushed with that.
I had another client who worked at Tommy Hilfiger at the time, and she was like, “You’re really good at concepts, so why don’t you think about that part? Research the works you like and build from that.” I needed my own voice at that time. That was actually my third journey in jewelry, because before the store, I went to Belgium for fashion. I saw these people doing all this crazy stuff, and it was really cool. I came back from the antique market there and made all this jewelry from crystal, like vintage key chains. I actually presented to some stores in New York, and I remember they told me, “We love it. It’s so new and different, so we only want to pay you a third of the cost.” I was like, “Screw you! I’ll give it to my friends for free to sell it.” That’s kind of what happened.
Sharon: They wanted to pay you a third? They weren’t going to pay you more?
Castro: No, they said they thought it was a risk because it was too new at that time.
Sharon: So they thought you should share the risk with them in case they didn’t sell it?
Castro: Yeah, it was crazy. My girlfriend was like, “No, don’t do that,” and I was like, “All right, I’m not going to do that.” It’s something I didn’t want to do anyway, because I was like—whatever.
Sharon: So when you were on the street, you were selling other people’s jewelry.
Castro: Yeah, in the beginning. It was one guy’s jewelry. He was in New York, and I thought his brand was cool and I wanted to sell it. He was like, “If you come to New York and show me, I’ll pay you.” He learned that I had gone to school, and he could show me how to use the fire and everything. I said, “Oh, that’s cool man. I like that.” My parents were like, “So you got a job and you’re going to New York?” and I was like, “Yeah, of course.” “And you’re sure you got the job?” “Of course I got the job.” No, I wasn’t sure. Long story short, I went to see this guy, and I felt like he was full of whatever. I was like, “Oh my God, I’m in New York and I gave up everything, and this is not going good.” I noticed he was selling on the street and he said, “You could be here showing me how to make jewelry,” and I was thinking, “There’s no way I’ll be here with you for that long.” So, I was like, “How about I go and work for you on the street?” He said, “There’s no money in that,” and I said, “I know. I just moved here. I just want to be around the girls.” That was bull crap, but he said O.K., and the rest is history.
Sharon: Wow! Your jewelry is amazingly different. When people ask you about it, how do you describe it?
Castro: One word, eclecticism.
Sharon: Eclecticism, O.K.
Castro: The practice of trying to be different.
Sharon: But you’re not trying; you just are different.
Castro: Right, exactly.
Sharon: It’s not like somebody can try to be Picasso. It has to come from inside you, and it’s obvious it does. Now, you’re from Ohio?
Castro: As we say it, “Toleda.” Toledo, Ohio. We say, O-hio. It’s out the side of the mouth.
Sharon: Tell us about some of your signature pieces, like your dollies and fur paws and locks. I will show pictures of them on the website when we post this. How did you come to doing the fur pieces?
Castro: Let me see. I was in New York, of course, in a studio. I think I saw a few things, but what I had in my head, I wanted something really crazy. I don’t know why. I think I saw a picture of this canteen, like a flask. It was some hunting flask, and it had this deer foot, and you put whisky in it. I was like, “That thing looks ugly as sin, but how can I make that cooler?” I had an assistant at that time, and I had a few things in my head on the wall already that had already materialized. There was Bruce Lee, Enter the Dragon. There’s a guy; he fights with the claw hand; he’s got a fur tiger paw hand with claws. You know rabbit’s feet?
Castro: That was a big one, because I always wanted a rabbit’s foot. When I was younger, my neighbor said, “I’m going to get you a real rabbit’s foot. Don’t get one at the carnival,” and I was like, “All right. That’s not real.” They were hunters, and he told me to come over, and he hacked the rabbit’s foot off right there. It was gnarly, with all the blood, and I was like, “I don’t want that.” So, this was an opportunity to get what I wanted. Also, that collection was dealing with body parts. I know it’s morbid, but I had this book of people who committed suicide and their pictures from morticians. That was part of the inspiration—oh yeah, it was called “Masses of the Universe.” It was like He-Man. I saw some pictures, I had a weird album cover, and it was putting all those things together and coming up with something realistic but cool. We made it pretty fast, actually, the claws. My sister used to work for Stage, and he’s pretty good at putting that stuff together and helping me materialize things. My sister was working for me, and he came and met me and saw these pictures on the wall, and I said, “Yeah, I’ve got this crazy idea with a fur paw,” and he said, “Dude, I can help you make that right now,” so we just put it together. The first one had rabbit, and then I realized I’m allergic to rabbit because I kept sneezing. Then went to a place and I told this lady I was looking for a rabbit, and she said, “We don’t sell rabbits here.” I said, “Well, then what do you sell?” and she said, “Mink, chinchilla, this and that.” I said, “O.K. then, educate me.” I went with mink because it’s luxurious.
