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SBJ/Feb. 7-13, 2011/Franchises
Power of the ring
Once a title has been won, teams must learn the secrets of designing and distributing the ultimate championship symbol
Published February 7, 2011, Page 1
Conceived by owner Jeffrey Loria in the afterglow of the Florida Marlins’ unlikely World Series victory in 2003, with a baseball-shaped top fronted by a leaping fish, the ring sparkles from the cut of 228 white diamonds, one rare teal diamond, 13 rubies and two shades of gold. It weighs in at 110 grams, or about equal to a small apple, putting it in a dead heat with the 2004 ring honoring the New England Patriots and the 2008 ring made for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Sunday’s Super Bowl winner may well demand something larger.
The Saints ring, designed by Tiffany, features an etching of the Superdome.
The latest Los Angeles Lakers championship rings were designed and produced by a Beverly Hills jeweler whose client list reads like the seating chart from the Grammys or the Golden Globes. Each player’s ring includes a bust of his face, done in three-dimensional relief, along with a piece cut from the ball used in Game 7 of the Finals. Custom-made display boxes feature a rotating platform and LED lights.
“The one we landed on the last time [with the Detroit Pistons] was less a ring and more a bracelet,” said Tom Wilson, who as CEO of Palace Sports won nine championship rings, including three with the Pistons. The last of them, claimed in 2004, featured more than 100 diamonds, including a half-carat oval balanced on the edge of the Larry O’Brien trophy.
“It was so big that it is virtually unwearable,” Wilson said. “But the guys don’t wear them anymore, so let’s make it a trophy. It’s going to stay on the shelf of a cabinet anyway. There’s bling and then there’s these things.”
In the coming months, Sunday’s winning team will consider designs, negotiate costs, decide who should get a ring and how, ever mindful that the recipients will weigh them — perhaps literally — in comparison to those that have come before.
Still, no matter the breadth, weight or stone count of the rings that adorn the fingers of Sunday’s winners, they are unlikely to match Loria’s Marlins ring in at least one facet. Grandiose as the standard issue rings are, he and a handful of Marlins senior executives have a version that trumps them, as it has all others made before or since.
Here and there, people around sports have heard whispers of the ring’s secret. But none say they know for sure.
“I can’t talk about it,” Marlins President David Samson said two weeks ago when told of a rumor that has made the rounds in the ring business. “I will neither confirm nor deny that, and please don’t read anything into what I’m saying. We just don’t talk about it.”
After a bit of prodding, Samson offered to phone Loria to see if he’d clear him to speak about it. He said he’d be surprised if he would.
“I spoke with Jeffrey,” Samson said a few minutes later. “It’s true. You should call him at his office.
“He’s very proud of this ring.”
After 22 years in sales and marketing with the Chicago Cubs, who had not played in a World Series since 1945, Jay Blunk moved across town in 2008 to the Blackhawks, who had not won a Stanley Cup in 48 years.
The Blackhawks share their arena with the NBA’s Bulls, who collected six NBA championships in the 1990s, so Blackhawks staffers and Bulls staffers frequently cross paths. It wasn’t long before Blunk noticed that his Bulls counterparts not only wore their rings, but would switch models from day to day or week to week. Some days they’d wear the ’92 ring, others the ’98, then maybe the ’96. Blunk often asked for a closer look.
“How did that work?” Blunk would ask, wondering about the process. “Did Michael Jordan pick them? Do you have designers?”
Jostens has crafted 28 of 44 Super Bowl rings going into Sunday’s game. The ring that it created two years ago for the Steelers features 63 brilliant-cut diamonds that total 3.61 carats.
So when the Blackhawks finally broke their drought last year and won the Stanley Cup, Blunk found that he still had those same questions about the rings. Only now, he was managing the process, serving on a committee of six that would help design the ring, choose a manufacturer, decide who would receive rings, and determine how much the team would spend. There also would be other matters he had never considered, like whether to create lower-cost tiers of rings for front office staff, whether to make jewelry available for friends and family, and what lines of commemorative pieces to create for fans.
“You don’t know a thing about it one day, and the next day you’rein the middle of it,” said Blunk, who last year was promoted to executive vice president of the franchise. “There’s a lot to learnand you have to get itright.”
Blunk remembers gawking at Andy Pafko’s ring from 1945 when he came to Wrigley Field, and that was for a humble NL pennant. It looked like a class ring. But every time he’d see Pafko, he’d ask to put it on. He’d flash it at his boss, John McDonough, who would later leave to run the Blackhawks and bring Blunk with him. They’d both smile.
