The ring master: Calgary’s Intergold has built a franchise

The Calgary Herald (Alberta)
December 12, 2004 Sunday
Final Edition

The ring master: Calgary’s Intergold has built a franchise from
crafting victory bands for pro sports teams

by Grant Robertson, Calgary Herald

Tom Wilson is no stranger to glitzy jewelry. For the past 15 years,
the Detroit Pistons’ chief executive has been the owner of two
championship rings from the team’s back-to-back titles in 1989-90.

He remembers when the Pistons received those rings, they seemed so
big and extravagant. It almost makes him laugh all these years later.

When the team received their 2004 championship rings last month, it
was evident how times have changed. The designs are much more complex
and the jewelry itself is massive.

The latest Pistons bauble — a conglomeration of roughly $20,000 US
worth of gold and diamonds — makes the old ones look like high
school rings, he says.

“It is gargantuan, yes — three times the size. You can’t lift your
arm. It covers two knuckles,” says Wilson, exaggerating only slightly
on the phone from Detroit.

“People are saying this is the greatest championship ring the NBA has
ever produced. I don’t know whether it is or it isn’t, but everyone
thinks it is. And that’s all that matters.”

The man behind the masterpiece is Miran Armutlu, a fifth-generation
Armenian jeweller and the founder of Calgary-based Intergold Ltd., a
small company that has taken the North American sporting scene by
storm in the past three years.

In addition to the Pistons, the company has made the championship
rings for the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings, New Jersey Devils and Tampa
Bay Lightning; Major League Baseball’s Anaheim Angels and Florida
Marlins.

It’s been a long road for the company Armutlu started with his
brother in the early 1980s. But Intergold — the smallest player in a
business dominated by international giants Jostens and Balfour — is
now commanding a good portion of the spotlight.

“Finally, over the last three years I would say, our reputation is
starting to precede us,” says Armutlu, sitting in the boardroom at
Intergold’s manufacturing plant in northeast Calgary.

“We’re finding that when we get in the door, people have heard of
us.”

Sales used to be much more difficult. When Armutlu decided the
company should branch out from designing jewelry, graduation rings
and corporate items into the sports arena, he walked into the offices
of the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 1989 as an unknown.

“I just told them I wanted to do their ring,” Armutlu says of the
meeting with the team’s managers, all of them ex-football players.

“They all stood up, looked down at me and said. ‘you better make us
the nicest championship ring in the world.’ Well, these were big
boys, they could be very persuasive.”

Intergold landed several Canadian Football League contracts after
that, including the 1992 Calgary Stampeders Grey Cup ring, but the
company still lacked a major U.S. deal.

Part of the challenge, says Armutlu, is that pro sports is dominated
by close relationships between teams and manufacturers. Once the New
York Yankees or Chicago Bulls picked a jeweller, they stuck with
them.

In a strange twist, Intergold’s break came when Michael Jordan left
basketball to play minor-league baseball. With the Bulls’ dynasty on
hiatus, the Houston Rockets stepped in to claim back-to-back titles
in ’94 and ’95.

More important, the Rockets were a team without a jeweller.

“We were lucky. The organization didn’t have any old ties, so they
took a chance on us,” he says.

“When the established relationships are there, they are very
difficult to break. Our uphill battle has been to break those
relationships.”

Being a small operation is an initial hurdle for Intergold against
its larger competitors, but agility has also become its biggest
asset.

Where other jewellers produce artist renderings of rings for teams,
Intergold makes a genuine version of each proposal, no matter how
many variations. Whatever rings aren’t used get melted down and
recycled.

“We knew they were the smaller company,” says Wilson of the Pistons’
decision to go with the Calgary firm.

“But they kept telling us, don’t make a decision based on something
that looks good on paper. If you like these five designs, we’ll make
you five rings.

“Other companies were saying, ‘Well, maybe we can do one ring, but
these things are very expensive’ . . . We started to get a feel for
just how badly they wanted the job.”

