This Utah ring company has collaborated with Lord of the Rings, Major League Baseball, Fender and more
“Big” really does mean big here—Jack Daniels, Fender, Game of Thrones, Major League Baseball and Warner Brothers are just a few of the contracts they’ve secured.
Licensing is how they differentiate themselves from the many other wedding band and ring companies across the state of Utah.
“There are three ring makers within a 10-mile radius of our offices,” says Christopher Bright, Manly Bands’ director of products. “They pop up here all the time.”
One of the ring makers next door to Manly Bands specializes in gold rings, Bright says. Another is big on customization.
“We decided to not touch either of those things and push ahead on branding,” he says. “And I’d say it’s worked out well so far.”
Bright is being humble. From 2021 to 2022, the company saw a 70 percent increase in licensing sales alone while continuing to monopolize the niche.
Late last year, Manly Bands launched their most ambitious collaboration yet: a Lord of the Rings collection, aptly dubbed “The One Collection to Rule Them All.”
Such huge names on one side of the teeter totter might lead you to believe that Manly Bands is a billion-dollar operation too. In reality, they employ fewer than 100 people and house the operation—from designs, manufacturing and retail—all within a few blocks in northern Utah.
Each year, the team specifically budgets for licensing agreements.
“When you’re a small-to-mid-size company like us, managing these deals requires setting aside cash,” Bright says. “We do everything to hedge our bets—including mountains of pre-work in design and planning, but if you’re not careful, a bad deal can wipe you out.”
Despite the risks, Bright says he starts each year with a plan for at least two licensing agreements.
“While it’s difficult and expensive, we’ve found every deal to be worth the time,” he says. “There was one that ended up falling through where we had to cut a big check on the minimum guarantee, and even that was a learning opportunity.”
But how does a mid-size, local company like Manly Bands land global powerhouse licenses? Cold emailing is a lost art, they say.
“We didn’t have a licensing representative until 2021,” says Michelle Luchese, co-founder and co-CEO of Manly Bands. “Jack Daniels was our very first deal, and we got that by just reaching out. We pitched a Jack Daniels-inspired ring over email, and they were responsive to it.”
Luchese says at the time, Jack Daniels was just starting to branch into licensing opportunities. Many collaborations between a product and brand materialized as basic and obvious combinations. Bright says going that direction often pushes deals in the wrong direction—and makes a lower quality product.
“We’d never just slap a logo on something and call it good,” Bright says. “Our designs are all in reference to the brand, and I think that’s what made us interesting.”
Instead, in the joint first foray into licensing, Jack Daniels and Manly Bands cooked up rings made with actual whiskey barrel inside.
“It’s still a wedding ring, but we added this new layer of personality,” Luchese says.
That infusion of personality was the drive for creating Manly Bands in the first place.
“When my husband and I were engaged, jewelry stores would roll out the red carpet for me,” Luchese says. “There’d be these shelves and drawers with hundreds of diamond rings, and then they’d offer him one of four bands in the back.”
The experience—one that should have been fun and exciting—ended up draining them both. That’s when they founded Manly Bands, together.
“You’ll only buy a wedding ring once,” Luchese says. “Or maybe twice, if you’re part of the national average—the point is, it’s a special thing, and it’s something we assume you’ll be wearing for years and years. It should be personal.”
The 2020 Jack Daniels deal launched Manly Bands’ licensing path.
“The success of that rollout added a lot of legitimacy to our brand and nodded to other companies that we were worth working with,” Luchese says. “We just needed to get our foot in the door, and then the product development spoke for us.”
“As much as it’s exciting, especially when you’re dealing with companies and characters with massive fan bases, a licensing deal can be terrifying ... While working with Lord of the Rings concepts, we knew it wasn’t just corporate or the Tolkien estate we needed to think about—if we got something wrong, the fans would tear us a new one.”
In the following months, they scored two more physical partnerships: MLB and Fender, both of which were easy to incorporate.
“The question of what to put in the ring is answered without much debate when the product is tangible,” Bright says. “A whiskey barrel, a guitar string or pick, part of a baseball or a mitt.”
Bright sources the physical material, then calls up his manufacturing team next door.
But things get more challenging when exploring conceptual offerings.
“Unfortunately, I can’t go to the Shire to collect materials,” Bright says.
The lack of clear direction ended up being the biggest difficulty in designing for the Lord of the Rings partnership, pinning down the right feeling without stepping on too many toes—or violating a contract.
Bright says the “guardrails” for each of Manly Bands’ licensing agreements are similar.
“You can’t laser engrave an image from the movie on the inside of a ring,” Bright says. “We also don’t have rights to an actor’s likeness or their names. We usually need to avoid fonts from movies or books, an author or director’s names.”
But those are just the bright line rules. Often, it’s the murky gray area that stalls work.
“Sometimes the limitations are confusing,” he says. “There have been multiple occasions where we didn’t know we’d crossed a line until we’d submitted it for review.”
With all of that happening in the background, he says the licensing deals can feel like navigating a maze filled with booby traps.
“As much as it’s exciting, especially when you’re dealing with companies and characters with massive fan bases, a licensing deal can be terrifying,” Bright says. “While working with Lord of the Rings concepts, we knew it wasn’t just corporate or the Tolkien estate we needed to think about—if we got something wrong, the fans would tear us a new one.”
But despite the bone-chilling fear that an online fandom can instill, the Manly Bands team is grateful for the pushback.
“They have a brand they want to protect and so do we,” Bright says. “The contracts and fan relationships help us know that the products will sell—we don’t see them as restrictive so much as directive.”
In fact, Bright credits the mix of internal and external pressures for how well the Lord of the Rings collection performed.
“Our initial ring prototypes felt flat, like copy and pastes of previous designs,” he says. “We pushed forward with them for a while until finally, my gut feeling took over—what we were about to hand in just wasn’t us, and it wasn’t Lord of the Rings.”
He sent the entire team back, with homework: read the books, watch the movies, listen to the soundtracks, study the artwork.
“We reconvened a month later with the best ideas we’d ever had,” he says. “We hit that sweet spot, where fans can tell what ring is for Legolas, for Frodo at a glance. We used material we’d never used before—lava rock, bowstring, carbon fiber, we really pushed our own comfort zone. Ultimately, that’s all really thanks to the constraints, not in spite of them.”
While they’re obviously making a fair profit off the ring collections, Bright says they go out of their way to keep pricing the same across styles.
“By sales volume, we sell many more licensed rings than we do other types,” he says. “But by margin dollars, each ring earns similar amounts. We pay a royalty on each licensed ring, but we choose not to inflate those prices.”
Luchese says the pricing guidelines harken back to why she and her husband launched Manly Bands in the first place.
“We want the men shopping for rings to find something that really captures their story, that includes them in the experience,” she says. “Why would we price out the people we’re making our product for? They’re the reason we’re here.”
They’ve taken customer relationships a step further by involving their base in planning for future licensing agreements. Throughout the year, Manly Bands sends surveys to prior customers.
“We view it as a sanity check,” Bright says. “We’ll ask them to pick among a few license options, and then we usually follow their advice. They tend to propose the right answer—no pun intended.”