“We always dreamed of that day when we’d get one,” Blunk said. “Wouldn’t that be something? The day you get your ring is really the ultimate moment in your professional sports career. So the process is surreal, talking about diamonds and logos and phrases to put on the side of these rings.
“There was a part of me that thought we may never get one. You don’t want to mess it up.”
Because competition is so fierce, ring-maker margins are tight. The NFL says it limits teams to spending about $5,000 per ring, adjusted for increases in gold and diamond prices, with teams that have won multiple Super Bowls in the last 10 years allowed to spend slightly more on stones. One jeweler that has designed NFL rings said that, because of gold prices, this year’s winner likely will be cleared to spend closer to $7,000 per ring.
And it still might not cover the cost.
The ring makers chase the business because it offers a high-profile marketing tool, and because they can generate far larger profits on the ancillary lines that they sell to family, friends and fans.
“Championship sports are a nice business to get into, but our margins definitely aren’t there,” said Bryan Smith, sports and special markets manager for Masters of Design, which made rings for the Philadelphia Phillies and San Antonio Spurs in recent years and last year was purchased by Herff Jones. “Our moneymakers are the class rings. To go into a local high school or college right after you did the Phillies rings, that carries some weight. So, absolutely, when somebody wins a championship we’ll be in there making our calls.”
The process begins similarly for all teams. Soon after winning a championship, likely after the champagne has dried on their clothes but before they’ve returned from the cleaners, the calls, letters and e-mails offering congratulations will pour in. As many as a dozen will come from jewelers offering to design and/or manufacture their championship ring.
The manner in which teams proceed from there varies. Most form a committee, typically made up of the principal owner, a senior executive or two from the business side, the general manager and, sometimes, a player or two. But committees come in many sizes.
When the Red Sox won in 2004, principal owner John Henry and partners Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino chose longtime ring manufacturer Jostens because of its reputation and prior work, Lucchino said. From there, they invited a chorus of voices into the design process. General manager Theo Epstein joined the committee, as did players Tim Wakefield, Johnny Damon and Kevin Youkilis. David “Big Papi” Ortiz, known to be fond of bangles and baubles, was brought in near the end.
“David Ortiz was in charge of ensuring there was enough bling because I was trying to minimize that,” Henry wrote in an e-mail response to questions about the ring. “I wanted something wearable every day. When I was a Yankee partner the four rings I received there kept getting bigger and bigger. I said to George [Steinbrenner], ‘If you go any bigger, we’ll have to design a glove!’
“It’s all about winning rings in American sports. So you should be able to wear them.”
When the Bulls went on their two championship runs, decisions on rings were made by a committee of one: owner Jerry Reinsdorf. He chose Jostens as the manufacturer, but entrusted most of the design decisions for five of the six rings to his wife, Martyl. The exception was the ’96 ring, which was designed by Steve Schanwald, who then held the title of vice president of marketing. Schanwald put four NBA trophies on the head of the ring, then encircled it with 72 diamonds, one for each win, the most ever in a season.
“Our rings were all subject to Jerry Reinsdorf’s approval, and he didn’t really ask for anybody’s opinion,” said Schanwald, now the team’s executive vice president of business operations. “In every case it was a ring that he liked, and I think the players liked them too. … If the players had been involved [the rings] would have been substantially bigger, but we wouldn’t have worn them.”
Schanwald said he still wears the rings on occasion, one at a time, gravitating toward the second one, from 1992, because it’s smaller, he likes the look, and it’s easiest on his hands.
“They’ve gotten so obnoxious, to the point where people can’t wear them comfortably,” Schanwald said. “So everybody wants the ring, but nobody wears it. They put them away in a case. They just keep getting gaudier and gaudier. Each new one is a ‘can you top this?’”
That was the greatest concern of Cardinals management when the team won the World Series in 2006. Owner Bill DeWitt remembered the rings his grandfather received as treasurer of the “Gashouse Gang” Cardinals of the 1930s. The last thing he wanted was to top, or even approach, the Marlins ring.
“My dad is a traditionalist,” said Bill DeWitt III, the Cardinals’ president, who directed the design with the help of ring maker Intergold, the same company that worked with Loria. “To see the modern ring reach its full level of absurdity with the Marlins a couple of years earlier; that wasn’t going to happen with us. We wanted to go back to something more wearable and predictable.”
