Every year at the Academy Awards, the big question is: Who does the Oscar go to?
This year, there's a new one to trip up trivia buffs: Where does the Oscar come from?
For the first time in its venerable history, Hollywood's most prestigious accolade is being manufactured under the watch of a Canadian company.
St. Regis Crystal of Markham, Ont., purchased Oscar's Chicago-based manufacturer R.S. Owens last December and with it, R.S. Owens's 30-year tradition of making the internationally recognized gold-plated statues.
Company decisions now come from southern Ontario, but the Oscars are still being made at the Chicago foundry, says St. Regis vice president Jeff Firkser.
"We purchased the company for its talent and for the stature they have in Chicago," Firkser says of R.S. Owens, which also makes trophies for the Emmy Awards and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Awards.
"This particular award is a cast award and it's not going to change. It's going to always be done there."
That guarantee was key to sealing the new partnership, says the president of R.S. Owens, Scott Siegel.
In recent years, Siegel notes his company lost several big contracts to cheaper manufacturers in China, among them the right to craft prestige prizes for the Academy of Country Music Awards, the MTV Video Music Awards and the Clio Awards, which is a top advertising prize.
"Awards that we used to make are now made in China," laments Siegel, a former high-school teacher who joined the family business just before R.S. Owens won the Oscar contract in 1982.
"I can name quite a number of awards that have done that, but thank goodness for the Oscars and the Emmys and a lot of corporate awards ... that are still interested in made-in-the-U.S.A., made-in-North America."
As for Firkser, he says the deal gives St. Regis a whole new product line to offer Canadian clients since they otherwise have no facilities for metal manufacturing.
His family-owned business made its name crafting accolades from glass, granite, marble and aluminum and also has facilities in Elliot Lake, Ont., and Indianapolis, Ind.
In Chicago, Siegel says it takes about one month to manufacture roughly 50 statues for Hollywood's glitziest bash.
And the trophies are readied a full year before they're actually presented to the winners – the batch being handed out Feb. 24 rolled off the assembly line in January 2012, while a new batch slated for delivery this week won't meet its owners until 2014.
"That's only because [the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences] doesn't want to run into the situation they ran into 12 years ago," says Siegel, referring to the time a shipment of Oscars was stolen right before the ceremony.
The statues were eventually recovered but not before R.S. Owens was sent scrambling to make replacements. Ever since that 2000 debacle, Siegel says they've been making Oscars a year in advance of each broadcast so the academy always has enough on hand.
Aside from a new computer system, day-to-day operations have not changed since the Canuck takeover on Dec. 17, says Siegel, whose company began as Charles Siegel & Son in 1938, when it was founded by Siegel's grandfather.
He says 10 to 12 people were laid off because distribution duties were moved to St. Regis, but adds that R.S. Owens is hiring in sales and manufacturing.
Firkser says he had never seen an Oscar up close until taking over R.S. Owens.
"The weight of it is quite surprising. It's a lot heavier than it looks," he says of the trophy.
In fact, the Oscar weighs 3.8 kilograms and stands just more than 34 centimetres high.
At its core is britannium, a pewter-like alloy that is poured by hand into a steel mould. The figure is ground, sanded and polished, and then plated several times: first with copper, then nickel, then silver and finally, heavy 24-karat gold. A lacquer is sprayed and then baked on.
The base is brass, which is spun and shaped on a lathe, polished and plated with a black nickel finish, and coated with a baked lacquer.
Siegel says each Oscar is individually numbered, but the winners' names are not attached until they are announced in Los Angeles. Instead, the names of all nominees are engraved on plates that are affixed immediately after the bash.
Although security will be tight, Siegel says the trophies are expected to make their way to Los Angeles on a regular commercial flight run by United Airlines on Thursday.
"There's usually a representative from the Motion Picture Academy on that flight and the tradition is they pass an Oscar around for people to hold," he says.
And while the iconic Oscar figure – of a man holding a sword on a reel of film – is undoubtedly the most highly regarded accolade in the movie business, it reigns supreme in another little thought-of field, adds Firkser.
"It's the most prestigious award in our industry – in awards and recognition," he says.
"I think it's one of the most recognizable trophies."