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BUCARAMANGA, Colombia (Reuters) - Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo could finish the World Cup wearing a Colombian white gold ring as the most valuable player in South Africa.
Although Colombia did not qualify for the finals its world famous emeralds will be on show after a local jeweler acquired the rights to make 2,010 official rings for the tournament.
Rings encrusted with the green gems found in the mountains of the Andean country have been sanctioned by soccer's world governing body FIFA and will be on sale in South Africa.
The rings will cost from $2,500 to $250,000 each and the design features soccer balls, stadiums and the flags of the 32 participating countries in the month-long extravaganza.
In a private house turned workshop in Bucaramanga, Enrique Vasquez and his colleagues in this and other mini-factories in the northern Colombian city are working hard to get all the rings made before the tournament starts on June 11.
He spends his days placing tiny emeralds in the platinum, gold and silver rings that he and 269 other artisans are making for the first World Cup to be hosted in Africa.
It is crunch time but he cannot rush the job.
Looking through a pair of magnified glasses, he uses special tweezers to slowly place one emerald after another on a ring topped with a bulky diamond-encrusted soccer ball.
The mastermind of the operation is 40-year-old Carlos Sotelo, who got the idea from the rings received by teams that win the U.S. Superbowl and basketball championships.
"I wanted to make a special ring, a super ring, for FIFA," he told Reuters. Colombia, rich in gold and emeralds, has a strong tradition of jewelry-making.
This was part of the argument he made on various trips to FIFA headquarters in Switzerland over the last four years to convince World Cup officials to sanction his rings.
He declined to say how much he paid for the rights.
Although Colombia will not be at the tournament, which is held every four years, pop star Shakira is singing the official song and Juanes, another Colombian crooner, will participate in the opening concert to be staged in Johannesburg.
The jewelry will include seven platinum rings to be sold for $250,000 apiece, each encrusted with 220 emeralds. Thirty three white gold rings are being made for $70,000 per piece, each with 36 emeralds and an array of South African diamonds.
There will also be 1,970 rings made of gold and silver which will be sold for $2,500 each. Each ring in this set will feature four emeralds.
"If the market is strong enough we will do a second and third collection," Sotelo said.
One of the seven platinum rings will be donated to FIFA and a gold ring will be given to UNICEF, in recognition of the U.N. agency's work on behalf of disadvantaged children.
Another gold ring will be presented to the player voted the tournament's most valuable with Argentina's Messi and Portugal's Ronaldo among the players who could claim the prize.
At future World Cups local jeweler Sotelo wants the rings to be distributed to members of the winning team.
The work that goes into each ring is more painstaking than it is difficult, goldsmith Vasquez said.
"Our experience in jewelry-making over the years makes for a world-class product. But there are a lot of parameters to meet," he added, looking back at the ring on his work bench and placing another emerald in position.
(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta, writing by Hugh Bronstein; editing by Ken Ferris;
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