Sharon: Are they part of your line now?
Castro: Originally it was, and then I stopped making them. I was Thailand and I had made some new ones. I was vacationing, and I had them in the hotel room—not a hotel, but an Airbnb in a luxury building. When I came back, someone had broken into the apartment and stolen all of them. So, my wind was gone for a minute. I was like, “Screw this.” Actually, during our lockdown is when I came one-to- one with the bare facts, because I was like, “I need to do something with my hands. I’m going crazy here.” At that time, Katerina Perez said something about how everybody had to come out of the pandemic and these lockdowns with some amazing stuff, or journalists are going to be bored, because we need something new and cool. I was thinking, “Yeah, I’ve got to do something.”
I had an old porcelain bear. I just didn’t like it, and I don’t know why, but I cut his head off. His head was sitting there, and I was like, “A bear paw!” When I made the first ones, I was thinking of a cat originally. I remember I went to a party in 2006, and all these people were fascinated, like “What is it?” And I said, “It’s a cat paw.” They were like, “I have cats, oh my God!” They kept calling it a bear paw. I didn’t like that at first, but it’s all subjective. So, people have seen the bear paw. When I was thinking of this one, it’s literal, the ideal bear paw. I was watching something about the Sudanese when they controlled Egypt, and all their hard work and jewelry and the symbolism of the snake on the head. Only the king or the queen could wear it on their head, and that’s why I put the snake on its head and the tribal marks.
Sharon: It’s interesting. How did you segue to what you call the dollies?
Castro: Well, the dollies came out of my fascination with Transformers. My son had a Transformer. They’re like a toy that transforms from a car into a robot, and I said, “I want to do something cool like this with jewelry.” So, I’m sitting there and playing with it for a year or two, never doing anything because everything I was thinking about reminded of the Transformer. I didn’t want someone to say, “Oh, it’s like a Transformer.” It kind of defeats the purpose. But I realized what I was fascinated with was not the Transformer itself, but it was the movement, the free movement, that it moved a lot. That’s what I was fascinated with.
I was with friend at an antique market, and we ran across these porcelain dolls. We thought they were really cool, so she bought them and she was like, “Castro, I want you to do something with these.” I had them for a year. I was sitting on the bench and just kept looking at them. I showed a friend and she said, “Her face is so macabre!” I’ve never heard that word used too much, so I had to look it up. This face was just staring at me, and I had a mask from an old collection. It was a skeleton-like mask, like the skeleton of a building, and I just put it over the doll’s face. I was just tired of looking at it, but I was like, “Oh, that’s freaky. I kind of like that.” I put it on and realized I didn’t see its face anymore, and I thought it was pretty cool. I don’t know what made me wear it out, but I went to an Indian restaurant I always go to, and the Indian women there, they all pointed to it and were like, “Oh my God. What are you doing?” But they said, “The thing on your neck is so cool.” They’re usually pretty particular about what they like.
Then I went to an art gallery to test it. It was the same reaction. Later, I realized the fascination for the women was the movement; the legs and arms were moving constantly. It’s a doll; it’s a toy, but it evolved. Actually, the head didn’t open and close on those originally. It was in the cage, the mask. I was at another restaurant and the store lady, Zekrom Goldman of the store Zekrom, she said, “Castro, that’s so weird and crazy, and I’m going to take it. Someone’s going to buy it.” I was like, “No one’s going to buy it. Get out of here,” but she said, “Give it to me. I can sell it.” She had it, I think, for a week. I was going to Paris, so I said that I wanted it back, but she said she couldn’t give it back to me. I was like, “What do you mean you can’t give it back?” I had an attitude about it, and she was like, “Because we sold it. A customer loved it. It was so weird and crazy and odd, but she loved it.” So, there’s some lady walking around with this piece that I think is really cool, a piece of my art that came straight from my heart, and this person has it. So, I started making another one, and they came from that. Another client said, “Oh, I love it. I like how the wings come at you. I want mine to be like an angel,” and it evolved from those things. From that came the other ones, which were like monkeys. There are different ones. Those are metal because the porcelain ones aren’t for people who are going bungee jumping.
