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A piece of musical history comes to life in Ridgway

Oct 19, 2016

About an hour north of Telluride is the town of Ridgway, Colo. — population 932. On one of the main streets is a shop called Billings Artworks.

“We’re in a museum, a workshop, and a dump all rolled into one,” explained John Billings, the owner.

There is a sign on the door outside that always states that the store is closed.

“It’s an interesting space,” Billings said. “There’s a lot of history in here, a lot of things to look at. It’s just full of stuff.”

Stuff like Michael Jackson’s Motown Records ID card, or Michael Jordan’s award for being the best collegiate basketball player. There’s one of John Lennon’s Grammys, as well as the pieces of another that Taylor Swift famously dropped and broke. So why does he have all of those? He makes them. The Grammy. The John R. Wooden award and even chrome duck from the film “Convoy”.

“We still do things old school here,” said Billings. “The mold-making goes back a couple hundred years.”

Billings has a hammer that is at least 100 years old. It’s a tool he inherited from his mentor when he was in the early stages of his metal-casting career. It started in the 1970s when he no longer wanted to work on a loading dock in Los Angeles. A neighbor was a professional metal-worker, and he sparked John Billing’s interest in casting.

“I’ve always loved working with my hands,” he said. “I always built models — model cars, model planes. Then, when I started making jewelry, you could just go so far with fabricating stuff. I thought I wanted to cast.”

Billings’ neighbor and mentor became sick and later died. He purchased the business and became the sole maker of The Grammy. It’s been that way for 40 years, and with contract renewals and design changes, it’s been a tough road. Still, Billings and his small team make the award by hand. Hundreds of them. Each of them are made out of “grammium”, a custom alloy created just for the Grammy.

“I’m the only person who can authenticate a Grammy,” Billings said. “If a Grammy shows up at a Christie’s auction house in New York, I get called to authenticate that Grammy.”

It’s small details that make the difference, he said. A common error he sees is using the wrong font on the nameplate.

“It provides you with a life,” Billings said. “I’ve been fortunate to really not have a job in 40 years. To be able to pay the bills is satisfying.”

Billings will soon be negotiating another contract so that he can keep making the Grammys for years to come.