Jon and Bernice Daniels have a client list that would make the world’s top fashion designers salivate.
Their chain mail products have been worn by Madonna, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus and Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas.
The metal rings and scales produced at their manufacturing plant on an acreage 25 kilometres east of Saskatoon have also appeared on American Idol contestants.
Business is booming because of the rising popularity of chain mail-inspired jewelry and fashion wear. Annual sales are more than $1 million but less than $10 million.
Ring Lord manufactures more than 4,700 lines of metal rings, scales, beads, clasps and bindings that are used to make medieval style jewelry and garments popularized by movies such asThe Lord of the Rings.
“If you’re watching carefully, you can’t watch a dozen movies without seeing a piece of chain mail in there somewhere,” said Jon.
Their products are made from a broad spectrum of metals including sterling silver, galvanized stainless steel, brass, bronze, nickel, gold, platinum and anodized aluminum.
They have a process that creates up to 20 colours from exotic metals such as niobium and titanium.
“When you put it in water and zap it with electricity, it changes colours,” said Bernice.
Today’s operation is a far cry from the company’s early days, when the couple made rings out of the same 14 gauge fencing wire that can be bought at Peavey Mart.
“When we started off, that was the chain mail ring that people were making in their basements with a pair of hand cutters. And that was all there was in the market,” said Bernice, who was raised in Wilkie, Sask.
Jon, who grew up on a farm near Cochin, Sask., got the business rolling in 1996 while completing his engineering physics degree at the University of Saskatchewan.
He found a company while poking around on the internet that sold mild steel chain mail rings for three cents apiece. Jon, who had experience making chain mail when he was a teenager, offered to sell the company rings for one cent apiece.
The company bit and Jon shipped out a bag of 1,000 rings. Unfortunately, the company went bankrupt before paying him but the experience planted the seed of what has grown into a multimillion-dollar business that employs nine people, including the Daniels. By 2000, the couple had formed the Ring Lord and were selling one million rings a month.
A year later, the Daniels were forced to move out of their Saskatoon home and buy a 30-acre farm to accommodate their first ring-making machine. By September of that year they were selling five million rings a month.
They temporarily operated out of a garage on the farm while building a 120 sq. metre shop. The building has since undergone three renovations and is now 650 sq. metres.
The shop houses five ring machines, a mechanical saw, a punching machine and a sophisticated packaging machine that creates small plastic bags, labels them and puts in the right quantity of rings.
The couple has put engineering degrees to good use in selecting the appropriate machines, figuring out how they work and adjusting them to better meet the business’s needs.
The new machines are computerized, which has made their lives less frenetic.
They no longer need to operate a night shift like they did during the first eight years of business.
However, Jon refuses to allow the Ring Lord to become 100 percent automated.
“I keep a half-dozen products that I need to make by hand just to give myself something to do,” he said while using a hand cutter to make tiny little rings from a coiled wire.
“I’ve never liked sitting still, so any time I need to sit still I need something to do with my hands, like cutting rings.”
He’s not quite as efficient as his machines, each of which can produce 500,000 rings per day.
The plant churns through 113,000 kilograms of wire a year to fill the 22,000 web orders that the Ring Lord receives from individual customers and to supply wholesalers.
“We make enough rings that we have a very large Bobcat and truck just to move wire around,” said Jon.
The bulk of their business is in the United States, but they ship to customers around the world. Bernice once planned to plot their sales on a world map, but there were too many red dots.
They ship 39,000 kilograms of product by mail a year, which is why UPS and Canada Post make daily trips to the farm to pick up parcels, despite the acreage being out of both company’s service areas.
Parcel delivery companies are not the only visitors to the farm.
“We’re ring Mecca. We have people that come up here on their vacation to check out the factory. I think last year someone came up from Texas,” said Bernice.
“If you’re a chain mailer and you live in Ottawa and you know you’re going to a conference in Saskatoon, we’re on your checklist.”
The company used to manufacture chain mail fabric as well as its individual components, but sold that portion of the business a year ago to three former employees living in Swift Current, Sask.
One of the last items they made was a 280 sq. metre chain mail curtain comprising 7.5 million metal rings that was used in a water feature at a casino in Macau.
Jon said the chain mail portion of the business had a completely different customer base and business model. They felt it was detracting from the original focus of the company, which was to manufacture rings.
However, they still make the occasional garment for special customers.
The Ring Lord is constantly evolving, which is what Jon prefers.
“We got here with the philosophy that every time you start to get your feet underneath you, it’s time for something else,” he said.