Regal and heavy, Elvira sits in the middle of a cluster of fellow skull rings, like a dowager queen surveying the lay of her land.

As the first creation of 13 Lucky Monkey, she sets the tone for the aesthetic that the design brand is known for: bespoke men’s jewelry that looks raw, dirty, and unpolished, mixing toughness with intricacy through historical, cultural, and rock ’n’ roll references.

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Elvira, center, is the first skull ring that 13 Lucky Monkey ever created. Photographed by Hub Pacheco.

As with most good things, 13 Lucky Monkey was borne out of necessity. The brand’s creators, designers Dante Dizon and Noli Coronado, got into the jewelry design business because they couldn’t find pieces on the market that match what they were looking for. “It’s either the design or shape isn’t quite right, or that they’re too expensive,” Dizon, who also works in advertising, says. Coronado adds, “Of course, with my background in toy-making, I’m familiar with proportions.” Coronado used to sculpt toys for Marvel and DC, and the 13 Lucky Monkey studio is decorated with some of his creations, some of which are completely original characters. “Disproportion could be okay,” he continues. “But the aesthetic should always be good. Like with anime, for example: their body measurements are far from realistic but they still look good to the eyes. It’s the same with jewelry. So we thought, if we can’t find what we like, why not make our own?”

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Dante Dizon and Noli Coronado’s bespoke jewelry brand was inspired by the hot rod culture and lifestyle from the ’60s. Photographed by Hub Pacheco.

Both avid bikers, the two are inspired by the Kustom Kulture, a lifestyle movement that came out of the SoCal hot rod culture of the ’60s. In fact, it is through biking that 13 Lucky Monkey got its start as a business. “We were in some gas station with our bikes when this Japanese guy approached us,” Dizon recalls. “He could speak Filipino. He was admiring our motorbikes and the custom pieces on it, and we got into talking about selling custom-made jewelry in Japan.”

With neither designer having any experience in silversmithing, they set out to Baguio to find someone who could teach them the ropes. Says Coronado, “Initially, the first few silversmiths we met in Baguio weren’t really a perfect fit with us; we could tell early on that what they do and what we wanted to do won’t match. Then near the time we were going back to Manila, we got a referral for this guy who turned out to get our idea.”

The silversmith ended up not working with the team for the business, though, and the plans for releasing pieces to the Japanese market didn’t materialize. “13 Lucky Monkey really started through lucky chances,” Coronado says. “Even though the Japanese guy just disappeared after we’d laid out our plans, at least we had started the business already. We learned about jewelry design on our own and through chance meetings with the right people; the name fits the brand.”

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Coronado’s sketch for a new piece; he has worked previously with Marvel and DC, sculpting toys based on their famous superhero characters. Photographed by Hub Pacheco.

13 Lucky Monkey has since amassed a growing following that spans the Asian and the US markets. The Godiva, a geometrically cut skull ring inlaid with sakura (cherry blossoms) on both sides, is a favorite among photographers such as Mark Nicdao and Randall and Ryan Dagooc of MangoRED. Limited edition designs (13 Lucky Monkey releases only 26 pieces maximum per design) are popular consignment items at lifestyle/design boutiques Cura V in Power Plant Mall and AC+362 in Greenbelt 5. In the US, San Francisco-based design brand Mister tapped 13 Lucky Monkey for a collaboration collection that was released in November of 2013: Dead Serious featured pins and bracelets made with gemstones adorned with skulls and skull rings sporting pompadours and oversized glasses.

Moto weekend is closer. Custom wallet chain in bronze for Mr. B #walletchain#customchain#kustomkulture #caferculture#chopper

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13 Lucky Monkey has also entered the fashion sphere. “Gian Romano collaborated with us for one-off pieces for one of his runway shows,” Dizon says. “He liked a particular ring we made so we gave it to him. Too bad it got stolen from his house.” A Surface Asia magazine feature on the designer included the jewelry brand’s textured devil’s horn barbell that was custom-made for Romano, and 13 Lucky Monkey even entered into a collaboration with designer Bea Valdez in 2013.

“It’s actually a pleasant surprise that the local market has been as receptive to us as the US market,” Dizon says. “Initially, we thought that a lot of Filipino buyers wouldn’t be interested. In the US, they like anything bespoke. Given that for a custom piece, the price starts at $400, they think nothing of getting one. But we’re happy that the reception here is as good as overseas.” For local buyers, a bespoke item from 13 Lucky Monkey costs Php13,000 and up, depending on the design.

Dizon and Coronado initially set out to design jewelry for the “rock ’n’ roll types”. What they didn’t expect was that there’s a little bit of rock ’n’ roll in everybody. “It’s not just bikers like use: we’ve had older men buy our pieces, really girly clients…I mean, Bea Valdez likes our work.”

This story originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of Garage Magazine.