From Grammys to the spoils of war, learn everything you need to know about the different types of trophies and their history.
The Olympics, held every two years, captivate the world's attention, and often spark discussions about potential winners, matches and the iconic image of medalists standing on the podium under the Olympic rings. As the victor's flag unfurls and their national anthem plays, tears are often shed by the athletes, their families, fans and even viewers watching at home. After the anthem, the athlete traditionally takes part in the ritual of "biting" the gold medal, leaving tooth marks on the precious metal as a symbol of their monumental achievement. While trophies are a familiar sight, you might not know about their intriguing history, which dates to the dawn of civilization. If you're curious about the fascinating evolution, artistic achievement and history behind trophies, read on to discover more.
History of trophies
Trophies of War
Trophies of war have a complex history, dating back to ancient civilizations worldwide. Soldiers would display the spoils of war, such as weapons and armor, to demonstrate victory. Over time, these trophies evolved to include body parts, such as heads or scalps, taken as proof of a successful kill. In Ancient Rome and Greece, trophies took the form of totems on poles adorned with armor, weapons and religious imagery that were paraded throughout the city and placed on hills as symbols of victory. These 16th-century Italian engravings provide evidence of these parades and the trophies’ fascinating design.
Throughout history, global powers have famously pillaged communities around the globe and brought back trophies from their conquests, such as ivory tusks and animal skins. Today, trophies of war continue to serve as reminders of past conflicts and are often displayed in museums or private collections to remember the horrors of war and honor the bravery and sacrifices of those who fought in them.
Trophies of AccomplishmentAncient Roots
The history of trophies given for accomplishment, specifically in the sports arena, also dates to ancient times. For as long as humans have been attracted to demonstrating their wartime achievements through trophies, mankind has been similarly interested in awarding symbols of athletic achievement in the recreational sphere.
The ancient Olympic Games were held in Olympia, Greece, from 776 BCE to 393 CE, and were one of the most important sporting events of their time. Beyond the monumental prestige that accompanied victories at the Olympic Games, winners of these athletic events were awarded a wreath made from olive leaves, known as the kotinos. Though olive leaves were not ancient metals, the value of the olive, both monetarily and symbolically, made these trophies prestigious. In addition to the kotinos, winners of the Olympics also received public recognition and free meals for life in their home city-states.
Renaissance & Recreation
Throughout the medieval and Renaissance eras, recreation remained a crucial part of societies, specifically in castles where royals had the free time to engage in leisurely activities. Much like in ancient times, Europeans throughout these times were drawn to horse racing, though often without chariots, and winners of the Palio di Siena horse race in Italy were awarded a silk banner depicting the Virgin Mary and the local patron saint. In England, trophies such as silver bells, cups and bowls were also given to winners of horse races. Additionally, royals began hosting tournaments featuring fencing, wherein swords and daggers, often of great value, were given as trophies.
Other famous historic trophies include:
- Carlisle Bells – 1599 (England) The Carlisle Bells trophy, also known as the Carlisle Gold Cup, is a horse racing trophy that has been contested since 1599 in Carlisle, England. It is one of the oldest racing trophies in existence.
- America’s Cup – 1851 (England) The America's Cup trophy is one of the oldest and most prestigious trophies in international sports, first awarded in 1851 in a race around the Isle of Wight, England. The trophy was won by the yacht America, and it has been contested by the world's best sailors and yachts ever since, with the United States holding the longest winning streak in the history of the Cup.
- Claret Jug –1873 (Scotland) The Claret Jug is the trophy awarded to the winner of the Open Championship, one of golf's four major championships. It was first presented in 1873 in Edinburgh, Scotland, and is made of silver with a coating of gold and features an ornate design with a claret jug on top.
- Wimbledon Trophies – 1877 (England) The Wimbledon trophies are the championship trophies awarded to the winners of the Wimbledon tennis tournament, the oldest and most prestigious tennis tournament in the world. The men's singles trophy, known as the Gentlemen's Singles Trophy, was first awarded in 1887, while the ladies' singles trophy, known as the Venus Rosewater Dish, was first awarded in 1886.
Crafted by the world’s most prestigious craftsmen and made of fine metals, these trophies were expositions of both technological innovation and artistic achievement. Tiffany & Co., the renowned titan of the decorative arts, began creating legendary trophies in 1860 with the creation of the Woodlawn Vase, the second jewel in the famous Triple Crown horse race, and the oldest continuously contested trophy in the United States. Tiffany & Co. quickly began receiving commissions to make trophies for boat races, and the preeminent firm chose their orders wisely. Only crafting the most elaborate and beautiful trophies, each treasure crafted by the firm represented the pinnacle of elaborate silversmithing.
