Terry Castro, a proud outsider in the world of jewelry, dies at 50

Terry Castro, a New York-based jewelry designer whose ability to mix the fantastical with the elegant propelled him from selling on the sidewalks of New York to adorning celebrities such as Rihanna and Steven Tyler, died on July 18 at his home in Istanbul. He was 50 years old.

The cause was a heart attack, said his son, Sir King Castro.

Castro, who worked under the sole name of Castro, considered himself a “dream maker.” He scoured antique and thrift stores for inspiration for his brash yet sumptuous pieces, which blended animal and human forms and invoked African influences with medieval and galactic imagery. He produced only about 35 pieces a year, by hand, but saw his work on the covers of Vogue Latin America, Forbes, and Hamptons magazines, and in the 2013 feature film “Out of the Furnace.”

For Mr. Castro, jewelry was not just a fashion accessory. “Rather than being an independent designer, he lived and operated as an artist,” said Nghi Nguyen, a Brooklyn-based jewelry designer and close friend. “Your work of his could be classified as high art jewelry. It’s a museum-quality, wearable sculpture.”

Sometimes he had prices to match. An antique bisque doll necklace, part of her Dollies series, crafted from tiny porcelain dolls, featuring vibrant wings and a removable mask, as well as diamonds and other precious gems, recently sold for more than $100,000, said Sir King Castro in an interview.

Friends said that as a largely self-taught black designer, Castro prided himself on being an outsider in the world of fine jewelry. “The jewelry industry prides itself on generational wealth and access to materials and resources,” said Jules Kim, a friend and fellow jeweler. “People who aren’t born into it have to rely on whatever agency they have. Castro lived creating his own traditions.”

Passionate and sometimes confrontational, Mr. Castro considered himself a rebel within the industry.

“I make what I want; if you don’t like it, don’t buy it,” he said in a 2012 interview with The Black Nouveau, a style blog. Recounting his scattered efforts to “go commercial,” he concluded that revenue is not they were worth the creative price paid.

“My real accounts turned against me,” he said. “I was branded a traitor, and now I’m back on the dark side. If you don’t have the strength, stay away from me.”

But that uncompromising attitude seemed to attract people.

In 2020, De Beers, one of the world’s largest diamond producers, partnered with Hollywood activist group Red Carpet Advocacy to showcase Castro and five other black designers in a campaign called #BlackisBrilliant. The campaign outfitted celebrities with ethically sourced diamond jewelry from Botswana to wear to galas and award ceremonies.

“We approached Castro about participating because, just by looking at some of his locks and doll pieces, we knew he had a rare talent,” Sally Morrison, director of natural diamond public relations for De Beers Group, wrote in an email.

Last September, Sotheby’s featured Mr. Castro’s work in an exhibition called “Brilliant & Black: A Jewelry Renaissance,” featuring 21 black designers. At its opening in New York, “people literally danced on the exhibit and cried,” said Melanie Grant, a noted jewelry writer who curated the exhibit. And Mr. Castro, with his outgoing nature and charismatic presence, was a natural star of the show.

“It’s still difficult for black designers to get access to high-end collectors,” Ms. Grant said. “But I like to think that we made a difference, and Castro was a big part of that.”

Terry Clifford Castro was born in Toledo, Ohio, on January 26, 1972, the son of Mary Castro, who sold antiques and collectibles, and a father he never knew. In 1989 his mother married Paul Geller, a lawyer.

As a young man, Castro fell into street life and spent brief stints in jail, Sir King Castro said. In 1999, he married Belinda Castro (her last name, coincidentally, was the same as his). That same year the couple had a son, who was given the bombastic name of Sir King Raymundo Castro.

Castro became interested in jewelry repair after taking a weekend course, his ex-wife, now Belinda Strode, said in an interview. Over time, he and his wife opened a small jewelry store called C & C Jewelers in Toledo, where he made repairs and sold the work of other designers. Within a few years he began designing his own jewelry, using scrap from a junkyard, his ex-wife said.

Both the marriage and the store turned out to be short-lived. In the early 2000s, Castro moved to Chicago, where she decided to turn her lifelong interest in fashion into a career, her half-brother, Aaron Geller, said in an interview.

He briefly ran his own clothing line in his adopted hometown, where he cut an impressive figure in techno clubs and trendy boutiques. “He used to wear these spurs on the back of his boots,” recalls Ayana Haaruun, a close friend from those years. “He thought he was so fly. We used to call him Lenny Kravitz.”

In 2005, Mr. Castro moved to New York, where he started his own line of jewelry, Castro NYC, which he sold on the sidewalks of SoHo. His work caught the attention of stylists and fashion editors passing through the neighborhood, and before long he was expanding the business and traveling to fashion weeks in Europe and Japan to showcase his work.

As Mr. Castro rose in the industry, he continued to question assumptions about race. “Personally, I don’t think you can be black, African, and your work doesn’t reflect a part of Africa or Africanism, because we live in this world where we have to think about a lot of other things that other people don’t. I have to think about one day,” he said in an interview last year with the fashion website Magnus Oculus.

He also continued to challenge himself, following his insatiable curiosity and itinerant nature to move to Istanbul in 2016.

In addition to his son and half brother, Mr. Castro is survived by his mother and stepfather.

Although his work celebrated life in all its color and complexity, death was always a subject of fascination for Mr. Castro; skulls, both animal and human, were a common motif.

But his interest in the subject was not morbid. “With the skull itself, it’s in you, it’s part of you, it’s part of life, but it’s also part of death,” he said in the Magnus Oculus interview. “With some black people, they’ll see a skull and say, ‘Oh God, it’s voodoo and evil,’ and I’ll say, ‘Well, that means you’re evil too, because you have a skull inside. your head. You’re walking around with that thing.’”

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