‘I’m always thinking about the story that goes around each ring’, says Castro Smith, the engraver’s apprentice turned jewellery designer currently making waves with his intricate signet rings. Modest and self-depreciating, Smith puts his success down to being ‘very lucky’; in truth the depth of his talent is evident in each hand-carved piece.
The one-of-a-kind rings are each designed and created by Castro himself — unique works of art carved in the traditional seal engraving style, with a few of the artists own twists. From his workshop, against the background hum of bench activity, he told us more about his Japanese inspirations, love of Biology and passion for drawing.
Do you draw every day?
I draw all the time. If I go somewhere — museums, the bus, the train. If I don’t have any paper, I just grab toilet paper. The notes around my work are from books I am listening to – normally biology books – I am a bit of a biology geek.
Where do your ideas derive from?
I might see some squid at the fish market, and think it would be cool if their tentacles turned into flowers. Sometimes my motifs are more obvious, the heart with flowers coming from the arteries is popular. Thistles are one of my favourite plants. And weeds, they’re forgotten about. When I see my dad in Newcastle and go walking, there are slugs climbing over thorny weeds, I like the idea that a slug and a weed can be beautiful. People love birds, dragons, lions. One of my favourite crests is the boar, it’s lovely, strong, distinct.
Did you always want to be an engraver?
I didn’t set out to be an engraver. I was working in a bar, applying for jobs and saw a listing for an engraver. I studied illustration and print, but I was much more a painterly artist, so I looked at lots of old engraving images and changed my style.
I wanted to do computer game design, I used to be a big gamer. Now everything I do is handmade, I hardly ever use a computer. The point of engraving yourself is that you adapt it as you go — you see the form and the shape of the ring, or piece, and you can change the balance.
And your training?
I trained for 3-5 years as an apprentice with RH Wilkins engravers in Hatton Garden; polishing for a couple of years, cutting plaques, learning from other craftsmen. Globally there are very few in the engraving trade, but it’s had a recent resurgence, now there are part-time craftsmen and people that do it as a hobby.
You recently won an award to fund a trip to Japan. Tell me about the trip?
I went over to Japan to learn about wabori — a Japanese style of chisel engraving — to bring it back to the UK. When I found the workshops, they didn’t want to teach. So I decided to find out about cross-culture fertilisation; how skills are shared globally and create styles.
A well-known silversmith, Hiroshi Suzuki, came from Japan to study in the UK (at the RCA). He’s pushed new aesthetic values in the UK and Japan. Cross-cultural fertilisation had helped him; going somewhere else to find ideas — so he introduced me to Kenji Io, (head of Dento Kogei, the leading craft association in Japan) who became my teacher.
What was it that drew you to Japan?
We’ve had an exchange of ideas between Europe and Japan for years. Hokusai and his waves influenced early art deco style. And Japanese landscapes were flat until the European style arrived in Asia and suddenly painting had perspective.
Alot of Japanese techniques relate to Eastern philosophies of nature — the Shinto religion is deeply rooted in the earth. Whereas in Europe, historically our religions in the West were moving away from the earth and into the heavens.
How did your own brand come about?
It was very lucky. In the summer of 2016, before I left for Japan, Dickon Bowden, vice-president at Dover Street Market, found me on instagram and asked me to produce some pieces. In two weeks, I made a set of rings. I think my work has gained attention through instagram and other media outlets — in the chaos of information it’s difficult to know where it’s coming from.
How did your style develop?
I had the deadline for DSM, and was rushing to finish. If you make a mistake with seal engraving, it’s difficult to rectify — there’s no rubber. I made a couple of slips with my tool and had no time to restart. So, I engraved around the whole piece with seal engravings, which people wouldn’t do traditionally, because you can’t stamp the sides of the ring. So the aesthetic evolved from a slip.
So tell me a bit more about seal engraving?
You’re creating an inverted, reflected carving, so you need to think as if you’re cutting in a mirror. You start with a drawing of the finished piece; the stamp — to look at as you carve. In the beginning I found it very difficult — I used headgear to magnify so you can see tiny details. Now I do it by eye — it takes time to get used to, but your brain learns.
You’ve mentioned Rene Lalique as an inspiration, what draws you to him?
I’m drawn to biology and nature, I’m often reading biologists; Dawkins, Wallis, Darwin. And I’m really interested in history’s stories and narratives. Rene Lalique uses iconography, symbolism, mythology, wrapped up in modern images. When he designed something, he drew it, then inlaid it and it becomes 3D — that takes a very skilled craftsman.
Do you see a piece as an extension of your paper?
Exactly, I draw every day. You can’t plan it out too much; once you’ve cut into the metal, you adjust everything as you go, using your brain more than using your tools. I trained with a guy called Ford Halham who has a philosophy that all your skills are one skill, like branches of a tree. Seal engraving comes down to hand-to-eye coordination and how your brain compiles the images. If you can work on your root, your coordination, your drawing, it will sharpen your work.