Practical. Strong. Ageless. Unadorned, until heated to reveal the Tengwar script of the Black Speech of Mordor. Able to morph to fit its wearer without losing integrity of shape.
These are Peter Jackson’s “Rules of the One Ring,” recalled by Dan Hennah, supervising art director on the Lord of the Rings trilogy, from his home in Nelson, New Zealand. “It was a reasonably simple brief, but it was very specific.”
2021 marks The Lord of the Rings movies' 20th anniversary, and we couldn't imagine exploring the trilogy in just one story. So each Wednesday throughout the year, we'll go there and back again, examining how and why the films have endured as modern classics. This is Polygon's Year of the Ring.
Hennah knew exactly who had the skill and aesthetic to forge the most famous piece of jewelry in Western literature: Danish-born artist Jens Høyer Hansen. A physical giant of a man with a larger-than-life personality, Hansen already had a reputation as one of the most influential contemporary artists in New Zealand. Trained as a jeweler but a smith and sculptor at heart, Hansen had been making bold, clean statement pieces since the 1960s.
“He was capable of understanding [the brief] without needing to put his own stamp on it,” Hennah explained. Plus, “he was never mean with his gold.” (Unlike some dragons we know.)
But Hansen never got to see his tiny creation on the big screen. Not long after he began work on the One Ring in 1999, he was diagnosed with the pancreatic cancer. The condition took his life four months later at the age of 59.
As Halfdan Hansen, Jens’ eldest son and current manager of Jens Hansen Gold & Silversmith, told Polygon, seeing his father’s design on screen without him “was definitely a moment of bittersweetness for my brother and I.”
The films’ success introduced a global audience to Hansen’s work, and customers around the world now purchase the official licensed prop replicas his workshop produces for Wētā Workshop. However, the Ringmaker deserves appreciation for more than this one piece. Called “the grandfather of modern jewelry-making in New Zealand,” Jens Hansen reshaped the idea of what jewelry could be.
“He was making this work that was kind of bold, big, organic, sculptural surfaces,” said Halfdan, “which in hindsight meant that he was a logical person to make a ring such as the One Ring.”
“My family tree is very mono-culturally Danish for the last couple of hundred years,” said Halfdan. “[My father] would have had innately in his soul and upbringing some exposure to Viking and Nordic mythology.”
Tall, bearded, and boisterous, Jens Hansen appeared to many Kiwis like a Nordic god himself.
“Jens, to me, was very much a Viking,” Hennah said.
Born in the town of Gram in 1940, Hansen sailed east to Auckland with his parents and three sisters in 1952, one of many families who left the war-scarred lands of Europe for better opportunities.
Never fully comfortable in the classroom due to the language barrier, Hansen left school at the (then) legal age of fifteen to begin a jeweler’s apprenticeship in 1956. Four years and eight thousand working hours later, Hansen returned to Denmark as a journeyman for the jeweler firm A. Michelsen.
“He would have cut his teeth on diamond engagement rings and wedding rings and other stuff that he personally didn’t have an aesthetic taste for,” Halfdan said. To satisfy his growing artistic sensibility, Jens studied at Copehagen’s School of Applied Arts and Industrial Design. He returned to Auckland with wife Gurli in 1965, and immersed himself in the bold, simple, geometric designs that characterized postwar Danish jewelry. In 1968, the picturesque New Zealand town of Nelson, where the mountains meet the beach on the northern tip of the South Island, came calling. Local leaders, eager to woo artists, offered Hansen financial help to set up shop.
Dan Hennah had relocated to Nelson around the same time in his work as an architectural draftsman, and he soon crossed paths with Jens. “He was a very capable, big guy,” Hennah remembered. “Larger than life.”
Just like his pieces. During our conversation, Hennah pulled out a necklace he and his wife Chris bought from Hansen in the ’70s: a convex half-sphere of New Zealand greenstone mounted in silver. It’s nearly as big as his palm.
Hennah pointed out the gentle curve of the clasp and held up the round-linked chain reminiscent of one owned by the Baggins family. (Hensen’s workshop designed the Ring’s chain as well.)
“The detail in his stuff was evident,” he said.
The necklace looks like it weighs a ton, reflecting Hansen’s commitment to substance as a style. Justine Olsen, Curator of Decorative Arts and Design at Te Papa Tongarewa/Museum of New Zealand, told Polygon via email that “His practice was founded on a love of materials and process. But form defined his work.”
“I use a hammer to bend metal where a jeweler would use pliers,” Jens himself explained in a 1999 jewelry exhibition catalogue. “This process is in itself a creator of bigger work with more fullness of form.”
The One Ring he designed has that fullness, too. “It’s needlessly heavy,” Halfdan said. “But what it means is that when you hold it in your hands and feel the weight of it, or look at it on the screen, it has this big reflective surface, and it just has this brooding sense of power.”
Of course, there was never just “one” Ring for the films. The first to appear on camera, in fact, didn’t come from Hansen at all: It belonged to co-producer and additional unit director Rick Porras.
You can see it in the “Bag End Set Test” featurette from the extended edition DVD of The Fellowship of the Ring. The hobbit home’s plywood shells had just been completed, and Peter Jackson wanted to check the set dimensions and test camera angles.
VFX cinematographer Brian Van’t Hul was behind the camera, with Porras as Frodo, Jackson as Bilbo, and VFX producer Charlie McClellan as Gandalf (using a puppet head on a stick). But of the four men at this impromptu taping, Porras alone had a wedding ring, having married in March 1999. Bought in Wellington, the gold band had markings designed by Alan Lee, one of the trilogy’s main conceptual artists and a long-time illustrator of Tolkien’s work.
