Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Medal Makers Cast Olympic Dreams in Gold

TAUNTON, Massachusetts -- Deep inside the 19th-century brick factory complex of America's oldest independent silver company, for months guards have been moving cabinets to a cement vault, where they are sealed nightly.


The contents? Not the usual gold and silver tableware produced at Reed and Barton Silversmiths. Nothing anywhere near that expensive, but something a lot more precious: the 1,838 bronze, silver and gold medals set to be awarded at the Olympics in Atlanta.


"To somebody who really wanted an Olympic medal, it's probably priceless," said Tony LaChapelle, the company's senior vice president for sales. "We make a lot of expensive things at Reed and Barton, but the Olympic medals were very, very special and we assured the Olympic Committee that we would uphold the integrity of the medals to the highest degree."


Even though the gold in an Olympic gold medal is worth just $68.10, officials feared souvenir-hunters and even counterfeiters would try anything to get one.


Employees are used to high security at the plant. Tucked away on a side street, Reed and Barton manufactures $10,000 silver tea sets, and its workers still craft sterling silver tableware by hand in cavernous buildings where the noise of machinery is notable by its absence.


The company was founded in 1824 by Isaac Babbitt, who sold trinkets made of pewter to supplement the money he made repairing watches, and still is privately held by the descendants of his two top craftsmen, Charles Barton and Henry Reed.


Reed and Barton got the contract to make Olympic medals in the fall, beating such competitors as Tiffany's and the U.S. Mint.


First sculpted in clay, the medals then were cast in rubber, then plaster, then into a steel mold. On the front, are Lady Victory, the Colosseum, a Grecian urn, the Olympic rings and a horse-drawn chariot. On the reverse is the Atlanta logo and a pictogram representing one of the 32 different sports in this year's Summer Games, which begin July 19.


"This isn't just a job. There are few projects we'll ever work on that have as much prestige as the Olympics," LaChapelle said.


That didn't mean free tickets to the games, however. But the company does get to keep a single set of the Atlanta medals to show off to visitors and customers. But Olympic officials insisted: they have to be stamped "SAMPLE."