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German-born goldsmith carving out business in new surroundings


Jan Peterknecht, a native of Germany, poses in his St. John’s workshop. Peterknecht is one of Canada’s few master goldsmiths. — Photo by Tara Bradbury/The Telegram

Glorious sunsets. Grey, moody days. The pearly whiteness of a seashell and the soft curve of a beach rock.

Jan Peterknecht finds inspiration in his natural surroundings, and pounds, pulls, etches and melts it into metal, one intricate detail at a time.

Peterknecht is a native of northern Germany, where he originally started his career in woodworking, as a boatbuilder. Once dust allergies forced him to stop, he decided to study metal work in Munich, metal dust being heavier and thus less airborne.

After completing internships doing repairs and custom metal work with various jewelry studios in Germany, Peterknecht opened his own small business, selling his own jewelry designs at craft fairs and markets.

On a whim, Peterknecht — deciding he’d like to explore the world a bit before settling down — applied for a few jobs in jewelry stores in Canada before accepting one in St. John’s.

“I had once seen the movie ‘The Shipping News’ and, coming from the Alps and loving the shore, I thought I would stick with what I knew,” Peterknecht said of his move to Newfoundland.

He arrived in St. John’s in November 2007, and since then, has been one of the country’s few master goldsmiths.

Nowadays Peterknecht works for himself, in a small shed workshop in the back garden of the home he shares with his wife, Kelly, and 16-month-old son, Magnus.

He built the workshop himself, from the window frames to the maple bench on which he practices his craft. He also uses what he calls a European-style bench: a piece of leather, attached to the underside of the wooden bench to form a sort of pocket, which he says enables him to catch the metal dust and melt it down or send it away to be processed and made reusable.

His tools, he said, came from Germany — causing customs officials some wonder when he first arrived by air — and some of them are improvised.

He works in silver and gold: he buys the silver in sheets from the mainland, and sources the gold from different sources, including commemorative coins from the bank or post office, which he melts, mixes to make 14- or 18-carat,  flattens and rolls out. Though he often works with stones for custom jewelry, he doesn’t much like it, feeling it takes away from the rest of the piece.

He does sometimes add small diamonds to his work, which give the pieces a bit of sparkle without too much distraction, he said.

“Right now I like the idea of working with just metal; I think it’s a pure way to express myself,” he said.

His work consists mainly of rings, earrings and necklaces, usually with a natural theme, he said. He often travels around the area with his camera, taking photos of the landscape.

A current favourite design of his represents the stacked slate walls he’s noticed around people’s homes and gardens, and he’s used tiny slivers of gold to create the design on silver rings and pendants.

“There are a lot of grim days here, but some days when the sun comes out, everybody says, ‘Isn’t it beautiful?’ and you find something in it that really stays with you,” Peterknecht said.

“One day I was walking near Cuckhold’s Cove, looking at icebergs and there was so much fog it was almost impossible to see them. All of a sudden I noticed some grass from last year poking up, and flowers coming up in little drips. I thought, ‘I can work with this.’”

Peterknecht uses different techniques to project a mood onto his pieces, either by polishing them, pickling them to erode the copper in the metal, making the piece white or etching them in a certain way.

The trick is to get an appearance people can feel, he said.

“To me, that’s the art,” he explained.

“When people can say, ‘I don’t know what it is, but this piece makes me feel this way. That’s what I want.”

Peterknecht has considered doing sculptures, adding mediums like driftwood or certain stones to his work, but recognizes it would have to be something special in order for him to put the time in.

“I have to watch what I’m doing, or people will say, ‘You want $500 for beach rocks?’ he said, laughing.”

Peterknecht is displaying and selling his designs for the first since he’s been in St. John’s, at the Craft Council of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Christmas Fair at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre, running until 5pm Sunday. The prices of his pieces start at $80, he said.

Though Peterknecht has been offered jobs in B.C., Saskatchewan and South Africa since arriving in St. John’s, this is where he plans to stay, he said, finding the people as inspiring as the landscape.

“Of course, life always goes in different directions, but I like it here a lot. There are a lot of little things that make it interesting.”

Those who don’t catch Peterknecht at the fair and are interested in seeing his work can contact him by email at

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