Sharon: The padlocks you do, how did you get that idea?
Castro: Those are affinity locks. For the circular part, I didn’t want the classic shape. Some of them do have that classic top, but not the first ones. The idea was a circle and having a break in a circle, like how life is continuous, but sometimes you have to take a break in your life and stop and reflect. My mother used to say, “People have to relive that time in their life when they realized they loved each other.” You have to constantly stop your life and go back and relive it, whatever that is. If it’s eating a cake on a roller coaster together that one time, you have to go back and do it. Then you get refreshed again and you go, “So this is why we were together. I forgot about it.” You have kids; you have a family; you have a job, so you have to go back to that life and do that same thing.
The other part is that I was on the street one day, and I bought a lock from a place. I just put it on a chain, threw it on there, and then I sold it on the street; that’s what you do. At that time, I bought all of them so no one else could have any and I could corner the market. Years later, after I stopped selling it, I saw this lady on the street and I was like, “Aha! I know that.” I stopped her and said, “That’s my piece. You had to have to bought it on the street when I was selling it,” but she said, “No, I bought it in Brooklyn at a market.” I was like, “Oh my God, this is a disaster.” So, I recreated the locks in different shapes and in different ways with different mechanisms so they would be mine. I didn’t want this happening again, but it was what we did on the street.
Sharon: How did you make the jump? You’re not selling on the street anymore, as far as I know. How did you make the jump to stores and shows and buyers?
Castro: It happened in a couple of ways. Being on the street in Soho, at our location on the side of Prada, next to what is now Ralph Lauren, I met a multitude of people. I met this girl when I first came to New York named Jules. She had a brand called By Jules, and she was an encourager, like, “You’ve got to move to the next step.” I also met these guys named Ron and David. They have a store called Ten Thousand Things, and when I met them, they were like, “Why are you on the street? You’ve got this fire. We’re going to introduce you to this lady named Linda Dressner.” She had a little showroom at that time and she bought some pieces. She introduced me to some other people. I also met this lady, Lauren Robkin.
Sharon: And you go to shows. Do you have a parent show?
Castro: I used to work with a showroom. Actually, I need to go backwards on that. I went to Paris to work for a lady, Juliana Mikamodi. She does jewelry, and I was an assistant. In Paris, I met a Japanese person who had a brand called If Six Was Nine LTD. They were my first international—actually, the first person to buy my jewelry.
Sharon: What was the brand called?
Castro: If Six Was Nine LTD. They bought my first collection, and that brought it to Japan. They put me next to Chrome Hearts Gold and Diamond Collection and they were like, “Send us a pro forma invoice.” I said, “Why can’t you just pay me now?” But from that, that’s when I left the street. I started working with different showrooms, which wasn’t my fit, and then eventually I opened up my own showroom. From that, I went to the next step, which was showing in Place Vendôme at the hotel. You can’t see anything in there, it’s so dark. That was the next experiment, because I realized I didn’t like waiting for people. From that, I moved on and now it’s mostly private. I have an agent here and I sell to a few stores in the United States. Everything’s small. I don’t want to be big, because before I was selling to many stores, and I realized all I did was work for them. That’s how it became.
Sharon: I read that you only make 35 pieces a year, something like that.
Castro: It just depends. Sometimes it’s smaller, sometimes it’s more. I don’t really set a number and say, “This is how many I’m going to make.” I’m just going to make it. Whatever’s done is done, and that’s it.
Sharon: And I guess it depends if you’re on lockdown or not and have more time to work.
Castro: Yeah, yeah.