On the trip to the White House with the team, DeWitt III brought along a few samples to show the players. They volleyed by pulling out the rings that reliever Braden Looper won with the Marlins and World Series MVP David Eckstein collected with the Angels. Both were considerably larger than his samples. When DeWitt told them the Marlins ring was a “nonstarter,” a few veterans suggested they shoot for something like Eckstein’s.
“I went back to my father and told him the guys were kind of looking for something bigger than what we had,” DeWitt III said. “So he agreed to go with the larger size. I know it’s not what he wanted. But he could live with it. It’s kind of become the standard now in baseball.
“The last thing you want is for the players to say they don’t like the ring.”
When it came time to plan the Lakers’ ring in the summer of 2009, owner Jerry Buss asked management to consider a Beverly Hills jeweler who was a friend of his sons.
Jason Arasheben, proprietor of Jason of Beverly Hills, had never designed a championship ring. But his résumé includes custom pieces for a litany of stars, as well as more than 300 professional athletes, including 18 of last year’s 24 NBA All-Stars.
“I have a knack for understanding what players like and want more so than even the team does,” Arasheben said, “because I work for them on a daily basis on their personal jewelry.”
Up until the last two decades, the production of rings for league champions was dominated by a handful of companies that specialize in class rings, most notably Jostens, Balfour and Herff Jones. Championship rings looked similar to college class rings, so the production was easy. And they made splendid marketing tools. If Jostens rings were up to snuff for the Green Bay Packers and Balfour was the choice of the New York Yankees, certainly they would suffice for Harmony Valley High — which needed not only class rings, but yearbooks and caps and gowns, and the many other items those companies produced.
Jostens and Balfour had the market to themselves, for the most part, until the ’90s, when a handful of jewelers who saw similar branding potential joined the fray. To compete, they offered something that dazzled more than a typical class ring.
The last few years, the boutiques have gotten the better of the big boys. Of the dozen championship rings produced from 2007 to 2009 in the four big pro leagues, Jostens did three, Herff Jones did two and Balfour did none. Intergold, a boutique company based in Calgary, made four. Masters of Design, a small New England firm created by those left behind when Jostens and Balfour closed plants in that region, also made two. Jason of Beverly Hills made one.
Jostens bought Intergold last year for $5.9 million, naming its founder, Miran Armutlu, as its master jeweler. Herff Jones bought Masters of Design.
Last year, Balfour did the Yankees, Jason of Beverly Hills did the Lakers, Jostens (with Intergold) did the Blackhawks, and Tiffany — which intensified its push for championship ring clients in the past year — did the Saints.
Tiffany designers go over plans for last year’s Saints ring, which features about 60 diamonds, a fleur-de-lis and the opening notes from “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
But in recent years, as Tiffany built out a premium award business that started with the NFL’s Lombardi Trophy, the company began thinking more seriously about making championship rings.
Now, it is in with both feet, ramping up its design and manufacturing capacity and expanding to offer not only player rings but also commemorative merchandise for fans.
Almost 90 percent of Tiffany’s transactions trace back to a celebration or recognition of an accomplishment, said TomO’Rourke, vice president of business sales for Tiffany. And while much of the jewelry from the store is worn by women, it is purchased by men.
“I wouldn’t call it a loss leader, but there’s little to no margin on a Super Bowl ring,” O’Rourke said. “Our hope is to break even on the cost of the ring. If we really drilled down into overhead and the expense of the pitch, we probably end up losing a little money. But you come back to the value of winning that opportunity and the media exposure related to being able to say we made the ring for the Giants or the Saints.”
This year, with the old-guard Steelers and Packers matched in the Super Bowl, most in the ring business expect the NFL pendulum to swing back to Jostens. Jostens made the first Super Bowl ring for the Packers at the request of Vince Lombardi. Since then, heading into Sunday’s big game, it has made 28 of 44 Super Bowl rings, including five of six for the Steelers and all three for the Packers.
“We’ve seen the change in the business,” said Chris Poitras, who joined Jostens as director of sports marketing and development 18 months ago after stints in the front offices of the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Wild, Sacramento Kings and Boston Bruins. “But we like to think we are the only fully integrated company, from A to Z. We can handle all the programs, from manufacturing the most elegant piece of fine jewelry to taking care of every single fan.”
Initially, Lakers management worried whether Arasheben, of Jason of Beverly Hills, could design and produce the quantity of custom pieces they would need in time to meet their deadlines and within budget. But before long, he convinced them he could. The design ideas he brought, such as a slightly pitched face that paid homage to the angled roof of the Staples Center and the idea to etch each player’s face into the shank of his ring, set him apart from all others.
