General Manager CJ Drago can’t say exactly how many fiesta medals Monarch Trophy Studio designs and assembles every year at its production facility in far North San Antonio.
But let's put it this way: The company starts the process in July every year and works continuously through the annual Fiesta season, employing five full-time artists to design them.
A steady stream of customers, from Fiesta royalty and local politicians to individual business owners and charitable organizations, places orders year-round for the colorful insignia. One order can consist of anywhere from the minimum of 150 medals up to 40,000 at a time.
“It’s big,” Drago said. “The medal business has been growing more and more every year. We got into it seven or eight years ago. Medal trading has been going on for 20 years or so ... we feel like we were a big component in the growth of it.”
Founded in 1979, Monarch Trophy Studio got its start in John and Sandra Bradley’s living room. Five years later, they built a sizable store in Castle Hills, where the business continued to steadily grow.
Current owners Charlie and Kathy Drago bought Monarch Trophy in 2001 and moved the business to its current 30,000-square-foot showroom and production facility on the city's Northside in 2011.
In an industry comprised of mostly mom-and-pop trophy shops, Monarch now employs about 75 people. It is the largest awards store in Texas and among the largest in the nation. But like its beginnings, Monarch is still a family affair – the Dragos' oldest of three sons, 27-year-old CJ and 25-year-old Jason, help run the company.
When they aren’t making Fiesta medals, the Dragos fill orders for everything from youth sports league medallions to high-end crystal awards, all of which are stored in a warehouse at the back of the facility. They once handled the entire University Interscholastic League's athletic awards, and still do work for major dance and cheer competitions, corporate awards, and other clients around the world.
In the San Antonio showroom, embossed leather key rings, championship award belts, and prize ribbons in a rainbow of colors are displayed alongside gleaming trophies and cups, acrylic award plaques, and specialty gifts of every kind. Everything is customizable, which CJ Drago said is one of the most challenging parts of the business due to human error.
But it's not all participation trophies and desk plates. Monarch designed the case for Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard's Finals MVP Award in 2015, at his mother's request, and more recently refurbished the NCAA Men's Final Four trophy. Monarch also gets requests for bronzed shoes and once created the plate to mount a taxidermy skunk.
Then there are the Fiesta medals. Artist David Durbin designed his first Fiesta medal in 1997 for the Bonham Exchange, a downtown nightclub. But Monarch’s medal business really picked up in 2010 when Bill Drain, Rey Feo LXIII, commissioned the in-house artist to design medals for the Rey Feo Court. All together, Durbin created about 30 medals that year.
“Our artists started creating medals for businesses and schools, and they saw the success of that, and it grew into now every business wants to have one,” CJ Drago said. “It wasn’t just about trading. It became, 'Let’s raise money for charity' for different foundations and stuff like that.”
In the Monarch plant, artists sit near one another and design medals on computers while other workers assemble the finished products. Production worker Troy Beierle holds the store record for linking ribbons to medals at 1,300 in an hour. He uses machinery next to rows of shelves that are filled with boxes and ribbons ready for customers to pick up.
Still, CJ Drago can't say how many medals go out the door at Monarch.
“We have a hard time quantifying it,” he said. “There’s definitely thousands of medals that get made each year throughout San Antonio. We do a lot of medals.”
Monarch also developed a website this year to help customers promote, sell, and ship their medals to buyers, and started a community group on social media, Fiesta Medal Maniacs, to promote the medals and host trading and sales events.
Though Durbin’s not sure of the exact number either, he said he'll design hundreds of medals in a year, and it’s brought him a certain level of fame. “People will say, ‘Oh, you got a Durbin!’” he said.
He considers them “little pieces of art,” adding he was the first to design a Fiesta medal inspired by calaveras, or Mexican sugar skull art, a look that’s often imitated today. His personal collection of medals is also too numerous to count, but he will wear most of them on his "portfolio sash" at the annual Fiesta Fiesta and King William Fair, and chooses a special few for a Night in Old San Antonio and other events.
“It’s part of the Fiesta fun to see your work on everybody,” Durbin said. He appreciates how much joy it brings people this time of year.
“It’s crazy how little pieces of metal do that.”