Every year, from a studio nestled in the San Juan Mountains, John Billings, 69, leads a three-man crew in handcrafting the music industry's most coveted possession. Billings, who produces the 24K-gold-plated prizes in batches of 30, with each requiring roughly 15 hours of manpower, began his Grammy journey in 1976, when the Southern California native apprenticed with his best friend's father, mold-maker Bob Graves. When Graves died, in 1983, Billings took over the business and now -- his company Billings Artworks, located in Ridgway, Colo. (population: 962) -- creates approximately 580 Grammy Awards annually (including 230 Latin Grammys). The first trophies were made of lead, but today Billings uses his own special zinc alloy (which he named Grammium) to manufacture the Recording Academy's laurels. The Academy pays him per Grammy, but Billings won't divulge the fee: "I shared it once and I got chewed out," he admits. His company also constructs two other trophies: the Annie Award, animation's highest honor; and the NCAA equivalent of the Heisman Trophy, the John R. Wooden Award. After 40 years, what is the artisan's proudest memory? "When Bob Dylan was handed his lifetime achievement award that I made, I burst into tears."
For Billings, who plans to attend the 2016 Grammy Awards, the annual ceremony is "like watching your children" onstage. In 1991, he streamlined the design because "the older ones seemed to break a lot." Today, each trophy weighs about 5 pounds and stands approximately 8.5 inches tall. The gramophones on the telecast aren't the real thing: They're recycled "stunt" Grammys -- blank awards that "can be kissed and hugged and dropped," as he notes. Once the Recording Academy provides a winners' list, Billings and his team laser-engrave names onto plates and package the trophies. Then Billings personally drives the haul to the Academy offices in Santa Monica. Winners usually receive their customized prize within 60 days.