CANMORE – Breathing new life into a forgotten section of Canmore, a local artist is carrying on his family’s legacy creating one-of-a-kind jewelry pieces for people celebrating the most important moments of their lives.
“Jewelry is different than other forms of art because you wear it,” said fifth-generation jeweller Peter Kangas. “I visualize my things in terms of feel and touch. They’re sculptures.”
Kangas has been crafting bespoke pieces for more than four decades, but his work has taken on a new special meaning after relocating Rocky Mountain Custom Jewellery from Calgary to Canmore at 12 Industrial Place.
The building he moved his studio into originally belonged to Kangas’ father-in-law Secondo Mario Smaniotto – a sculpture, artist and welder.
“It’s an honour [working where Smaniotto worked],” Kangas said, describing how the walls are rich with history and complemented by his father-in-law's sculptures carefully placed around the studio.
Smaniotto was born in the old mining town Lower Bankhead on the edge of Lake Minnewanka in 1920.
“He was one of the last people born there,” Kangas said. “Very soon after he was born, the town was shut down so they [the Smaniotto family] moved back to Italy.”
Smaniotto grew up in Italy and was conscripted into the army under the rule of Mussolini. He marched to Ethiopia during the Second World War was captured and became a British prisoner-of-war only to escape and then be captured by the Americans.
When the war ended Smaniotto returned to Italy and went back to what he knew best – metalwork.
“He learned at the feet of masters in Italy,” Kangas exclaimed. “He was a wonderful artist ... but there was no work after the war, so he immigrated to Argentina to work as a welder."
However, he soon learned that Canada Cement was looking for workers and Smaniotto returned to his birthplace to work in Exshaw as a welder.
“He circled the world to end up back here,” Kangas said with a chuckle.
Smaniotto married and settled down in Canmore – Kangas’ wife Sarah was their first child.
Smaniotto’s heart remained centred on sculpting though, Kangas said, and he went on to purchase the area at 12 Industrial Place in 1970. The studio was well used until Smaniotto's death in 1990.
“My mother-in-law couldn’t even come in here after he died … she would just fall to pieces” Kangas said. “There were half-finished pieces in here – it just sat here.”
Kangas originally stepped back from jewelling in 2016, but was lured out of retirement by the thought of working in his father-in-law's studio.
“We fixed up the building and I started up my studio again,” Kangas said with a small smile.
Kangas comes from a long line of jewellers, Mountain Custom Jewellery dates back to 1895.
“I’ve always enjoyed it, as a child I would be sitting beside people doing the work,” Kangas said. “I didn’t really realize that it was unusual. It was natural.”
He added that it is an incredible privilege to create symbols for people celebrating the most important moments in their lives, he said.
“It’s fun,” Kangas said. “I get to be there for the best moments – it’s wonderful.”
It is especially exciting because each piece is handcrafted and created based on the feelings of clients.
“Everything I do is bespoke,” Kangas said. “It’s not like a retail store … I like people to come in and look at the pieces and tell me what they like and they don’t like.”
He is the first member of his family to work and live in the Rocky Mountains, he said, and the location is already influencing the art he creates.
“I’m kind of moving to a little bit more of a Rocky Mountain feel. It’s living and working in a place where you have to have a lot of respect for the environment,” Kangas said. “In terms of design, I’m trying to get a little more of an organic feel and flow to pieces.”
He has also been inspired to employ a sustainable processes to create his pieces, Kangas said, explaining that he will no longer use mined metals or gems – the exception being certified Canadian mined diamonds.
“I’m all in, I just think creating symbols for people of love and commitment and all the things that are associated with jewelry – you should use materials and processes that are in keeping with that respect for the environment and for people in other places of the world."
Kangas added that he is working to introduce more regionally appropriate pieces that celebrate the beauty of the Bow Valley and feature wildlife from the area.
The Canmore location marks the first time he has been able to offer this immersive experience for guests, he said, and those interested can come and visit his studio.
“Out here is perfect I can have my showroom out front and my workshop outback,” Kangas said. “There are very few places in the world … where things are being made and you’re actually meeting people.”
He said he hopes to host open houses where people can come watch jewelry be created and see how the different process works. Kangas added he would love to have people come to watch their ring be cast or potentially pour the metal for their ring.
“This is end-to-end manufacturing here,” Kangas said, explaining that pieces are conceived, manufactured and finished at Rocky Mountain Custom Jewelry Studio.
Rocky Mountain Custom Jewellery held its soft opening in September and will have a grand opening on Feb. 1.
“I could have stayed retired,” Kangas said with a laugh. “But I love it, what else would I do, I hate golf.”