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Desirable Diversion

Inigo Roces
October 9, 2016        |

Weathered Wear

Inside the studio of 13 Lucky Monkeys

Photos: Juanito Vinluan


These silver works are nothing like your average Harry Winston variety. You won’t find these gritty, aged, and personal pieces in many boutiques. Parallel Passion goes to the studio of 13LuckyMonkey to discover the art and attitude behind bespoke jewelry.

It is intricately detailed, bearing a meaningful inscription, accented by tokens of your trade, or even hiding a little secret behind the band that only you can see. It may only be made of silver, brass, copper, or all three. Yet ask the many patrons of 13LuckyMonkey and they will gladly tell you it is their favorite piece.

13LuckyMonkey is a group of bespoke silversmiths. Begun by the duo of Dante Dizon and Noli Coronado in 2008, the two shared a passion for bikes and men’s jewelry.

“We just wanted money to pay for gas and the toll gate, beer and to make a few pieces for ourselves,” jests Noli. “Now we have money for gas and toll but not enough time to ride.”

Though both with their own jobs at the time, the two are quite accomplished artists. Dante, a commercial director at an ad agency, is the group’s conceptualist, sketching out designs as he meets with clients. Noli, who created toys for Marvel, is the sculptor, bringing the pieces to life from clay and wax.

The duo had met with a fellow Japanese rider who offered to sell rings they made. Delighted by the prospect, Dante had sold his bike to start funding the venture. Noli had left toy-making to focus on sculpting metal full time. As they worked on the prototype, their friend had disappeared. The two went on with the project anyway, working on their own personal pieces. A prototype Noli wore drew some attention at a bar they were at, warranting an unsolicited offer from another patron that got higher by the minute.

“We put up a blog to chronicle it,” shares Dante. “I just chronicled the process, along with some random stuff, basically about jewelry. It even had a little bit of riding in it.”

Motivated by the pleasure of riding, the craft served as an outlet, particularly for Noli.

The client's desired piece is first sketched.
The piece is carved to create a mold,then cast.
Once cast, if is then oxidized.

“I came from making toys. They have to be clean, detailed, the anatomy has to be correct. I got burned out. So these first few rings were relatively minimalist and with very little details. The pieces are more raw, not really polished. I want it to have attitude and life. After eight years, I slowly started to add detail.”

Not surprisingly, the duo’s rebellious, gritty style drew interest and soon after, orders started coming in.
“It’s like getting a tattoo,” describes Dante. “Something to commemorate birth of a newborn, death, marriage, we get a lot of that. Everything’s very personal. Some people even write notes to their Mom. For one piece for a tailor, we put buttons and stitches.

“One guy asked for a bear. We asked him how many kids he has and we put in three little bears in a cave behind the band to symbolize his kids. It’s like the lining of a suit. No one else sees that but you. We cross over what we learn from men’s wear.

And like many of those bespoke suits, commissioning a ring from 13LuckyMonkey is very involved process.
“We start with a client brief,” explains Dante. “I get what he wants, I listen to the design base he wants, then I sketch it out. When we agree, he deposits half the amount. Then I come up with a wax prototype. For clients abroad, I shoot a 360 and a video. If they’re happy, we cast.”

“We sit them down for coffee, sometimes for three hours,” add Noli. “We talk with them and get to know them. Sometimes they can’t explain what they want. So we talk to them to discover significant details like birthdays, initials, ashes of loved ones that we can add.”

The group then sends the wax or clay sculpture to their metal caster. A mold is made of the piece, then molten metal is poured in. After it dries, the mold is set in water where it dissolves and is destroyed., leaving just the finished metal cast. Thus, each piece is truly unique.

“After a week, it arrives. We polish, oxidize, take a photo of it, then package it. We used to send them in boxes. One of our friends used a bandana, and we thought it was a good idea. So now it’s wrapped furoshiki style, with a banda and sticker. I’ve even been drawing on packaging. And the clients enjoy it. They even post the package they received.”

Clockwise from top: Ryan Hao, Dante Dizon, Dante Sarno, Noli Coronado, and Donna Tan at their workshop.
When not working on client's pieces, Noli also works on his own custom bikes at the very same workshop
“I realized that, to be a master, you have to be an apprentice all the time, be a student. If I stayed where I was and didn’t improve, my apprentices would catch up to me. And sometimes, apprentices don’t want to surpass their masters. So I have to keep learning so they keep learning. I push them to try to exceed me. I’d be prouder if they were better than me.”

Today, eight years on, 13LuckyMonkey is going through a waitlist of 45 pieces, some from famous clientele like the band, Three Doors Down, the bassist of Weezer, the bassist of Weezer, and even Jeremy Renner who commissioned a Hawkeye-inspired ring. The duo has grown to include three more artists. David Sarno, Ryan Hao, and Donna Tan are now part of the team, contributing with sketching and sculpting. Each one with hands peppered with their own rings and bracelets — evidence that they themselves are their own biggest customers.

In spite of the global renown, the group still holds dear to its artist foundations.

“The prices of the rings, I don’t bother to learn. I just focus on sculpting,” says Noli. “Dante does the designs, the materials and costing. I think about the concept, I execute, I check up on the pieces the apprentices are making.”

Noli is particularly keen on passing on the craft, taking on Ryan and Noli as apprentices, and mentoring them on the fine art of sculpting, before inviting them to join the group. Just a few months prior, Donna, Ryan’s apprentice, had joined the group.

“At first, I was teaching these apprentices to sculpt. I told them not to focus on the money but on the craft. If you do it right, the money will follow. Your happiness is not the money, but the product you create. When you give it to the client and see how happy they are, that’s the payment: the satisfaction and emotion on their faces.

“I realized that, to be a master, you have to be an apprentice all the time, be a student. If I stayed where I was and didn’t improve, my apprentices would catch up to me. And sometimes, apprentices don’t want to surpass their masters. So I have to keep learning so they keep learning. I push them to try to exceed me. I’d be prouder if they were better than me.”

This drive has led the group to innovate in a variety of ways.

“Ever since we started, we wanted to bridge jewelry with copper and brass,” said Dante.

Their latest pieces incorporate very intricate detail, blending silver with brass or copper to form one seamless piece. The group has turned to technology too, employing 3D printing to properly replicate company logos and particular fonts, while still doing most of the sculpting by hand. The group is also dabbling in commissioned sculptures, custom bikes and more recently, furniture.

Yet through it all, the group operates with a very warm and family feel.

“Once a week, we have dinner and we look at all the work,” shares Dante. “We go through the list, we shoot everything and send to the client. Each one has notebooks and checklist, and we have a viber group for progress on the projects. You don’t want to not deliver on time and you don’t want to delay. Gotta cover all the loose ends.”

The result is undeniable: intimate, personal and guaranteed unique pieces that reflect the owner’s personality more than any store bought piece ever could. And now, Dante, Noli, and David have more time to ride.

“When we started, everyone said, ‘you guys are too expensive!’” Dante shares. “They see it and think it’s just silver, but behind that silver is all these people working for hours on that piece. When they get it, they just keep ordering. They realize the value, they’re very happy for it.”

Check their instagram account: @13luckymonkey