Terry Castro, a New York-based jewelry designer whose knack for blending the fantastical with the elegant propelled him from selling on the sidewalks of New York to adorning celebrities like Rihanna and Steven Tyler, died on July 18 at his home in Istanbul. He was 50.
The cause was a heart attack, his son, Sir King Castro, said.
Mr. Castro, who worked under the single name Castro, considered himself a “creator of dreams.” He scoured antique shops and thrift stores for inspiration for his cheeky yet sumptuous pieces, which mixed animal and human forms and invoked African influences with medieval and galactic imagery. He produced only about 35 pieces a year, by hand, but he saw his work featured on the covers of Vogue Latin America, Forbes and Hamptons magazines, and in the 2013 feature film “Out of the Furnace.”
To Mr. Castro, jewelry was not just a fashion accessory. “More than being an independent designer, he lived and operated as an artist,” said Nghi Nguyen, a Brooklyn-based jewelry designer and close friend. “His work could be categorized as high-art jewelry. It’s wearable, museum-quality sculpture.”
It sometimes had prices to match. An antique bisque doll necklace — part of his signature Dollies series, crafted from tiny porcelain dolls — which features vibrating wings and a removable mask, as well as diamonds and other precious gems, recently sold for more than $100,000, Sir King Castro said in an interview.
Friends said that as a largely self-taught Black designer, Mr. Castro prided himself on being an outsider in the world of fine jewelry. “The jewelry industry is prided on generational wealth and access to materials and resources,” said Jules Kim, a friend and fellow jeweler. “People who are not born into it have to rely on whatever agency they have. Castro lived by creating his own traditions.”
Passionate and at times confrontational, Mr. Castro considered himself a rebel within the industry.
“I do what I want; 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 the income was not worth the creative price paid.
“My real accounts flipped on me,” he said. “I was branded a traitor, and now I’m back to the dark side. If you don’t have the force, stay the hell away from me.”
But that uncompromising attitude instead seemed to draw people in.
In 2020, De Beers, one of the world’s largest diamond producers, partnered with the Hollywood activist group Red Carpet Advocacy to showcase Mr. Castro and five other Black designers in a campaign called #BlackisBrilliant. The campaign outfitted celebrities with jewelry featuring ethically sourced diamonds from Botswana to wear at galas and award ceremonies.
“We approached Castro to participate because, just from looking at a few of his locks and doll pieces, we knew he had a singular talent,” Sally Morrison, De Beers Group’s director of public relations for natural diamonds, 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 into the exhibition and cried,” said Melanie Grant, a prominent jewelry writer who curated the show. And Mr. Castro, with his gregarious nature and charismatic presence, was a natural star of the show.
“It is still hard for Black designers to get access to top-level collectors,” Ms. Grant said. “But I like to think we made a difference, and Castro was an important part of that.”
Terry Clifford Castro was born in Toledo, Ohio, on Jan. 26, 1972, to Mary Castro, who sold antiques and collectibles, and a father he never knew. In 1989 his mother married Paul Geller, a lawyer.
As a youth, Mr. Castro fell into a life on the streets and did brief stints in jail, Sir King Castro said. In 1999, he married Belinda Castro (her surname, coincidentally, was the same as his). That same year the couple had a son, whom they bestowed with the grand-sounding name Sir King Raymundo Castro.
Mr. Castro became interested in jewelry repair after taking a weekend course, his former wife, now Belinda Strode, said in an interview. Eventually he and his wife opened a small jewelry store called C & C Jewelers in Toledo, where he performed repairs and sold the work of other designers. Within a few years he began designing his own jewelry, using scrap metal from a junkyard, his former wife said.
The marriage and the shop both proved to be short-lived. In the early 2000s Mr. Castro moved to Chicago, where he decided to turn his lifelong interest in fashion into a career, his half brother, Aaron Geller, said in an interview.
He briefly ran his own clothing line in his adopted city, where he cut an impressive figure in the techno clubs and fashion boutiques. “He used to wear these spurs on the back of his boots,” recalled 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 jewelry line, Castro NYC, which he sold on the sidewalks of SoHo. His work caught the attention of fashion stylists and editors passing through the neighborhood, and before long he was expanding the business and jetting off to fashion weeks in Europe and Japan to show his work.
As Mr. Castro rose in the industry, he continued to challenge assumptions regarding race. “I personally don’t think you can be Black, African, and your work doesn’t reflect some part of Africa or Africanism, because we live in this world where we have to think about so many other things that other people don’t have to think about in a 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 peripatetic nature to move to Istanbul in 2016.
In addition to his son and his half brother, Mr. Castro is survived by his mother and stepfather.
Although his work celebrated life in all its color and intricacy, 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 is in you, it is part of you, it is part of life, but also part of death,” he said in the Magnus Oculus interview. “With some Black people, they will see a skull and they will be like, ‘Oh God, it’s voodoo and evil,’ and I will be like, ‘Well, that means you’re evil too, because you have a skull inside your head. You’re walking around with that thing.’”