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O.C. Tanner
Gymnasts Shawn Johnson, left, and Nastia Liukin choose rings on July 17 in San Jose. About 30 O.C. Tanner employees worked on the rings.

The characteristic lines and curves in Chinese architecture and art inspired Mary Saenz.

The 21-year designer for O.C. Tanner created the official U.S. Olympic Team rings for some 1,300 athletes, coaches and staff in the 2008 Olympics and Para-Olympics.

"I did some research, I wanted it to kind of have an Asian or Chinese feel," said Saenz, who noticed in traditional Chinese buildings that rooflines sloped gracefully upwards. She found the same lines and curves in Chinese junk boats and calligraphy. She decided to incorporate that traditional line — imagine a wide "U" shape — into the rings.

Since the 2000 Games in Sydney, Salt Lake City-based O.C. Tanner, an international company that makes jewelry and awards for companies to give to their employees, has designed and donated rings to U.S. Olympians. O.C. Tanner also designed the unique gold, silver and bronze medals for the 2002

Winter Games in Salt Lake City, memorable perhaps because they were not perfectly round and each was individual. The rings for the Beijing Games are the first Olympic rings project for Saenz, who has a degree in commercial art and illustration from Utah State University.

Saenz's design was chosen in May among a handful of designs by O.C. Tanner employees. But before the designers sharpened their sketching pencils, they had to consider how to incorporate the USOC's specifications for the rings, which included the five Olympic rings on the top, the words "Olympic Team" or "Gold Medalist," the name of the Olympian's sport and the USOC logo.

Saenz wanted the ring to have a classic look, since it's likely athletes will wear them for the rest of their lives and pass them on to children. She didn't want the rings to look big or gaudy.

She chose the Chinese lines and curves to frame the various logos and words. The curvature symbolizes the divine flying bird, and some Chinese believe that ghosts move in straight lines. "The curve wards off evil spirits that bounce off the tapered roof," Saenz said.

Saenz, who works in product development, said the honor of the project didn't hit until she got to meet the athletes a couple of weeks before the Games began, when they were out-processing at San Jose State University. "They didn't seem to be nervous," she said. "I was saying, 'Maybe it didn't hit them until the flight."'

Saenz fitted the rings to whichever finger they wanted. Boxers, for instance, picked their pinky fingers. Shotputter Reese Hoffa chose his middle finger, and required a size 17 ring. Saenz and other staffers gathered information for customizing. Athletes could upgrade to white gold or add diamonds. The private company did not reveal how much the donation was worth or how much athletes paid in upgrades.

"A lot of times, you don't see the people that receive what you've designed, because you do it for a company," Saenz said. "This was really, really rewarding to get the feedback from the athletes and meet the athletes that are actually going to receive them."

About 30 employees at O.C. Tanner, among about 1,600 total employees, have worked on the rings or will do so during the process. They rings will be cast in gold with the ancient lost wax method.

"They create a wax version of the ring in the exact size, and they put it in a cast (made of plaster)," said Sandra Christensen, O.C. Tanner marketing director. "It heats up the plaster and forms a vacancy where the wax was, the wax melts away. And then the gold fills in the whole where the wax exited."

O.C. Tanner's contract with the USOC is finished with the Beijing Games. "We're in discussions with the USOC to continue on," Christensen said.

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