“Dr. Buss got him in the room, but Jason impressed us beyond anything else we saw,” said Tim Harris, Lakers senior vice president of business operations. “Everybody wants to do your ring. He did such a great job on the first one that it wasn’t a hard decision on the second.”
No manufacturer had done either before. The latter was more difficult than even Arasheben anticipated. Typically, a feature like that requires a digital scan of a player’s face, allowing for much of the production work to be done by machine. But, because the Lakers were scattered not only across the country, but across the globe, Arasheben had to work from photos and game video and hire artisans to sculpt and engrave each piece by hand, using needle points under a microscope.
“I went after it because I consider the Laker family to be part of my family, and because I’m a huge fan,” Arasheben said. “But now, yeah, I’d like to do more. For most of the other ring manufacturers, this is their business. Our business is selling to the entertainment business. This builds prestige and adds something to our company résumé. But because it’s not an important source of income for us, we’re able to offer prices no other ring manufacturer can offer and do things in ways that haven’t been done.”
Armutlu, the founder of Intergold, built his reputation among sports franchises by delivering innovations, but found the business realities made it tough to hang in against a company like Jostens, or a suddenly motivated giant like Tiffany.
“We could not afford to give things away,” Armutlu said. “And we did not have the distribution network to piggyback on the sale. So it was a tough situation in the sense that other people could write it off as a marketing game when we couldn’t. That’s part of the reason that joining forces with the No. 1 company [Jostens] made sense.”
On the last ring Intergold did on its own, the Penguins’ Stanley Cup ring in 2009, the up-front investment in gold alone was almost $650,000, Armutlu said.
“Forget about diamonds and everything else; that’s just to buy gold,” Armutlu said. “It just didn’t work anymore. It’s a very competitive business. It has its rewards on the back end with the marketing of your other products. But it is a very expensive game.”
When the Detroit Pistons won the NBA championship in 2004, management awarded more than 300 rings, dividing them into four grades. Players, coaches and ranking executives received the top-level ring, which cost about $8,000. Most employees got rings that cost about $6,000, $4,000 or $1,000, depending on their level and seniority.
Regardless of which ring they were getting, Wilson made sure to create a memorable moment for employees. While players received their rings during a typical pregame ceremony, Wilson doled out employee rings in the Pistons’ offices. He set up shop in a conference room, with boxes stacked along the wall, then invited recipients in, one by one. He reminded each of them of what they had done to contribute, then presented them with their ring.
They entered through one door and exited through another, allowing Wilson to sneak peeks down a hallway to watch their reactions.
“That was the special time, seeing that. You couldn’t put a price on it. Whatever that ring cost, that is someone who is going to be forever a part of that organization, and I’m glad we acknowledged that. I’ll treasure that memory forever.”
The design of a ring is only one item on the agenda. Distribution is equally important and sometimes as daunting. There is no standard practice for determining how many rings to pass out or to whom to give them. But, of late, most teams err on the side of inclusion.
NFL policy calls for the league to pay for the first 150. Teams that award more than that foot the cost themselves. NBA and NHL teams receive no ring allowance from their leagues. MLB clubs get a stipend so small, those asked about it weren’t even sure of the specifics.
In 2004, the Red Sox gave rings to all players, the entire front office staff and even some former players who spent years with the club but never won big.
“We ended up being as inclusive as possible given that 2004 was the first time the Red Sox had won in 86 years,” Lucchino said. “We were inclusive and we did not want to have an ersatz version. We had a large ring or a jumbo ring, but they were of equal quality. We left it entirely as an individual choice.”
After the Marlins won the 2003 World Series, Loria charged Samson and general manager Larry Beinfest with determining who would receive each of three grades of ring. The C-level was a match for most of the Marlins’ predecessors. The B-level was larger. The A ring was a coffee table.
“The Rules of the Ring, we called it,” Samson said. “It took Larry and I a month, because you had to think of everything. We considered everyone, from Pudge Rodriguez to the assistant to the traveling secretary; from Pudge to Costanza. We wanted to be consistent. No exceptions. Every single person in the organization fell into a category.”
The guidelines ran eight pages long. And even with that, the Marlins still ran into a beef with a player who filed a grievance through the MLB Players Association because he received a B-ring when he thought he deserved an A. The team prevailed, Samson said, because it was able to produce a document that outlined who qualified for what and why.
