You might not think much of a random empty can you throw in the recycling bin. But to jewelry designer Thomas Althaus, that can could be a bracelet and a pair of earrings.
Althaus is the owner, designer and maker of Canned Goods, a jewelry line made of repurposed tin food cans. It started in 2013, when Althaus wanted to make his wife a gift for their tenth wedding anniversary, which is traditionally celebrated with something made of tin.
“We must have had black beans one night, and I saw an empty can,” he recalls. “We told each other we wouldn’t buy gifts, so I decided to make her something. I thought it would be silly to make something out of this can.”
He and his two young boys went to the garage to undertake the project. “We cut the can apart, hit it with a hammer a few times, and out came a pair of earrings and a bracelet,” he explained. “I figured she’d think it was hilarious.”
To Althaus’s surprise, his wife loved the jewelry and wore it, receiving many compliments. She encouraged him to make more designs and came up with the name Canned Goods.
“I pitched it to a couple of stores around Denver, and we got some orders. It kind of bloomed from there,” he says, looking back.
He honed more styling skills when he worked for a men’s grooming product brand, doing sales and runway shows. His work took him back and forth from Illinois to Colorado, but he eventually settled down with his wife in Denver in 1996.
Althaus's sales experience clearly serves him well when shoppers approach the Canned Goods booth at local markets: He's quick to welcome people into his world with enthusiasm and a smile.
The shiny bold statement jewelry often gets people’s attention. He says a lot of shapes come organically from the can, but they’re also inspired by the styles he saw in his childhood: “I always liked that big metallic jewelry from the ’80s and the late-’70s disco era.”
Most people who approach his booth looking for something fashionable would never guess he makes all the jewelry from leftover cans. “We joke that we have no fresh food in our house,” he laughs.
Although he started out using cans from home, eventually he needed larger quantities. That led to Althaus going through neighborhood recycling bins. He now has connections with local restaurants that offer their used cans. “They love it when I come to get the cans because I’m saving them money they would have to pay to have them taken away,” he says. Keeping the cans out of landfills is also important to him: “Growing up on a farm, we learned not to waste much. We lived very sustainably.”
While the raw material is free, the labor required to spin trash into gold is intensive. Canned Goods has grown from one person in a garage to a team of people in a warehouse, where they do everything from design to production. Althaus says things can get pretty lively with all the banging and bending the cans into shape.
But it hasn’t all been an upward trajectory. In 2020, when Canned Goods started to expand to retailers outside the Colorado market, Althaus said the COVID-19 shutdowns hit the boutique business hard. The switch to stay-at-home lifestyles and leisurewear caused the desire for jewelry to drop. But the business quickly pivoted to online sales and launched a marketing message about how great its jewelry looked on Zoom calls. A couple of publicity pushes in Oprah magazine and on the Today show kept the orders coming in.
Althaus says he and his team have been rebuilding their retail relationships and hope to offer Canned Goods in boutiques across the country.
TOMS Shoes’ One for One™ model, he and his wife came up with the idea to donate a can of food to charity for every item purchased. “We want our customers to know they’re not only making a difference for the environment by reusing a can, but it’s also feeding someone. We can do good together,” he says.
Now that the jewelry line has become his full-time business, Althaus says what he enjoys most is hearing the company story shared with others: “One of the most flattering things for any business is to have people who buy your product tell someone else about it. It’s those full-circle moments of us doing good and helping others that’s the biggest payoff.”
Canned Goods will be at Firefly Handmade Market, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, April 29, and Sunday, April 30, 1000 block of South Gaylord Street, Washington Park. For more information, go to cannedgoods.net.