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At a single-storey cream and brick-coloured building by the side of a busy highway in Texas, rows of jewellers surrounded by precision tools and cutting-edge machinery produce more than 1,000 rings every day.
Many are commemorative pieces to celebrate students’ final year of school; Jostens, which was founded in 1897, is the world’s largest supplier of class rings. Others are for the military, or a college sports team that finished top of their league.
But there is one piece of jewellery that steals the limelight: the Super Bowl Championship ring. Jostens has made 34 of the 52 winners’ rings for the annual showdown that attracts more than 100m viewers in the US alone, and which this year takes place on February 3 in Atlanta.
While the company has other businesses — it prints about 5m student year books annually and makes nearly 3m student graduation gowns every year — its championship rings for the US National Football League teams have become the stuff of legend.
It is easy to understand why. Last year’s ring for the victorious Philadelphia Eagles is made of 10-carat white gold and has an eagle’s head on top. It has 219 diamonds and 17 rare green sapphires, chosen to match the Eagles’ midnight green official team colour.
“You need to be able to articulate and communicate a team’s entire story on a championship ring,” says Chris Poitras, vice-president and chief operating officer of Jostens College and Pro Sports Division. “We recreate the story of everything that’s happened in that team’s year to win the championship, and we do it in diamonds, gold, rubies and sapphires.”
The storytelling aspect goes deeper than initially meets the eye. For the Eagles ring, 52 pavé-set diamonds decorate the eagle’s head, a reference to the 52nd Super Bowl. Behind the eagle’s head stands the Vince Lombardi trophy that the winners take home each year. Only this one has 13 diamonds encrusted in its base, the number of regular-season victories the Eagles notched up on their march to the final.
The top of the trophy has three diamonds to signify the number of Eagles wins on their route to the Super Bowl following the regular season, which usually ends in December. A big marquise-cut diamond, the shape of a football, marks what was the Eagles’ first ever Super Bowl win. To ram home the point, “World Champions” is emblazoned on the top and bottom edges. In addition, the sides and even the interior surfaces of the ring are adorned with myriad mini-stories from that season.
Jewellers compete fiercely for the contract each year; Tiffany & Co has made several of the rings in the past, and Barons and Herff Jones are often in the running. From signing the contract with the winning team to delivering typically between 400 and 900 rings, producers take a mere eight to 10 weeks in spite of the designs’ complexity.
Jostens does not comment on the cost of the rings but their value can run to upwards of $30,000 on the basis of the gemstones and precious metals alone.
There is a tradition in US professional sports for flashy winners’ rings, and basketball, hockey and baseball all have their versions. But Super Bowl rings were not always so big, bold and bling-bling.
For the inaugural event, which marked the end of the 1966 season, the ring size and the materials Jostens used were relatively modest by today’s standards: a single diamond sits in the middle of a globe motif.
In the 1980s and 1990s, teams became far more conscious of the power of branding and began to ask for their logo to figure on the top of the ring. “Imagine trying to create an eagle, which is green and grey and black, and trying to do that on top of a ring and then in their colours using precious stones,” says Mr Poitras. “You need more space.”
Second, players and athletes are bigger today than they used to be, he says, which means they need bigger rings to fit those huge fingers. A third factor reflects the rivalry between team owners, with each wanting to outdo the previous year’s winners.
It can also be simply about rubbing it in: two years ago, Robert Kraft, owner of the victorious Patriots, ordered a ring with 283 diamonds; the number symbolised the 28-3 deficit the Patriots were suffering at one point in their final against the Atlanta Falcons, before staging the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.
Diana Singer, president of the American Society of Jewelry Historians, argues that ever-bigger and flashier rings speak to athletes’ changing status in society. “It is a reflection of the way athletes have grown in financial stature,” she says. “So much of the marketing behind a sports individual is based on size because size is seen as an indication of an athlete’s ability to perform.”
The greater complexity of today’s rings has required ever-increasing sophistication in the design and manufacturing process. It involves so-called rapid prototyping machines to create detailed, three-dimensional models in wax of the rings’ constituent pieces.
The craftspeople then coat the wax pieces in a slurry, which is fired at high temperatures so that the wax inside melts and the slurry hardens into a mould that can be used to cast metals, such as gold and silver.
Jostens’ Super Bowl Championship rings can comprise as many as 10 separate pieces, all of which have to be joined together before the stone-setters get to work. From the start of the design to delivery, the rings go through as many as 30 pairs of hands.
Such detail and extravagance in the materials make the rings produced for each of the team’s 53 players — as well as owners, trainers and support staff — difficult to fake. But for the runs of “fans” rings, which Jostens also produces and which can sell from a few hundred dollars to as much as $10,000, counterfeiting is becoming a serious problem.
In June 2018, US Customs and Border Protection agents in Philadelphia seized a shipment of 108 fakes from Hong Kong. Agents said the merchandise would have had a retail value of more than $1m if they had been genuine.
Mr Poitras acknowledges that counterfeiting is “an issue . . . there are definitely more people trying to replicate Championship rings as a whole”. But he says that his company, the various teams and the NFL have stepped up their vigilance. “We are all monitoring in a much bigger way.”
For now, though, Mr Poitras will be focusing on trying to secure the next Super Bowl contract for his company. “It is not something we take lightly,” he says. “Everyone in the public sees the ring getting put on a player’s finger but the process to get to that moment takes a lot of time and resources.”
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