Every year, dozens of Oscar statuettes are awarded to the men and women of film in recognition of their contributions to cinema. But at Chicago-based R.S. Owens & Company—the company that manufactures the prestigious award—the employees are the real stars of the show...
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The many faces of Oscar. A finished, mounted Oscar statuette (foreground) is the product of several stages of plating that include (background, from left to right) copper flash, high-end copper, nickel, silver and 24-karat gold. Photo courtesy of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences®. OSCAR©A.M.P.A.S.®
The Oscar might well be the most recognizable award in the world. After all, the Academy Awards—the annual event at which the golden statuettes are presented—are seen every year by millions of people in more than 120 countries around the globe. Despite the fact that many viewers associate it with Hollywood, the award is actually produced almost 2,000 miles away by Chicago-based manufacturer R.S. Owens & Company.
R.S. Owens got its start in 1938 when Owen Siegel—who sold pigeon seed from his father’s hardware store—was asked to supply a pair of pigeon-racing trophies. When Siegel realized that the sales of the two trophies brought in more money than a week’s worth of income from pigeon seed, he got into the trophy manufacturing business full-time.
Today, R.S. Owens—now presided over by Owens' son, Scott Siegel—is one of the most successful trophy manufacturers in the United States. In addition to the Oscar, the company manufactures the Emmy, the MTV “Moon Man,” the Clio and the American Quarter Horse Association World Champion trophies. It also designs and manufactures a variety of awards and gifts for corporations and organizations. The company’s 200+ page catalog features awards made using castings, wood, glass plate, stone castings, crystal, acrylics and a variety of other materials. On its cast metal products alone, R.S. Owens offers more than 25 different finishes.
R.S. Owens also does repair work and restoration on the awards and trophies it manufactures. “[Somebody] will have an award in their home, and they’ll try using something to clean it that’s not appropriate for it and damage the finish,” says VP of Manufacturing Bill Soucy, holding a damaged half-size replica of the Lombardi Trophy (the company is licensed to produce replicas of the trophy for individual members of Super Bowl winning teams). In those instances, R.S. Owens will strip the award and re-plate it. According to Soucy, that can make for a neat experience. “Its one thing to hold an Oscar, but when you hold the one that somebody like Ingrid Bergman won, there’s a real sense of history to it,” he says.
R.S. Owens first began manufacturing the Oscar in 1983, when the previous supplier ceased operations and recommended the company to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, the institution that awards the Oscars on an annual basis. Soucy concedes that, from a direct income standpoint, the Oscar® is not an incredibly profitable venture. “But the esteem that goes along with making the Oscar has opened a lot of doors for the company,” he says.
Every Oscar gets its start in R.S. Owens’ mold casting shop. There, the mold is cast using a high-quality pewter alloy called Britannia. After it has been cooled, each statuette is subjected to an exhaustive sanding and polishing operation that can take as long as an hour.
Once it has been sanded and polished, the statuette is degreased and made ready for plating. Performed manually, each Oscar is electroplated in copper, nickel, silver and 24-karat gold (see Figure 1 for complete process chart).
|Figure 1: Dressing Oscar|
|The Oscar is plated using copper, nickel, silver and 24-karat gold. Here’s a breakdown of the process:
Since the awards are so closely scrutinized, there is no room for error in the manufacturing process. It may seem odd then, that the company does not employ a quality control technician. Instead, every employee—from the metal casting department to the folks doing the packaging—is charged with the responsibility of scrutinizing the awards for quality. “Every pair of eyes in this building is charged with checking the merchandise for quality,” says Soucy. “Anyone in this building can reject a piece without fear of retribution.”
While R.S. Owens also etches the nameplates for the Oscars, the company has no advance knowledge of who the winners will be each year. Instead, the company is provided with the information after the awards ceremony, and the engraved plates are sent to Los Angeles where they are affixed by the Academy.
From start to finish, it takes about a day to manufacture each statuette, though the process can be expedited if need be. “We can run through the entire Oscar process in three or four days, if our backs are against the wall,” says Soucy. Fortunately, that has only happened once, in 2000, when—just prior to the Academy Awards—the statuettes were stolen while on route to Los Angeles. Though most of the statuettes were recovered a little more than a week later, R.S. Owens worked around the clock to produce a replacement batch in time for the awards ceremony.
Though R.S. Owens generally manufactures somewhere between 50-60 Oscars per year, the company never knows precisely how many will be needed. “The Academy estimates how many they will need for the next year, based on historical trends,” says Soucy. Surplus awards are housed in the Academy’s vault until the next year’s event.
Every year, Siegel—who took ownership of the company after his father passed away in 2001—is provided with a pair of complimentary tickets to the awards, which he generously gives away to a lucky employee, along with enough spending money to celebrate the experience in style.
In an era where many job shops have become almost obsessive about automation, R.S. Owens has been successful by taking a road less traveled. “Because of the nature of our business, automation isn’t necessarily the best fit for us,” says Soucy. “Our products require a great deal of handwork.” The company regards its products as works of art, and its 170 employees—from the metal casting department to the folks who do the packing—as artisans. Many of those employees spend their entire careers becoming masters of their specific craft. “If you look at our average seniority, we’re probably 20 years plus,” says Soucy. “There is a tremendous amount of talent and experience in the job shop.”
Referring to packaging as a talent may seem to be a tad hokey to some, but at R.S. Owens—where the packing department deals with hundreds of parts that come in a myriad of different shapes, sizes, substrates and finishes—packaging is as critical as any other aspect of the manufacturing process. The company uses a variety of tools—scratch resistant papers, bubble-wrap, air pillows and a foam-in-place technology, to name a few—to keep parts from being scratched or dinged. Workers in the packing department are charged with knowing how to use those tools to keep products in pristine condition during transit. More importantly, those workers are the last to see the products before they go out the door, making them the “last defense” from a quality control standpoint.
Walking through the job shop, one becomes keenly aware of a sense of creativity more akin to a design firm or marketing agency than to a manufacturing facility. While R.S. Owens is happy to work with outside designers, it has its own in-house design staff that develops the look for many of the awards it produces. That resource, combined with a “can do” attitude and a willingness to try just about anything (the management team is currently exploring the idea of adding powder coating to its repertoire), plays a big role in the company’s success.
R.S. Owens also benefits from being in a unique market niche that is not conducive to offshore competition. Not only are a lot of foreign job shops incapable of delivering quality finishes on par with those provided by R.S. Owens, but the few that can usually cannot meet strict deadlines. It doesn’t hurt that people have a tendency to procrastinate when it comes to ordering things like awards and corporate gifts. “If you’re ordering awards on a Monday for a banquet to be held on Friday, you don’t have time to order the product from a company half a world away.” Besides, who really wants to receive a prestigious award with the words “Made in China” written on the bottom?
Though the approach that R.S. Owens takes to production might be considered an unconventional one, there’s little doubt that it works. Soucy reports that the company has just experienced four consecutive record-setting months.