Some of Tiffany & Co.‘s most famous commissions from the Gilded Age were from Ogden Goelet, a prominent member of the New York Yacht Club who made Newport, Rhode Island synonymous with yachting. Like the famed Goelet Cups, this Astor Cup created by Tiffany & Co. in 1893 is a breathtaking time capsule of both American sport and craftmanship. Held in Newport and originally sanctioned by the New York Yacht Club, the Astor Cup is one of the most important yacht annual races in the world. The trophies for the first of these races at the end of the 19th century were donated by John Jacob Astor. Many members of the Astor family were passionate sailors who were devoted to the success of the New York Yacht Club and the socialite and millionaire John Jacob Astor was no exception.
20th-21st Century Sporting Trophies:
As the popularity of sports grew throughout the 20th century, so too did the importance and prestige of sporting trophies. The FIFA World Cup trophy, first awarded in 1930, is now one of the most recognized and coveted sporting prizes in the world, while the Stanley Cup, awarded to the winner of the National Hockey League championship, is considered one of the most prestigious sports trophies in North America.
In recent years, there has been a trend towards creating more unique, distinctive and personalized trophies for specific sporting events, such as the Vince Lombardi Trophy (crafted by Tiffany & Co.) in American football, the Heisman trophy in college football and the Larry O'Brien NBA Championship Trophy (crafted by also crafted by Tiffany & Co.) in basketball. These trophies incorporate elements that are specific to the sport or the event, such as the exact silver replica of a standard Wilson NFL regulation football the Lombardi Trophy, or a basketball net motif on the O'Brien Trophy.
The FIFA World Cup trophy is also highly esteemed and has its own unique creation process. Since 1971, it has been crafted by the small Stabilimento Artistico Bertoni factory located just outside of Milan, Italy. The famous trophy stands 14 inches tall and is made of 18-carat gold and features two figures holding a globe. Despite costing around $50,000 to create, it is currently estimated to be worth around $20 million. The winning team's name is hand-etched into the base of the original trophy which is kept under strict guard — players receive a brass replica of the original trophy.
Beyond the realm of sports, many other awards are bestowed with iconic statues. The Oscar, for example, is Hollywood’s most prestigious award. Why then are these monumental, hand-crafted statues that cost $400 to craft only worth $1 on the market? According to the Academy’s official regulations, winners are not allowed to “sell or otherwise dispose of the Oscar statuette ... without first offering to sell it to the Academy for the sum of $1.” These rules, first introduced in 1951, are in place to “preserve the integrity of the Oscar symbol,” the Academy says. Any award before 1951, however, is free to market. Famously, in 1999 Michael Jackson paid $1.54 million for the trophy awarded to Gone With the Wind.
Awards like the Academy Award, Grammy, Tony and Emmy awards hold a significant place in the entertainment industry. Winning one of these awards as a recording artist, Broadway star, TV actor or actress can be a turning point in someone's career, propelling them into fame and fortune. These recognition awards are not just symbols of talent, but also of hard work and virtuosic potential in their respective crafts. They serve as lasting symbols of achievement, earned only by the best in their fields.
This tray was made for one of the most celebrated sports icons of the 20th century, this incredible Cartier presentation tray was gifted to the baseball star Joe DiMaggio by the New York Yankees in 1984. The son of Sicilian immigrants, he embodied the American Dream and earned his place as the American League’s Most Valuable Player three times over. Silver trays like these are highly collectible and coveted.
How are trophies made?Each artisan has their own unique skills, secrets and methods, but modern fine trophies made of precious metals still largely use artisan techniques from the 19th century. Here is a quick guide on how these trophies are made:
- Design: The firm will collaborate with the client to design a custom trophy to meet their specific needs and reflect the significance of the occasion. In the modern era, this process can involve sketches, 3D renderings made by new 3D printers and mockups.
- Materials: Once the design is finalized, the artisan selects the finest materials to create the trophy. The precious metals are chosen in small nugget-like form, melted down, and then rolled into thin sheets for shaping.
- Handcrafting: Each trophy is meticulously crafted by skilled artisans using traditional techniques. Tiffany & Co., for example, takes about 7 months to form the shape of the Vince Lombardi football before the polishing process even begins. Once the shape is formed, a specialized artisan will hand engrave, chase and polish the piece to achieve the metal desired finish.
- Finishing touches: If the trophy has any specialized features, such as the famous horse and jockey on the Kentucky Derby Trophy, those hand-perfected pieces are attached via welding. The trophy is then engraved with the necessary details such as the event name, date and winner's name, inspected by designers and sent to the victor.