by Cristina Correa | Photography by Jazmin Corona
Mano y Metalís Desiree Castro welcomed us into her colorful jewelry studio and, over homemade cake, sat down with us to talk shop.

In a constantly growing corner of the Desiree Castroís living room, the Mano y Metal studio is a vibrant den of color: glimmering piles of unused or discarded metal, neatly hung tools and ornate displays of earrings and bracelets stamped with unique messages (ďwearable art for women,Ē she calls it). Lit by the waning sun on a chilly winter afternoon, Desiree tells us over (the most delicious vegan flourless chocolate) cake (with raspberry sauce!) how inseparable she and her business truly are.

Q:On your website you talk about choosing metal because itís resilient to all of your emotions. How do you see jewelry-making as a healing art?

A mother contacted me to make a [custom] bracelet for her daughter. Seven months later, she [contacted me again and] told me her daughter had passed away, and she wanted me to make custom pieces for her classmates because they were graduating. I had no idea Iíd be creating these pieces that were so full of love, pain, life, passion... it was like capturing this person in this quote the mother had selected. It was so emotional to create those. I canít not feel when I make [jewelry]. Iím able to connect with people in different places that I would never meet otherwise by creating these pieces that mean something for them. If theyíre going through a crisis in life and they need a quote that speaks to them to keep them going when they want to give up. Itís super cool to connect with people like that. I try to choose quotes that lean towards empowerment but also embracing your individual characteristics. I think flaws are beautiful.

Q:What do you think people enjoy most about your pieces? Is there something to how the metal silently but boldly says what we wish we could speak aloud?

I like the reactions at craft shows. A lady maybe in her fifties came by and she was pushing her elderly mother in a wheelchair and then they went by the Eff Bomb collectionóit says ďF**k Off,Ē ďF**k Yea,Ē ďF**k This.Ē And I was [thinking] ďNo! Donít go over there! Itís so obnoxious!Ē So she says ďLetís see what this says, Mom.Ē And some of them said Faith and Love, and then she turned to Eff Bomb. And I was tense because I was going to absorb their reaction, youíre very exposed [in that setting]. And her mom says ďThatís funny!Ē And she bought one that said ďF**k OffĒ and wore it in her wheelchair. Things like that happen so that I can check myself. It has been super interesting to dismantle the idea of who might buy from me. Itís not a set person. The pieces are so much about who they are inside. Itís cool to realize that age and gender and race are so fluid when it comes to art and creation. People send me messages saying ďI love this piece because it speaks to me and I needed to see this today.Ē

ďIím able to connect with people in different places that I would never meet otherwise by creating these pieces that mean something for them.Ē
Q: Is there any message youíve put on metal or a moment of creation that has surprised you?

I think I write to people through my pieces. Sometimes Iíll have people in my head when Iím stamping messages out. I was annoyed one week with a [personal] situation, and I was thinking, ďWhy donít people just own it?Ē So I freestyled what ended up being my longest quote ever. It was like a journal entry. ďAll I ask is that you own it. If youíre a jerk, own it. If youíre a hopeless romantic, then own it...Ē I just went on and on. Once I put it all on [metal], I felt so much better. And because it wasnít premeditated, there [were] a lot of typos, but I kept going and told myself ďDonít stop.Ē I think itís therapeutic when I write to people. Itís hard to say these things to a person. If I have someone in mind, itís a nice way to express my feelings about them neutrally.

Q: How would you describe yourself as an individual and artist? And how do these roles play into your companyís goals and aesthetics?

I like being honest about things. Iím not perfect. I pretend to listen sometimes. I have a short attention span. I believe in vampires. This is who I am, and this is who is making these pieces. Iím also very private. I donít like to talk about feelings so much. But I will stamp things on metal. Itís become a safety for me to write out how I feel on these pieces versus me actually speaking. [Mano y Metal] has helped me to let down my guard because itís [so] public. There was a phrase I wrote: You call me crazy like itís a bad thing, donít you know crazy is the essence of my beauty? I felt like it was too private, but then people said ďI love that! People call me crazy all the time, but that is my beauty!Ē And I thought, yeah, celebrate the crazy! Why is it bad? Remove that negativity. Thatís when I started to relax a little through my pieces and show my face a little, also, when I model my pieces. And it kind of brought the whole image together. I was out there. There was no going back. So itís been a learning journey, really coming to terms with being exposed. Now Iím comfortable with it.

Q:How does your personal growth contribute to the growth of Mano y Metal?

Iíve matured and grown through Mano y Metal and Mano y Metal has matured and grown through me. Itís definitely inseparable at this point. Itís such a big part of my life. Sometimes Iím at work or in a conversation that doesnít really stimulate me beyond my short attention span, and Iím thinking about Mano y Metal. I think itís really helped me come to terms with all the things it was so difficult for me to accept about myself growing up. Definitely as Iíve gotten older, Iíve embraced myself a lot more and realized that people accept you if you accept yourself.

ďIíve matured and grown through Mano y Metal and Mano y Metal has matured and grown through me. Itís definitely inseparable at this point.Ē
Q: Is there anything about the business aspect thatís been surprising to you?

