Living life to the Max

Jeweller Max Frobe with his miniature husky Lily. Each of his pieces bears the same trademark — an M, diamond, and X. “Archaeologists are going to be finding them in a thousand years and saying ‘Oh, that’s Max’s.’”  - Greg Nesteroff photo
Jeweller Max Frobe with his miniature husky Lily. Each of his pieces bears the same trademark — an M, diamond, and X. “Archaeologists are going to be finding them in a thousand years and saying ‘Oh, that’s Max’s.’”
— image credit: Greg Nesteroff photo

For 30 years, he’s been one of the most recognizable faces in Nelson.

Although best known as a jeweller, Max Frobe has also been many other things, including an actor, screenwriter, filmmaker, teacher, and magician.

Recently, he and his wife spent three years producing a docudrama about the Sinixt First Nation called Bringing Home the Bones, which premiered last year in Nelson and has since screened in China.

He’s been cast in the L.V. Rogers film Project Turquoise Snowflake, and has written a screenplay starring miniature Siberian huskies — like the two his family owns.

It was while studying theatre in his native Pittsburgh that Frobe met wife Virginia, and together they appeared in off-Broadway shows in New York. He later earned a master’s degree in Denver and taught high school drama in San Leandro, Calif.

But when they started a family, he decided he didn’t want to be tied to the schedule his job demanded. Instead, they moved to the Redwoods wine country of Mendocino County and opened a craft shop. There, in 1970, he started making jewellery.

Although largely self-taught, Frobe polished his skills at the Revere Academy of Jewellery Arts in San Francisco and the Gemological Institute of America in Los Angeles. He also had a six-month internship with Lucky Jackson, jeweler to the stars.

“That’s where I learned the world and had the opportunity of watching him design a ring for Lauren Bacall,” he says.

Frobe’s business was going well, but one day a friend who claimed to be psychic declared “I detect a move north.”

Frobe laughed it off: “No way I’m moving to Oregon!”

“That was as far north as I could imagine,” he recalls. Yet the prophecy came to pass.

“We decided to get our kids out of the militaristic United States. I was a draft dodger for them.”

The summer they immigrated, two groups came through their shop and advised them to check out the Kootenays. “You guys belong in Nelson. They’ll love you,” they said. Taking that advice, the Frobes arrived in 1981 with their two young sons.

They started a shop on Baker Street called Foxglove, and Max also acted with Theatre Energy, a local professional troupe.

In 1984, the family toured Europe for seven months doing a magic show.

“It was really funky,” he recalls. “The kids made a fool of me trying to do magic.”

They lived out of a Volkswagen bus and performed in then-Communist countries such as East Germany, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia — even passing through Checkpoint Charlie.

“I guess we were non-threatening,” he says. “They treated us so nicely and the kids loved it.”

Back home, the Frobes started the Gallery of the Kootenays on Ward Street, home to Max’s shop plus three rooms of local art. After a decade, they sold it and went to Costa Rica.

When they returned, Frobe set up shop on the second floor of the Medical Arts building, where he has remained for over a dozen years.

Repairing jewellery and creating custom work is time-consuming and exacting, and although not precise by nature, Frobe says he’s developed the required discipline.

“What I learned from Lucky Jackson was how to make anything anyone can imagine in gold,” he says. “People walk in and say ‘Make me this.’”

(Strangest request: a brass penis. He didn’t ask what it was for.)

Some people have designs in mind, while others leave everything up to him.

“I do a lot of resetting of old family diamonds,” Frobe says. “Grandma’s wedding diamond into the granddaughter’s wedding ring. Real heart stuff.

“I’m blessed because people come to me when they’re happy and in love, and it’s my job when I finish to send them off with that same feeling. It’s a lot better than writing speeding tickets.”

You can find Max the Jeweller Tuesday through Saturday at 201-507 Baker Street or call 250-354-0242.

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