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Made in Colorado 2017: Artist makes Grammy Awards in Ridgway

In 33 years, Billings Artworks has made between 8,000 and 10,000 gramophone-shaped trophies.


Product: Grammy Awards | Made in: Ridgway | www.billingsartworks.com

In an unassuming shop in southwestern Colorado, John Billings crafts hundreds of Grammy Awards every year.  

While most major entertainment awards are made overseas, this operation is an exception to the rule, and a favorite stop of Gov. John Hickenlooper when he's in Ridgway. "Whenever he comes through, he has someone different with him," laughs Billings. "He almost blindfolds them and walks them in here. He gets a big kick out of surprising people."

Billings has been making the music industry's biggest honor for The Recording Academy since his mentor, Bob Graves, passed away in 1984. He relocated from Los Angeles to Ridgway in 1993.

In 33 years, Billings has made "somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000" gramophone-shaped trophies, he says, as well as about 3,500 Latin Grammy Awards.

Recipients are handed blank awards at the ceremony, as Billings personally engraves the winners' names after the show. By spring, he fills up a trailer with that year's bounty, delivers it to California, and picks up about 3,000 pounds of the metal in the Golden State – grammium – for the next year's awards before heading home. "I conceived the name," says Billings of the zinc alloy with secret ingredients. "We came up with some trace elements to put in it and make it unique."

In Ridgway, Billings and his three-craftsman team go to work by heating the grammium to about 650 degrees and hand-ladling the molten metal into molds – "the same molds I created in 1990 when the Grammy was redesigned."

He goes to work making the Latin Grammys in the spring, and then begins on the trophies for the annual February Grammy ceremony by midsummer.

The four major components are the bell, the arm, the cabinet and the base. Working in batches of 30, the crew hand-grinds, sands and polishes the former three parts, plates them with gold, then primes and paints the bases jet-black.

He typically makes about 350 Grammys and 225 Latin Grammys in a given year; he also makes the John Wooden Award, presented annually to the nation's top college basketball player, and the Annies, honoring achievement in animation.

An unexpected side business emerged after Quentin Tarantino used the duck hood ornament from the 1978 Kris Kristofferson trucker epic, “Convoy” (based on the hit song of the same name by C.W. McCall, Ouray's onetime mayor) in his 2007 effort, “Death Proof.” Billings crafted the original and set up a website –www.deathproofduck.com –  to market made-in-the-U.S.A. hood ornaments after the latter movie came out.

All of that keeps Billings pretty busy, too busy to take on other marquee accounts. "I was approached by the Emmys three years ago," he says. "I had to turn them down because we're maxed out."

And some years the workload can hit an unexpected bump. In 2000, Santana's Supernatural won eight Grammys and had so many collaborators in the form of different producers, engineers, performers and songwriters, that Billings needed to get back to work after the ceremony. "It accounted for 96 Grammys," he laughs. "We had to jump in to make some more. We were short."

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Eric Peterson

Denver-based writer Eric Peterson is the author of Frommer's Colorado, Frommer's Montana & Wyoming, Frommer's Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks and the Ramble series of guidebooks, featuring first-person travelogues covering everything from atomic landmarks in New Mexico to celebrity gone wrong in Hollywood. Peterson has also recently written about backpacking in Yosemite, cross-country skiing in Yellowstone and downhill skiing in Colorado for such publications as Denver's Westword and The New York Daily News. He can be reached at Eptcb126@msn.com

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