How much did your college ring cost? Five-hundred dollars? A grand? Or did you not get one because you didn’t feel like shelling out that kind of money on a keepsake you might or might not wear?
David Holland feels your pain. When his nephew showed him his college ring and said it had cost more than $1,000 the idea to develop less expensive class rings took root in Holland’s mind. That was in 2009.
Holland spent the next three months researching the class rings industry. It’s a lucrative endeavor — class rings are a half-billion-dollar annual industry. Wal-Mart even got into this field a few years ago and offers customizable rings for high schools starting as low as $50 (for a generic ring made of light metals) and as much as $800 (for custom rings in solid gold).
Wal-Mart, however, does not produce college rings, since there are complicated licensing agreements involved. In this field, the 1,000-pound gorilla is Minneapolis-based Jostens, which offers customizable college ring packages starting at around $500. That’s for a fairly straightforward ring without frills. Depending on the type of material and the amount of work you want on it, you could easily pay more than $1,000.
But despite the raw income these rings generate and the steady number of potential customers graduating from college every year, the industry has been hit with steadily eroding sales. Holland says this is because rings have “just gotten too damn expensive.” At the same time, his research found that a lot of college graduates do want a memento of their time and effort. They just want one they can afford.
A former equity partner at Prince, the largest tennis-specific equipment company in the country, and a lifelong entrepreneur, Holland married his business sense with technology and founded Anulas (in Spanish “anular” means “ring-shaped”) in Lawrenceville, under the umbrella of Holland Innovations LLC. Holland’s goal is to fill the demand gap for school rings that slowly has turned into a chasm.
To do this, Holland first tackled the major reason behind most rings’ price tags — materials. Gold, white gold, platinum, and real silver are called precious metals for a reason, and companies like Jostens use them in most of their products.
Holland, however, did not want to compete in the precious metals field.
Holland found an alloy, often used in luxury watches and necklaces, that is popular in Asia — particularly in Japan, he says, where there is a growing demand for non-precious jewelry. Holland found a vendor for the alloy and gave the company guidelines so that it could adjust the formula to fit Anulas’ needs. More than anything, Holland wanted a precious-looking material that was strong, durable, and hypoallergenic.
The adjusted alloy is unique to Anulas and is named Triplatium, because “it looks like platinum and is hard as can be,” Holland says. Though the material is naturally silver, Anulas plates rings with 18-karat gold for customers who want gold rings.
The second reason custom class rings cost so much has to do with production. Old-fashioned casting for individual rings can be time-consuming and pricey. Anulas, however, has found a jewelrymaking partner in Germany that is able to laser-engrave custom designs, based on a selection of plates that customers can view at Anulas’ website, www.anulas.com.
“We wanted to allow students to design their own rings,” Holland says. “Not pick from a catalog.” Once the design for a ring is in place it takes little time to etch. And because it is done by a laser, the personalization can be specific and intricate. The priciest rings the company sells are about $200. And if you lose your ring, the company will make you another one for half price.
The third reason for the expense is a universal among product businesses — overhead. Holland tackled this issue by utilizing the very audience he is looking to sell. “We’re using part-time students to do events on campus,” he says. Students set up shop at school and do the selling. They give customers an online code and get a percentage of any sale, eliminating the need for paperwork. Holland says the tactic so far has proven successful.
Anulas also is courting customers through Facebook and through colleges’ online publications, but Holland says the “grassroots contact” on campuses has proven the most effective.
Holland’s knowledge of college student-ese comes in some part from his son, David, a student and tennis player at Duke. “Outside of class, it’s pretty much wake up, eat, sleep, and go on Facebook,” Holland says of his son’s college life.
Holland admits that his son has it over on him in tennis. Back in the 1970s as a student at the University of Delaware, Holland was a good player. Or at least until he entered the tournament circuit. His college victories hadn’t prepared him for the semi-pro crowd. His son, on the other hand, is attending Duke on a tennis scholarship and has been nationally ranked as high as No. 11.
Being a pro tennis player might not have worked out for Holland, but he has left an indelible mark on the game. In Delaware his proximity to DuPont and to his father’s entrepreneurial nature led him to the substance Kevlar.
Mainly associated with bullet-proof vests, Kevlar was developed by DuPont in the ‘70s as a lightweight alternative to steel plate armor. Its strength was not just in its actual strength, it was also in its flexibility.
Holland and his father, whom he says “started half a dozen companies over the years,” adapted Kevlar to tennis racket strings. The two are co-owners on the patent for the most popular type of strings in the game.
Having developed the Kevlar strings, Holland put them to use in his college game. In 1975 he became the first college player sponsored by Prince, now headquartered in Bordentown. After two years his father sold their company and Holland went to work for Woodstream, a manufacturer of mousetraps. He went to night school at Belmont and then Northwestern, where he earned his bachelor’s in management and social policy.
In 1985 he joined Prince and became a senior category director. He stayed with Prince until 2008 and was part of several innovations for the company. He left, he says, because the company wanted to continue a growth model he did not agree with. He did, however, want “an equally fun job. At Prince it never felt like work to me.”
So far he has found Anulas to be as enjoyable as Prince. He also enjoys his time as a volunteer for Interfaith Caregivers of Trenton, helping the elderly and homebound. He got that from his mother, who was an active volunteer in their Lancaster, Pennsylvania, home.
Anulas formally launched in April, 2010, and Holland went straight for Princeton University as the company’s first licensor. “That was important because it gave us credibility to approach other schools,” Holland says.
Princeton, unlike most schools, has its own office dedicated to licensing its name. Holland says the process involved months of meetings, presentations, and proposals. Anulas pays Princeton an advanced royalty on future sales — 10 percent, which Holland says is standard.
Licensing agreements with other schools are done through three agencies. These agencies represent the interests of several schools and allow Anulas to reach more schools nationwide. Anulas works with two agencies now and is expecting to sign on with the third this summer.
So far the company has licences to sell rings commemorating 22 colleges (including Rider), five organizations (such as Rotary Club), and eight high schools. More are coming, Holland says, and Anulas is just now getting into the high school market in earnest.
But at least he doesn’t have to worry about licenses for those.
Holland Innovations LLC (Anulas), 3 Stonerise Drive, Lawrenceville 08648; 717-220-0022. David Holland, president and owner. www.anulas.com.