Centuries of luxury behind football's Ballon D'Or

The displays at Mellerio jewellers in Paris teem with diamonds and sapphires. But to football fans they pale in comparison with the golden orb on a bed of pyrite crafted by the house for the FIFA Ballon d'Or.

Dubbed the Oscars of the football world, the FIFA Ballon d'Or was born in 2010 of the merger of two prizes: the Ballon d'Or, awarded since 1956 by French sports journalists, and FIFA's World Player trophy, picked since 1991 by coaches and national team captains.

The award kept the name and distinctive trophy of the Ballon d'Or, which has stayed more or less the same for half a century: a brass football dipped in gold, resting on a rocky base of pyrite.

The coveted prize, to be handed out on January 7, is crafted by one of the world's oldest jewellers, the family-owned firm Mellerio dits Meller, which has been crafting gems and ornaments for the kings and queens of Europe since 1613.

"It's something we're happy be a part of," Francois Mellerio told AFP of the Ballon d'Or. He and his brother Olivier are the 14th generation to run the firm, which also crafts the Musketeers' Trophy for the men's singles in the French tennis open.

With 400 years in business the jeweller has made everything from tiaras -- like one model from 1910, made of pearls, diamond and platinum -- to ciborium, a cup used as part of the Roman Catholic liturgy.

The basement of its store on Paris' Rue de la Paix, where the Italian family was the first jeweller to settle in 1815, teems with antique order books, dating back to 1780 and including commissions by the Empresses Josephine and Eugenie.

Mellerio today employs 12 artisans in Paris, who work with a mix of traditional and modern methods -- lasers alongside hand chisels.

How many does it take to make the Ballon d'Or?

"Eleven on each team," joked Michel Garault, a metalsmith who has been with Mellerio for over a decade -- and one of the six craftsmen who worked on this year's Ballon d'Or.

The prize, to be awarded on January 7 to one of three shortlisted players: Lionel Messi of Argentina, Spain's Andres Iniesta, and Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo, follows a simple design, but the process still starts almost a year in advance.

Two brass disks are shaped into hemispheres, then welded together. Using a real football as a guide, the seam lines are painstakingly chiselled into the ball by hand. Then it is engraved with the award logo and dipped in gold before being attached to the base.

The pyrite base -- which is slightly different each year -- is what makes each trophy unique, Mellerio explained.

"No two rocks are identical, no two emeralds, no two rubies -- there's always a difference, that's nature," Mellerio said.

The level of secrecy around the Ballon d'Or has changed over time: until a few years ago, Mellerio received the winner's name in advance.

Now nameplates are made for all three finalists and the craftsmen learn the winner's identity along with the rest of the world, attaching his name at the last minute.

This year's favourite, Messi, has won the past three editions of the Ballon d'Or, a feat matched only by France's Michel Platini in the 1980s.

Nicknamed "The Flea", Messi is being talked about as the greatest footballer in history after surpassing the 40-year record of 85 goals in a calendar year set by Germany's Gerd Mueller in 1972. The player had stretched his tally to 90 by mid-December.

Among his competition, Barcelona Football Club teammate Iniesta is remembered for scoring Spain's winning goal in the 2010 World Cup.

Ronaldo of Portugal snagged the Ballon d'Or title before Messi's reign, in 2008. But in spite of an impressive 46 goals in the Spanish league, La Liga, last season, he will struggle to measure up to his Argentinian rival.

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