You’ve probably never wondered where the gilded awards you see in the hands of movie stars and musicians during awards season come from, because the answer has seemed self-evident: a factory. Not so for the Grammys, which are all made by hand by the same person in the tiny town of Ridgway, Colorado, nestled in the San Juan mountains, population 713.
“It’s overwhelming,” says John Billings, who has made every Grammy for the past 40 years, totaling 8,000 awards by one count. “It takes the better part of a year.” Before Billings took on the business, it was owned by his teacher, Bob Graves, who was tasked with making the very first Grammy in 1959. Based in Van Nuys, California, where Billings grew up, Graves passed on the business to his apprentice in the 1980s, around the time Billings moved to the small town of Ridgway.
Billings is what’s known as a master mold-maker, who sculpts his pieces out of plaster to create molds–which can then be used to cast the original work in metal. It’s a laborious process, and one he describes as a dying art. In his small workshop in Ridgway, he and two apprentices will make 362 Grammys this year, plus 230 Latin Grammys. Each award can take 15 hours to finish.
In fact, the Grammys used to have a bad reputation: They were notoriously fragile (“they would constantly break,” says Billings) and looked like trinkets in the hands of stars like Michael Jackson, seen here with the old design in 1984. The Recording Academy considered overhauling the design completely, but Billings suggested his own redesign of the original, making it sleeker, stronger, and larger, and developing a new metal formula (called “Grammium,” a mixture of aluminum and zinc).
The design hasn’t changed since then, with the exception of this year, when the Academy added a camera to the award’s black base so it could live stream during the awards, as Fast Company reported this week. Billings says he wouldn’t have it any other way: “I’m very pleased with the design–if I never do anything else, I’ll be happy with that.”
Billings’s is a pretty unusual operation, these days. Both the Oscars and the Emmys are made by the largest trophy manufacturer in the world, R.S. Owens & Company. In fact, he was approached about making the Emmy awards as well, but he had to turn them down due to the sheer scale of his existing workload. Even Billings’s title of master mold maker is rare, with the population of such masters dwindling. “I don’t get out much–I’m pretty sequestered up here in the mountains,” he laughs. “We’re a one-horse town, we have one traffic light in the whole county. It’s a lot of ranchers and farmers.”
In fact, Ridgway almost stopped existing entirely: in the 1940s, the Army Corps of Engineers announced it would be flooded to create a reservoir, like so many other small western towns after World War II. Yet the project was delayed–and for 45 long years, Ridgway existed in limbo awaiting its fate, effectively frozen in time with its dirt streets and boardwalks, unable to develop. Finally, in 1990, the government moved the reservoir plan elsewhere, though the effects of essentially condemning the place have lingered. “There are a lot of people struggling to make a living,” Billings says. “I feel fortunate that I brought my job with me.”
Today, this tiny town is emerging as an unlikely center for creative people. A development boom in the past decade has brought more young people to the city, and last year, Colorado designated Ridgway as one of its two State Creative Districts, making it eligible for new funding for creative projects throughout the town. “There’s a lot of young spirit and ideas,” says Billings. “It’s coming back to life.”
All Photos (unless otherwise noted): courtesy The Recording Academy