The samples allowed the wife of Pistons general manager Joe Dumars to
give the rings one final test, which essentially secured the
contract.

“Our guys like the bling-bling, as the saying goes,” Wilson chuckles.
“So she took the rings out into the sun, just to see how much ‘bling’
there was — and there’s a lot.”

On Friday, Armutlu boarded a plane for Florida where he will meet
with Boston Red Sox executives in a bid to design that team’s World
Series ring.

It’s the third time the company has pitched the Red Sox since October
and Armutlu has already produced nine variations of a ring, with the
latest three being rolled out at this meeting.

“We’ll produce on average maybe 15 or 16 variations before we arrive
at the final one with some teams,” Armutlu says.

The hardest part of designing the Red Sox ring so far is getting a
scaled-down depiction of Fenway Park onto the band, which the team
has requested.

His business is half science, half art, says Armutlu. A good
championship ring will tell a story of how the team won.

When Intergold designed the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Stanley Cup ring
this year (admittedly a bittersweet task for the Calgary firm) the
emphasis was on that story.

The ring has 138 diamonds — one for each of the Lightning’s regular
season points and two for every victory in the playoffs. The band
carries the logos of Tampa Bay’s opponents, including the Flames’
symbol and the 4-3 series score.

Etched on the inside of the ring are two mottos used by Lightning
coach John Tortorella during the season: ‘Safe is Death’ and ‘Good is
the Enemy of Great.’

“The goal is to make something that can bring back the feeling of the
moment of victory six, seven, eight years from now,” Armutlu says.

“I was talking to Phil Esposito about his Stanley Cups and he doesn’t
really remember them. Most players don’t remember. They know they
won, but how they got there is forgotten.”

Many companies bid for the championship contracts, but the process is
usually narrowed to three or four players in a hurry, Armutlu says.

“Everyone says they can do a championship ring until they start to
attempt it,” he says. “Jewellers think it’s easy. But once the sample
stage starts, you know right away who can do what.”

Intergold’s most opulent piece so far is the Florida Marlins’ 2003
World Series ring, which boasts nearly 250 diamonds and has the
weight of a baseball when you hold it in your hand.

“That one really pushed us to our limits in terms of design,” Armutlu
says, explaining that the ring involves several themes — from a
full-colour baseball to a three-dimensional diamond rendering of the
team’s fish logo.

Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria has since requested a special version of
the ring that flips open to reveal a watch. It’s something Intergold
hasn’t attempted before.

“He also wants it to play ‘Take me out to the Ballgame’ when it
opens,” says Armutlu. “So we’re figuring out how to do that.”

How the rings look before they are delivered — and how much each one
costs — is a closely guarded secret.

Walking through Intergold’s manufacturing plant, Armutlu offers a
peek at Team Canada’s World Cup of Hockey rings, which are in
mid-production.

“This one will be (Jarome) Iginla’s,” says Armutlu, holding a gold
base with the Hockey Canada logo that has just been forged. “None of
the players have seen these yet.”

All glamour aside, Armutlu says the financial foundation of the
company is rooted in the high school and college ring business as
well as its corporate products.

Up to 50 per cent of graduates in the U.S. buy school jewelry each
year — more than twice the average in Canada — and most of what
Intergold makes goes into that market, he said.

While the big-name sports contracts open doors for Intergold, they
have yet to lure investors. The company went public at $3 a share in
1994 but has seen its stock fall sharply to penny status since then.
Intergold has averaged less than 30 cents on the TSX Venture Exchange
this year.

“We went public at a time when we needed funds to take risks on the
the ideas we thought would work,” Armutlu says. “But if I knew then
what we know now, would we be a public company? Probably not.”

The company used its share offering to finance equipment and
processes that are now used to manufacture the high-end jewelry.

“At a time when no other traditional institution would give us the
dollars to build the machines we wanted to, it was the public vehicle
that did that,” he says. “Several years ago, we once had obstacles,
but we now have tools to break down those obstacles with.”

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