Sharon: You talked about the challenges of being a Black jewelry designer, and it really struck me. I thought, “Oh my gosh, I think you’re the only one I know.” I don’t run into them very often. There are challenges besides just setting up and running a business, which is a challenge in and of itself. Tell us about the challenges you’ve encountered as a Black person designing jewelry. You’re selling very nice—it’s not like Cartier, as in it’s not covered with diamonds, but it’s high end; it’s very nice. You’re not selling little trinkets.
Castro: It’s different experiences. I think it’s more about people’s perceptions, especially when I give a price. I’m thinking, “Would you ask that question if it was JAR?” And I get it even from my own people. They’ll say, “You should think about making it cheaper, more affordable,” and I’m like, “Well, what is affordable?” because I don’t know what that means. It’s according to whatever your priorities are. Those are the types of things I’ve run across, but I think it’s a closed society, the gem and jewelry world. As an example, I met with a lady when I was at the last show in Italy. She was speaking about how she goes to a person and she sees a ruby. They say, “O.K., it’s $50,000,” and she’s like, “I’m going to take it with me and test it, and if it’s good, then we’ll take it with no money down.” I was like, “Oh, wow!” I can’t do that. They’re going to be like, “Excuse me. What are you going to do?” There’s a natural distrust. I don’t know if it’s because of race or whatever, but the issue is it’s something that’s planted deep in their head. It’s like, “I don’t know if I could trust this guy,” where other people can just walk up and walk off with that stone like it’s nothing. So, of course, you’ve got those challenges.
I am a male, so I don’t run across some of the things that maybe a female or a Black female will probably run across. I’ve heard many good stories and horror stories. Also, the male thing is an ego thing, because sometimes you’re dealing with people and their ego is involved. Being African and Black, there’s another field I’ve got to cross. I have to stand my ground and, at the same time, not push it too far. So yeah, you’ve got to pay more along the way. It’s not the same ride.
Sharon: I’m sure it’s more challenging.
Castro: Yeah, it is what it is. Sometimes with jewelry, I feel like people want me to perform. I generally don’t like that part, so I don’t do that. I don’t tap dance.
Sharon: What do you mean perform? Do they want you to sell it more?
Castro: Sometimes people—I’m trying to explain performing—they want you to code switch and be something you’re not to make them feel comfortable. Sometimes, when you’re just who you are, they consider that abrasive or hard to deal with or whatever.
Sharon: That’s interesting. In today’s world, are you meeting more Black people, male or female, who are designing jewelry? Is it opening up?
Castro: Yes, actually. I started getting more involved when a journalist was like, “I don’t know any of these fine jewelers,” and I said, “Well, you’re not looking, because we’re here.” Maybe I wasn’t looking either, because I was busy doing my thing; you know what I mean? The world was different. We were doing what we do. If you’re a journalist, you know what’s hot, what’s in their face, and that’s how it is. Obviously, we’ve been able to meet a lot more people, at least online, and contact them. That’s been pretty hot. I’ve linked up with a few, which is cool.
Sharon: That’s great. You live in Istanbul now. You’ve traveled all over the world, it sounds like.
Castro: Not all the way. I’m trying to get all the way around the world.
Sharon: How long have you lived in Istanbul?
Castro: I thought it was 2016, but it’s actually the end of 2015. I saw an old picture and I was like, “Wow.”
Sharon: And why did you, at least for the time being, land in Istanbul?
Castro: The big chunk of it was a business decision. I met an agent in Paris who represented some other bigger people, and I thought it was an opportunity to stick my pen into a different area of the world I didn’t have experience in. So, I came here to visit. I liked it, and then we decided to try to do business together here. At that time, I decided, “What the heck, let me come over here for three months.” Before I knew it, there were a lot of things that happened here. There are bad people, terrorists, trying to unsettle the country, but the people along with me, we stayed and made it better.
Sharon: You don’t have to convince me. I love Istanbul. I love Turkey in general, despite the politics. Istanbul is a fabulous city. Where do you think you might go next, or where would you go?
