It’s December 19th, 2001 and after a breathless screening of Peter Jackson’s epic adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, hundreds of Tolkien fans stream out into the lobby of the theater. They’re chattering endlessly, some even leaping excitedly while they gesture wildly with their hands. The star of the movie, the heart of the story they’ve just seen portrayed on screen, is a plain gold ring around which all the action evolves.
Throughout the movie there have been at least a dozen close-ups of the ring itself, a beautiful yet simple heavy gold ring. This seminal prop obviously had to be thoughtfully and carefully designed and in March 1999, the production company producing the immense trilogy, 3 Foot 6 productions (named for the average size of a hobbit) and Dan Hennah, supervising art director, handed the task over to Jens Hansen (pronounced Yens), an acclaimed New Zealand jeweler known for his beautiful, contemporary jewelry.
New Zealand is certainly a far cry from Hollywood but its breathtaking, sprawling green vistas, and huge mountains are perhaps the ideal location for Middle earth, the setting of the story. Furthermore, the people there are overwhelmingly friendly and industrious and the movie’s production went on to become something of a cottage industry since nearly everything from the props to the post production of the massive trilogy took place there. The creation of the this plain gold ring is not as simple as it may seem, and perhaps parallels the epic journey that Frodo set out on in the story.
When Jens Hansen first accepted the assignment, he was excited since his sons were great fans of the books. Dan Hennah mentions though that Jens initially turned down the job of ringmaker, but changed his mind later that same day at his sons’ urging. The production company gave Hansen’s creativity free reign, not specifying any design elements, so Jens turned to his son Thorkild, who worked with his father and was an accomplished jeweler by his own right, for input. Thorkild, like almost everyone in New Zealand, is a warm, friendly character who almost seems indifferent to the important role his workshop played in the creation of the One Ring. That’s not to say he doesn’t care, he is immensely proud of their role in the trilogy, it’s simply that the success of the motion picture and all the attention hasn’t gotten to who he is as a person.
Jens and Thorkild were fans of the books early on, when Thorkild was just a boy. Jens first read the Hobbit to the then ten year old Thorkild, who describes the ring he imagined then as a “simple heavy band.” Inspired by that description and what he had imagined while reading and rereading the Lord of the Rings over the years, Jens went on to create 15 different designs for the production company with what Thorkild describes as varying “weights, widths and curvatures.” Eventually, Peter Jackson picked the final design, and the One Ring was born.
On a production as large as the Lord of the Rings, which took 18 months to film, many rings—no less than 39—had to be produced which kept the Jens Hansen workshop busy. Thorkild mentions that the various rings were made in “different sizes for close-ups and for different scenes and actors.” Small rings were made for the hobbits and larger ones for characters like Sauron. For close-ups, like the ring spinning at the beginning of the film, enormous rings needed to be made. Thorkild describes one such ring made for another scene in the beginning of Fellowship, in which Bilbo drops the ring in front of his door and it doesn’t roll, bounce or move; a visual foreshadowing of the metaphorical weight the ring would place upon its bearer. “The ring used was 6 inches [in diameter]; it was made of steel and gold plated. A magnet was placed under the floor so that when it dropped, it appeared to be extremely heavy.”
Another large ring needed to be made for a scene atop a snowy mountain where Frodo loses the necklace with the ring and Boromir retrieves it. The scene calls for a tight close up of the ring on the chain dangling from Boromir’s hand. Thorkild explains that the ring used in that scene “was again of a six inch diameter. The chain was silver and hand made here in the workshop, and was approximately a meter long!”
Things went well and the workshop was busy, but an immense setback came when Jens Hansen lost his battle to cancer. He was only 59 years old. Since the workshop is very much a family, the loss suffered by relatives and employees alike was great. Among the many faces on this tragedy is that Jens never got to see his ring look so good on the big screen. Thorkild eventually took over the production of the rings for the film, but something would always be missing. Jens’s design lives on in the film though, a design that would later be come to be enjoyed by millions.
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