Porras told Polygon that it was actually the first time he’d ever taken the ring off, which he found “a little disconcerting” in the moment. All the same, he recognized the need for it. “It was a character,” he said. “In those scenes, it’s not just someone pulling it out of a pocket, but it’s also holding it to camera, it’s dropping it, it’s then cutting to a close up of it on the floor.”
Close-ups of Porras’s ring (now kept in a safe deposit box at an undisclosed location) from the set test show a ring almost identical in shape to that used in the films proper. While movie lore has presented Porras’s ring as the original prototype for the One Ring, the timeline complicates this narrative.
In the extended edition extras, Jackson dates the Bag End set test to about a month before shooting began, or September 1999. In the same commentary, Hennah confirms that he borrowed Porras’s ring to show Jens during the design process. Yet, Jens died on Aug. 10.
“It was definitely all done and dusted before our dad passed in August 1999,” Halfdan confirmed via email after speaking to his brother Thorkild, who worked with his father at the time. Whatever the correct timeline and genealogy, two things are true: Porras’s wedding band made a unique contribution to the history of the One Ring, and Jens himself developed the final version.
The production was lucky to have Hansen’s direct involvement at all, since he lived only four months after his diagnosis. “His one big regret was that later in his life, he really felt like he was becoming a competent landscape painter in watercolors and oils,” Halfdan remembered.
However, Hansen’s lifelong generosity with his time and tools ensured that his jewelry artists — led by Thorkild — could execute his vision. “I choose to train people not necessarily to think like me but at least to understand what I am after,” he explained for a 1972 exhibition. (Halfdan worked overseas as an engineer until his father’s illness required his return to manage the shop.)
Tolkien’s “pure and solid gold” description (my emphasis) in the Fellowship of the Ring works on paper but not in real life, as Halfdan explained. “Practically, 18k gold has probably got the right balance between the richness of the golden color and the durability,” he said. In technical terms, the One Ring is closest to a comfort or court wedding band with rounded outer and inner surfaces.
To save money — though not time — the workshop used gold-plated sterling silver for most of the rings. Unlike the solid gold heroes, though, these rings kept losing their luster. “We had to keep sending back the plated ones when they got scratched on rocks and things like that,” Hennah said.
For many fans, the ring used in close-ups — like the scene where the Ring slips away from Frodo to lure Boromir in the snow at Caradhras, or when arguing participants in the Council of Elrond are shown reflected in the Ring’s surface — is the real hero ring. In order to capture the ring’s sheen in high definition, that prop was a full eight inches wide — too big even for Hansen’s tools.
Instead, a local machine shop made and polished the shape that Hansen’s team then plated. The polishing alone took about three days. “You have to have it highly polished, because gold plating is not like gold paint,” Halfdan said. “It will show up any surface underneath.” Aside from appearances at film premieres, the Big Ring sits in a display case in the Jens Hansen showroom where visitors can hold it if time and COVID protocols permit.
As for the purported magnetized ring that Bilbo drops onto a magnetized floor, that rumor appears to have come from Dominic Monaghan, who mentions a magnetized floor in the extended edition’s cast commentary. In his voiceover, though, VFX artist Brian Van’t Hul insisted they just used a lead ring to get that loud, hard thud.
Jens Hansen died before anyone had an inkling how successful the trilogy would become.
“Hindsight is 20/20,” Halfdan said. “After we achieved the final thing that we wanted to make and we went with that, all of the other ones” — the prototypes — “were basically put into the shop, and half of them had sold by the time anybody stopped to think.”
In the beginning, multiple companies sold unofficial ring replicas, and some still do. When Wētā regained the license for the One Ring from Warner Brothers in 2010, however, they asked Jens Hansen Gold & Silversmith to produce their official prop replicas.
Available in 18k gold-plated tungsten, sterling silver, 10k solid gold, and made-to-order 18k solid gold, these replicas contain the Tengwar markings. (Tungsten was chosen for its heft and for safety; in an emergency, it shatters easily for swift removal.) They come housed in a unique wooden box that displays the One Ring verse, the logos for Wētā and Jens Hansen, and the trilogy’s title font.
Halfdan brought up a couple common questions about the replicas to put them to rest. Customers often wonder why their rings have an “S10” stamp on the inside: that’s the licensing symbol, not the ring’s size. In addition, many wonder how the ring will look on their finger. No matter the size, the width stays the same: 7mm. Halfdan likens it to buying two different sizes of the same shoe: “A lot of those identifying features — the size of the eyelets, the laces, the logos — they’re all the same.”
While the One Ring may be Jens Hansen’s global legacy, evidence of his broader artistic impact on New Zealand art and culture appear throughout the island nation. “He introduced emerging jewelers and silversmiths to workshop methods and forms of modernism through the Danish lens,” Olsen told Polygon. In 2004, the national museum Te Papa added some of his early pieces to their permanent collection.
Hansen also recruited and taught many next-generation jewelers and artists, through summer painting and sculpture classes at the local polytechnic, local workshop demonstrations, and offering bench space to any jeweler who asked. “During a period when formal [higher] education in jewelry was non-existent, Hansen’s workshop became an attractive training ground,” Olsen added.
As Hansen told the Otago Daily News in 1995, “Most contemporary jewellers in the country have had some involvement with this place.”
To keep Jens Hansen’s personal vision alive, the workshop now produces the Legacy Collection, based on some of his earliest designs. “Once upon a time, we found a box of old six-by-four-inch index cards that had all the original maker’s notes,” Halfdan said. “Every year, around about the anniversary of his birthday, we release a new piece.”
“I think he was a singular artist,” Hennah said. “New Zealand was very privileged that he came here.”