Elkhart jewelers make the Notre Dame-USC 'Jeweled Shillelagh' tradition shine

Elkhart jewelers are part of ND-USC 'Shillelagh' tradition

Caleb Bauer | South Bend Tribune
South Bend Tribune

ELKHART — Every year, Notre Dame and University of Southern California’s football teams vie for the Jeweled Shillelagh, a ruby- and emerald-bedecked Irish club. The winning team takes possession of the trophy for the next year and commemorates its victory with a bronze and emerald shamrock or bronze and ruby Trojan.

For the past 35 years, those shamrocks and Trojans have been created at Images Jewelers in Elkhart. The local jeweler, owned by business partners Bob Klose and Steve Lennox, casts the decorative medallions and creates the jewels that are mounted on the Shillelagh for the winning team.

The jewelers became a part of the storied tradition after Klose received a request from the daughter of his friend and fellow jeweler, Bill VanPatten.

“They said they were looking for someone to do these Shillelagh trophies,” Klose said. “The one they had was the original one and it was maybe a third of the way done. It was almost like a folk art project at that point because every one of the heads were slightly different. Three might be alike and two were different here. And they wanted to make it a little more uniform to go into the future.”

The original Jeweled Shillelagh was introduced in 1952, as a donation from the Notre Dame Alumni Club of Los Angeles. By the time Klose and Images Jewelers took over in creating the ornamentation, the trophy required a retroactive installation of pendants for multiple years of victories.

“So we patterned our (designs)," Klose said. "We made a shamrock, because that was on the old one, and we made a Trojan head. And we made a Tro-sham, they called it, and it was a Trojan head Siamese-twinned to a Shamrock, for ties. Now that hasn’t happened in a long time. So we had to play catch up and engrave a lot of them … because it hadn’t been completed and finished up-to-date.”

In 1989, the original Shillelagh ran out of space. The rivals continued to trade off the trophy until 1996. USC won that year’s game, but Notre Dame kept the trophy, much to the chagrin of USC fans and critics in California. But by 1997, a new, larger Shillelagh was commissioned by the Notre Dame Alumni Club of Los Angeles. The club, fashioned in Ireland, reignited the tradition and the medallions dating back to 1990 were installed.

The new trophy, currently in possession of USC, features only medallions from Images Jewelers. In the past, the jewelers installed the winner’s medallion at their Elkhart store, but now they turn over the completed bronze medallions to Notre Dame, where the Trojan or shamrock is engraved with the year and score and then mounted.

The original, now-retired Shillelagh is on display on campus by the Notre Dame Alumni Association in the Joyce Center.

For Klose, a life-long Notre Dame fan, playing a part in the tradition is a point of pride.

“Growing up a Catholic boy from a parochial school, doing the Irish stuff is a big thing,” Klose said. “It’s cool because we’re Notre Dame fans. And we like USC too, because USC has given us such a great rivalry. It’s fun to be part of the community surrounding Notre Dame … we’ve got a lot of pride about that. It gives you something to brag about.”

All aspects of the decorations are produced in-house by Images Jewelers. The gold-colored Trojan and shamrock are cast from yellow bronze, and the rubies and emeralds are lab-created on-site.

Klose and Lennox began their custom jewelry business in a small back street studio in 1976, first named Metal Images renamed Images Jewelers shortly thereafter. The jewelers opened a second location in Chicago’s Willoughby Tower in 1990 and relocated the Elkhart store from Princeton Street to its current location at 300 E. Bristol St. in 1993.

“From that little humble beginning to this here, to that office in Chicago, now we sell jewelry across the country to over 900 jewelry stores,” Klose said. “We have a motto that ‘We’re different from the rest.’”

Regarding his expectations for Saturday’s game, Klose wasn’t shy about his hopes for an Irish victory. When asked which would be mounted on the Shillelagh after Saturday’s game, Klose enthusiastically pointed at the shamrock.

“Well, of course that one!” he said.

Bob Klose, co-owner of Images Jewelers in Elkhart, talks Thursday about the process of making the bronze medallions that go on the Jeweled Shillelagh Trophy, which goes to the winner of the annual Notre Dame-USC football game. The 11th-ranked Trojans visit No. 13 Notre Dame Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium .Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA
TOP: Bob Klose, co-owner of Images Jewelers in Elkhart, talks Thursday about the process of making the bronze medallions that go on the Jeweled Shillelagh Trophy.LEFT: The original Jeweled Shillelagh trophy, retired in 1995.RIGHT: One of these two bronze medallions made by Images Jewelers in Elkhart will soon make its way onto the Jeweled Shillelagh traveling trophy. Tribune Photos/MICHAEL CATERINA
The original Jeweled Shillelagh trophy, retired in 1995, is on permanent display near the Notre Dame Alumni Association in the Notre Dame Joyce Center. A new trophy goes to the winner of the annual Notre Dame-USC football game. The 11th-ranked Trojans visit No. 13 Notre Dame Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium.Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA

  • The foot-long club is made of oak or blackthorn saplings from Ireland.
  • Introduced in 1952 as a trophy to travel with the winner of each year’s USC-Notre Dame game and to commemorate the first game in the series between the two schools, played in 1926.
  • Donated by Notre Dame Alumni Club of Los Angeles to symbolize the “respect which these two great universities have for each other.”
  • A jeweled ornament representing the winning team is added each year. 
  • ND leads the overall series 44-26 with five ties. Since the shillelagh was introduced, ND leads 32-30 with three ties.