Castro: Definitely Africa somewhere, hopefully West Africa; maybe East Africa. I’m not exactly sure. I have to go back and check. I want to set up something where I’m benefitting my people in some way with education. I’m not saying that people don’t know things, but with youth, early youth, I’d like to create a guild system teaching people different aspects of the business, from marketing to making, because there are so many aspects. You don’t have to be in just one part of it. I’d like to show people that there are other ways of doing things and to motivate them in different ways, then set up a thing there where I’m producing there and using the minerals and resources that are already there, because I think it’s important. If you don’t do something that can benefit your people, what is the use of you being on earth?
Sharon: It’s interesting. You are an example of somebody who didn’t study for years to do this. You took a weekend course and made it work.
Castro: Well, it was an accelerated course. It was like 12, 14 hours a day. It was insane. I would see it in fives and tens by the end, and it was really pounding it out. At that time, the course was equal to a month’s course but crunched together. I remember everything my teacher taught me, but in the end you still need to have experience. You’re getting a crash course, but it’s like how you can go to school to be a surgeon, but that doesn’t make you a surgeon.
Sharon: Right, but you taught yourself everything. You have to have that motivation. Where do you want to take your business from here? Not physically, but what are your plans for your business?
Castro: That’s a tricky one, because everything’s changed. I’m curious to see what’s going on with the digital situation, which I was against, but at this time I’m not able to meet people one on one. This is the future of education. I happened to structure the business so I can educate the customer on what I have and how I can offer to make their dreams come true, and mine too. This is the future. I don’t think it’s going to change much. I will still, hopefully, be meeting customers personally, but you can’t travel as much. They say there’s a vaccine; I don’t know if it’s true or not, but even with that, it’s taking the system and figuring out how to make a virtual world with the jewelry, and how to reach out and touch the customer. That’s the new challenge.
Sharon: Yeah, it’s a challenge. So many people have said in the past, “Oh, I have to be able to try it on and look at it and touch it.” We still want to do that, of course, but I agree with you. The world is different now, and I think there’s going to be a permanent change.
Castro: Oh yeah, it already is.
Sharon: Were you on Instagram before this change in the world?
Castro: Oh yeah, of course. I was lazy like most people, but when all this happened, it put us in another realm. At that time, I had already made a decision right before it happened that I was going to delete all the pictures on my page and start fresh. I wanted to have it more organized. Of course, I didn’t know at that time that you should archive, not delete it. I was like a baby, because I would tell someone, “Oh my God, I don’t have that many hits.” But it was O.K., because I started fresh again. People can see what I do, but fresh, without a bunch of mess in the way. Also, it allowed me to figure out how to organize, how I wanted to systematically release these images. That was cool, and it also put me in touch with a lot of other designers, editors, a lot of different people, because we were all on there and more open than we would have been at any other time. If someone contacted me before, I probably wouldn’t have even noticed it, to be honest.
Sharon: There are so many jewelers that resisted being online. If you’re going to sell right now, there’s no choice. If you’re going to continue a business, you have to be. It’s nice for a consumer like me, because there’s so much more you see as opposed to a couple of years ago.
Castro: Yeah, I agree. There’s good and bad. You have the copycats. It’s good to see more, but we as creators and designers, we still make the choice to post it. It’s in the disclaimer. You know what I mean? Unless you make it private. I do have a couple people I know, designers that are private on their page; they won’t allow people in. Maybe they have a built-in clientele already, but whatever we do, it’s always going to be experimental. The goal is something else. I mean, look at Fuji. Fuji originally was part of the Japanese military. They made telescopes for submarines, and when the war was over, they turned from generals to making cameras.
Sharon: Interesting, yeah.
Castro: You have to innovate sometimes. You have no choice.
Sharon: Well, Castro, thank you so much for being with us. Your work is so unique, so different, and it’s so interesting to hear the story of how you’ve made it work, not just that you set out to be a jeweler, but to become an entrepreneur and teach yourself and be out in the streets. Thank you so much for sharing that with us. I look forwarding to talking with you again.
Castro: All right, super.
Sharon: That’s all for today’s Jewelry Journey. Don’t forget we’ll have images posted on the website. You can find us wherever you download your podcasts, and please rate us. Please join us next time, when our guest will be another jewelry industry professional who will share their experience and expertise. Thank you so much for listening.