Secret of Manna evokes an air of mystery. His internet footprint is small: he doesn’t share many photos of himself on Instagram, he doesn’t have a Twitter account, and he doesn’t have a website. His artist name is obscure, a reference to the early-90s Japanese video game Secret of Mana—his Instagram bio is just a link to the game’s soundtrack.
But as his practice has bloomed and collaborations have grown, he’s lifted the veil. Over the last couple years, the sculptor has become your favorite artist’s favorite artist, crafting grills in silver and gold adorned with VVS diamonds, pink sapphires, and opals. He’s made pieces for YehMe2, Thelonious Martin, King Marie, and Elizabeth De La Piedra, and collaborated with Nikko Washington, Brandon Breaux, and Asrai Garden.
While Manna is a reference to alchemy and the Bible—in alchemy, manna refers to life force and energy, and in the Bible, it was a supernatural food created by God—he was directly inspired by the sci-fi and fantasy lore of the aforementioned video game. In fact, video games have been foundational for the Chicago sculptor. Born Tim Nicholson in Bloomington, Illinois, he moved to Chicago to study 3D modeling and video game design at the Illinois Institute of Art. Later, he worked at Midway Games (now NetherRealm Studios) where, from 2006 to 2011, he helped design characters for the Mortal Kombat franchise, among others.
Manna and his wife, Nani Ruiz, began making jewelry as a hobby around 2016. As he became more fascinated with creating wearable objects like rings and pendants, he figured out how to make grills simply because he wanted to make one for himself. From there, the interest in his work snowballed via Instagram, as friends began to commission him. As he’s honed his practice, he’s delved into creating more experimental pieces, like mock AirPods, soda pop tab earrings, finger caps, and key fobs—all while trying his hand at DJing.
When we met at his apartment-cum-studio on an unseasonably warm January day, Manna sat down to discuss the history of grills, the alchemical processes behind making jewelry, and how wearing the lavish dental ornamentation is an inspiring flex.
Secret of Manna
Was there a moment where you realized making jewelry could be a viable career?
I wasn't setting out to be a jeweler, because I still wouldn’t even consider myself a jeweler. I just learned how to make things using that skill.
What do you consider yourself?
Honestly, I would just say a sculptor or an artist. I didn't put 10,000 hours in to consider myself a jeweler—I’m practicing.
I read a Vice article that discusses the history of fronts, and says Nelly’s 2005 music video for “Grillz” reintroduced them into the American zeitgeist. Grills were also popular in the Philippines—and you’re half Filipino.
Yeah, so maybe that could be the hidden spark. I didn't know that until I did research. It’s funny you say the Nelly thing—I feel like nowadays, it's more mainstream; anyone can wear it.
It’s more accessible.
Yeah, the more you see it, too, you’re like, “Okay, I get it now.” Obviously rap culture is a huge part of it because it’s in the forefront, and now a lot of people want to quote-unquote flex. You want to feel good for yourself—you want to accessorize in certain ways.
Historically, grills have been a sign of wealth, and that still seems to be the case.
It’s status. You go on Instagram and you see crazy pieces. People flexing for the cause. It’s cool because it’s inspiring—if you want that you can get that. If you work hard at whatever it is you’re trying to pursue. It’s motivation. It’s how you look at it.
Your artist name is a reference to alchemy, which almost feels like a mythological practice.To cast something, to make something [from] gold or any metal, from wax, or however you’re making it, the whole process is alchemy. Whether it’s hand-sculpted or 3D printed—wax, or plastic, you're taking that and you're casting that. You're using lots of materials and a lot of fire. You're investing in the whole process. You're using a lot of acids afterward and compounds. You can literally make whatever it is you want, especially with 3D printing.
Earlier you were saying gold is viewed as mythological.
What they say is the origins [of it are] not from this Earth. It’s from meteorites and asteroids colliding here millions of years ago and from the Earth transforming and moving or whatnot. It formed gold and precious metals. Now, we mine for it [which is] why it's so precious and has value. It's sought out.
Do you view your sculpting and DJing practices as related in any way?
Yeah, you could look at it like [British drum & bass DJ, producer, and artist] Goldie. He was making jewelry and he was DJing and also doing radio, hosting shows. I’m also always listening to mixes while I'm working. It's just always something that’s part of it, so it’s definitely correlated.
How did you get started with DJing?
I used to mess around with [turntables] back in the day. I kinda knew how to blend. Recently, I got into Serato, learned how to do that, which comes pretty easy if you know how to blend vinyl. A good friend of mine Josh [YehMe2] and his wife Elizabeth Smart reached out to me because they were throwing parties at Sleeping Village. They invited me to do the first one with A-Track, which was my first DJ [set]. To do it with them was such an honor.
"THE WHOLE PROCESS IS ALCHEMY. WHETHER ITS HAND-SCULPTED OR 3D PRINTED - WAX, OR PLASTIC, YOU'RE TAKING THAT AND YOU'RE CASTING THAT."
It seems like you spend a lot of time exploring both disciplines.
It’s a lot of trial and error, that's for sure. Like a lot of failing attempts, a lot of science projects when it comes to jewelry. Same thing for the DJing—I just practice.
You recently started experimenting with different pieces: bread clip pendants, key fobs, AirPods. Do those actually work?
No, [the AirPods] don't really work. They're just pure flex. They’re not meant to be functional. I want to make more clever stuff, just for yourself.
I like making things that you see, like the key fob. That's more on some like—I can relate to it because, if you ever worked at a company, you have one of those and you’re scanning it all the time, clocking in. So I'm taking something that you may not really like because it reminds you of work, but making it into, like, “I'm like clocked in on my flex shit now.” Just having fun with it. I try to make timeless pieces.
"I'M TAKING SOMETHING THAT YOU MAY NOT REALLY LIKE BECAUSE IT REMINDS YOU OF WORK, BUT MAKING IT INTO, LIKE, "IM CLOCKED IN ON MY FLEX SHIT NOW"
What’s been your favorite piece to make?
Sculptural pieces, organic [ones] that include anatomy. It’s fun to sculpt it. I did a few pieces, like some of the saints: Saint Michael, Saint Jude. They have anatomy, cloth—it’s more of a unique silhouette. Those are fun because it’s a shape you don’t really see in gold a lot. It’s different.
You always take photos of your customers with your bird, Pablo. What's special about that moment when you give people their jewelry?
Whatever the reason may be, some people think, “I just never thought about [wearing a grill],” or, “It just doesn't look good on me,” or, “It's not for me.” But then when they actually put it on and it's fitting, it’s like, it's for you—it's not for anyone else. You worked hard to get a custom piece. You're treating yourself. It’s gratifying.