The business aspect has been nothing but trial and error. Itís difficult because Iím alone in this, so I donít have anyone to say ďmaybe you shouldnít buy that right nowĒ or ďhere, Iíll do a spreadsheet of your inventory.Ē So itís hard to juggle sometimes and things just fall off my plate, especially as Iíve gotten busier. Things were easier before when my inventory and range were smaller. But Iíve developed artistically and professionally. I tell people who want to start a business when youíre serious about it Iíll get coffee with you and tell you everything you shouldnít do because I wish someone had done that for me. [When I started] my son would play in the front stoop and Iíd sit out there with him and hammer things together. And I made so many that I [decided to sell] them in craft shows. I told myself, you donít have time for a hobby. If youíre going to this, then youíre going to do it. And thatís why I think Iíve gotten this far, because I made that choice since the very beginning. And it just snowballed from there. I taught myself how to do resin to put images on things. But I wanted to use words, so then I taught myself how to hand-stamp. And I wanted to move on from earrings. And there was no stopping after that. I wanted more. Since the very beginning thatís what I told myself. You do it 100%. I think thatís super important in making the decision to run a small business. ďAre you gonna do this for real?Ē [There will] be sleepless nights, hard work, frustration, tons of error. I remember my friend asked me when I told her I wanted to do this seriously, ďDo you want to commit to craft shows? Running an online shop? Marketing? Making an Etsy page? Taking pictures?Ē I didnít know and I just kept making earrings. She scared me. I donít like committing to a lot of things. But once I make the decision, I go full force.

Q: Where do you want to see this work being displayed or sold?

I have friends who are pushing their [crafts] to the Grammys and stuff like that, but my [jewelry] is not for that. Initially it started just for me, and as luck would have it thereís just a following. Thatís why I keep my prices low, I want it to be accessible whether youíre a teenager on allowance or a working woman. If you want the freaking ring, you can get it. There are a lot of fellow crafters and artists who tell me I need to charge more. But itís not this exclusive thing, thatís why Iím doing it. Iím doing it to be inclusive and celebrate peopleís characters.

Q: How does this work connect you to others?

The very first time I sold overseas, it was a pair of Frida [Kahlo] earrings and I wrote the girl and gave her an extra pair and told her ďYou donít understand how excited I am, this is a huge milestone for me.Ē She wrote me back and said ďI may be your first, but Iím sure I wonít be your last.Ē And, sure enough, she was right. My work has shipped to Germany, UK, Taiwan, France, Italy, Australia, New Zealandóall the places I want to travel. So there [are these] little pieces of me, extensions of myself [that are] created by my hands in this little corner at night, and they are travelling all over the world. I keep saying ďCan I please go with the package?Ē Itís amazing.

Q: Who wears your jewelry? Anyone we might know?

A lot of Chicago actresses. Dominzuelan [a Dominican and Venezuelan comedy duo] have been very supportive. They like custom pieces. One of the actresses, Lorena, is a little shy, so she says she likes wearing my jewelry because itís a great conversation starter and then we start talking and relax because the pressure was off. A lot of friends and family have been super-supportive and given them as gifts to their relatives. Tanya Saracho wears a lot of my stuff too. Sheís a playwright and she gets a lot of custom pieces and she said, ďI know I looked silly but I wore all my custom pieces to my opening.Ē And I said ďGirl, do what you gotta do! You look beautiful.Ē Iíve had directors call me about personalized gifts they wanted to give to their cast.

Q: What more can we expect to see from Mano y Metal in the future?

I want to explore working with enamel and learning how to make fine jewelry. Not like a pearl on a strand of silver, but something I can still put my twist on. [I look forward to] taking classes to nurture my growth now that I have a foundation. I want to explore making more pieces for men and for the homeómini-statement pieces. I want to make business card holders with stamped messages. Jewelry is my core, but I want to make functional items too. The conception is that artists have an artist studio. Honestly, I like to be able to work in my slippers,

ďSo there [are these] little pieces of me, extensions of myself [that are] created by my hands in this little corner at night, and they are travelling all over the world.Ē
get up and walk over to the refrigerator and eat some awesome homemade flourless chocolate cake. I like the studio being an extension of my home because it keeps me comfortable and I need to be comfortable to create. And it also has the warmth of my home, which helps with the creation process. I think if I were ever to get a studio separate from my home it would have to be a coach house where I just cross the yard, or if not Iím going to get separation anxiety from my tools.

Q: On your blog, you confessed to brainstorming while pretending to listen to people. Any new ideas in the last hour or so?

Iíve actually been pretty focused! Youíre keeping me on my toes. If people were all keeping me on my toes, Iíd be more engaged. Iím always thinking of productivity. I hate when people are bored. Come clean my toilet if youíre bored! My son is not allowed to say heís bored. Thereís always something to do: draw, paint, do homework, you can help me. I do this a lot at meetings, I bring a pad and draw designs and start brainstorming quotes and just go ďMmhmmĒ as we watch the Powerpoint. I try to hang around with only interesting people because itís not going to go well otherwise.