Home - T Singapore

Person to Know: An Artist Who Engraves His Mythical Illustrations on Rings

By Lynette Kee

Inside his studio under the Sarabande foundation in East London, Castro Smith is surrounded by tools he learnt to make himself.
 
Courtesy of Castro Smith
Inside his studio under the Sarabande foundation in East London, Castro Smith is surrounded by tools he learnt to make himself.

Many indigenous crafts are suffering the fate of possible extinction. Especially in modern metropolises, crafts are vanishing due to their time-consuming nature and the lack of people specialising in these skills.

Engraving is an ancient art form — a practice of carving onto solid materials which dates back to the Mesopotamians in the year 5000 BC, when intricate motifs were cut into the flat undersides of scarp stones. In jewellery, early signet rings were found in ancient Egypt and ancient Greece inscribed with family symbols, which were used as identification seals. Today, this rare craft is kept alive largely by luxury watches and jewellery houses such as Patek Philippe and Piaget (amongst others), where dedicated artisans spend tireless hours tracing furrowed lines and curves — their skills passed down from generations of artisans before.

For Castro Smith, engraving is a technique that realises his artistic creativity, a fundamental tool that pushes his imagination to come up with beautifully crafted jewellery. Smith is better known for his intricate designs, rather than being a jeweller or an engraver. Yet he often finds himself chasing after disappearing craft workshops during his travels. “I want to record them before they are gone,” he says.

Courtesy of Castro Smith
 
Courtesy of Castro SmithAs a former art student, Smith applied his skills in pen and ink onto the noble art form of engraving.
As a former art student, Smith applied his skills in pen and ink onto the noble art form of engraving.

Smith contemplates the increasing appreciation for craftsmanship today. “I think it’s having a bit of a revival,” while admitting that “it’s a very late revival”. “These are the kinds of languages that are not written down — they are memories that live on your arm and in your mind,” Smith says “You can buy some books on it for sure, but it’s very hard to change that language into the action of technique and the precision of skill.” Out of his mouth, these words paint a picture of his own personal experience when it came to learning his craft.

The 31-year-old wasn’t always interested in the art of engraving. Smith was working as a bartender before he decided he wanted to work in computer game design or film. But his passion for drawing eventually steered him to apply for an engraving apprenticeship, where he was trained for groundwork, quite literally, in the basement of the workshop, polishing sheets of metal while catching glimpses of the actual engraving work, before practising it himself at the end of the day for the next five years. He didn’t like it. But having gone through a transient cold spell (his free-spirited nature landed him in a period where he was in and out of work in search for a creative spark), Smith’s inclination to settle on something made him determined.

Later on, he was awarded the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust scholarship, which he used to travel to Japan to train for a year with Kenji Io (one of Japan’s most celebrated metalsmiths) before making his way back to London, equipped with a more diversified skillset and a creative thought process.

Courtesy of Castro SmithSmith’s storytelling pieces ranges from naturalistic to mythologically-inspired.
Smith’s storytelling pieces ranges from naturalistic to mythologically-inspired.

Having his own brand finally allowed Smith creative freedom. With his craft, he took signet rings out of its traditional association with heraldic symbols. Instead, most of his illustrations extend beyond the flat bezel, rendering the ring an object that tells a story all around. One of his most popular pieces — the Golden Heart, was inspired by a mythological belief that engraving a failing organ on a wearer’s ring would lead to healing. “And so, I wanted to make myself lungs because I have asthma,” he says.

Through his work, Smith has come to realise that he much prefers designing commissioned pieces. “You go to an exhibition or a gallery and the concept is for the artist to translate their vision of the world,” he says, “What’s more important for me, is not for my point of view to get to the world — I’m more interested in creating the right kind of representation for each individual customer.” Everybody has memories and their vision of the world — for Smith, his lifework is to cement them in objects that will last through generations.

In an era where crafts are threatened by the rise of machinery and technology, many products have, as a result, lost their individuality and quality. For the creator, a part of the artistic process is also lost. Smith recalls a time in his youth when drawing was a form of fantastical escapism for him, saying, “I don’t often enjoy what I’ve drawn. Mostly I don’t even like the piece that much, I just enjoy the process of it. It takes you to the same places that books take you.”

Courtesy of Castro SmithOne of Smith‘s signature self-produced designs, the Golden Heart ring holds a special meaning to Smith — the blossoming flowers represent healing.
One of Smith‘s signature self-produced designs, the Golden Heart ring holds a special meaning to Smith — the blossoming flowers represent healing.

“Machines are not able to do those things,” he says. “People don’t just collect antiques because of the physical object. They hold dearer to their hearts the memories that that object has been around.” When a customer buys a Castro Smith ring, he essentially buys the experience Smith has curated for them — from the initial conversation with the artist, to talking and reliving the memories in their mind before finally receiving the item, months later, only to relive it again. Most of them are happy to be a part of that expensive and lengthy process. “There’s one customer,” Smith says, “I swear he’s been waiting two years to propose to his girlfriend!”

In a way, Smith has deeply embedded his belief in the importance of craftsmanship directly into the rings that he eventually passes on to the people who buy them. “We are people who believe in magic,” he says, “It’s not just about the object. The more important part is everything else.”