“We were as meticulous about the rules as we were the design of the ring,” Samson said, “because it’s something that really matters.”
The Bulls’ Schanwald earned rings commemorating each of the team’s six championships, and he cherishes all of them. But the ring that puts a slight quiver in his voice is a far smaller, relatively plain one: The World Series ring he received as director of promotions for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1979.
“The first one, I could’ve cried when I opened up the box and saw a championship ring with my name on it,” Schanwald said. “It’s every little boy’s dream. I was 24 years old. My first job in pro sports; first year in pro sports. It’s sad in a way because you think it never will get better than this.
“It ended up getting better. But that one … it was extra special.”
Lucchino and Charles Steinberg, two old friends who were linked at the hip in jobs with the Baltimore Orioles, San Diego Padres and Boston Red Sox, tell similar stories. Lucchino won a World Series ring with the Orioles and a Super Bowl ring with the Redskins, when he worked with both teams on behalf of owner Edward Bennett Williams. Then he won two more World Series rings with the Sox. Steinberg won one with the Orioles and two with the Sox.
Both say they treasure the rings they earned with the Red Sox, Lucchino as president and Steinberg as executive vice president of public affairs. But there’s nothing like your first.
“It was an overwhelming honor,” said Steinberg, now a senior adviser to MLB Commissioner Bud Selig in Milwaukee, who earned his first ring when the Orioles won the AL championship in ’79. “I was an hourly college student doing the statistics for Earl Weaver. So to receive that memento, it’s overwhelming. It really is. And for all that we have enjoyed with various franchises, no ring means more to me than that first one.”
When the Marlins visited Fenway Park a few years ago, a fan pressed against the front row yelled to Loria, asking if he could see the ring. From behind, another fan, who happened to work for a ring maker, leaned over with a tip.
“Ask him what time it is,” suggested Smith, the sports manager from nearby Masters of Design.
“You know?” she asked.
“I’m in the business,” he said.
“I’ve never seen it,” Smith said. “But if he’s really got a watch in there, that’s something else.”
The story begins during spring training in 2003, when Loria addressed the team, as is his wont. Most pundits were picking the Marlins to finish near the bottom of the standings. Loria wanted to say something to convince his players he expected far more.
“Guys, this team is good enough to win it all this year,” Loria told them. “But you have to believe in yourselves. Do that, and you will win. And when you do, I’ll get you what I know every player wants: The greatest ring ever made.”
|GETTY IMAGES; OTHER RING IMAGES: NBAE / GETTY IMAGES (4); AP IMAGES (3); GETTY IMAGES (1); ICON SPORTS (1)|
The Marlins’ ring has 228 white diamonds, 13 rubies, one teal diamond and a secret.
It ended up white, covered in diamonds, accented by rubies that formed the seams of a baseball. There was a leaping gold marlin with a teal diamond for an eye.
“When you spend 40 years of your life dealing with paintings and sculpture, you get ideas,” said Loria, who amassed his fortune dealing art. “It brought together my two worlds. I wanted it done well.”
The “piece,” as Loria sometimes calls it, came together over about two months, with Armutlu, the founder of Intergold, flying from Calgary to New York each week to show Loria a tweaked prototype. About three quarters of the way in, Loria raised a new possibility.
He and several of his ranking executives liked exotic watches. He asked Armutlu if he could design a few of the rings similarly to pocket watches, with a head that popped open to reveal a small timepiece when you pressed one of the diamonds on the head.
“Jeffrey, even if I can make the watch fit, how am I going to make it work?” Armutlu asked, stunned by the suggestion.
The typical pocket-watch lid weighs about 7 grams. The head of the Marlins’ ring was 40 grams. Armutlu agreed to try. He worked on it for months, but every spring mechanism he tried popped after a few tries. He couldn’t get Loria what he wanted in time for the ring presentation. They went ahead and issued the jaw-dropping rings, sans watch.
Then, about six months later, Armutlu phoned Loria with good news. He had constructed a spring that would work.
One night late in 2004, Loria surprised Samson and five other executives with the new rings over dinner. He pulled one from his pocket, pressed the proper diamond, and the head opened to reveal a gold face with a Marlins logo, etched with the tiny words “World Champions.”
“All the time, people ask, ‘Why so big?” Loria said. “It’s big because the players wanted it big. It’s a watch because some of my guys like watches. I did it to celebrate their success.
“I wanted it to play ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game,’ but we couldn’t figure it out. Maybe next time.”