I wanted to start 2016, and celebrate my 34th birthday with a project I have been working on for a while. Money really is the great equalizer. Every human being on the planet wants as much of it as possible. We work jobs we hate in order to get it, and we spend it as we see fit. While we mainly spend it on things we need to live, food, shelter, and clothing, we do spend it on things that make us happy.
I find it amazing that most people know so little about one of the most important objects in the world. For a lot of us, our pocket change can be useful, but if you knew the history about it, and how it was made, they would be awestruck.
Metallic coins really started with the human desire for gold. While the earliest known coins date back to around the 8th and 7th centuries BCE, gold has been used since 600 BCE for monetary purposes. Today, gold is still a part of global currency, but most gold mined is used for other applications, such as jewelry, electronics, medicine, commercial chemistry, and other industrial uses.
Gold is also a status symbol. Gold medals, and trophies are symbols of victory and achievement. Gold used in jewelry is symbolic of wealth and success. Gold in and of itself is seen as both a form of good and evil. One of James Bond’s most well known foes was Auric Goldfinger, who spent his entire life trying to acquire as much gold as possible.
I happen to have some pure gold in my possession. I have .61 grams of gold in the form of three small ingots. Two of them, weighing .1 grams and .01 grams respectively are from NZP Gold, a smelting plant in Turkey. The third one, weighing .5 grams comes from Istanbul Gold Refinery, also in Turkey. Coins started their lives as a way to simplify the use of gold as currency. Coins were originally made by using molds and metal. The blank was made using bars of metal, which was hammered out on anvils. Then the blank, which is known as a “planchet” was then heated up, placed between the two molds, and hammered. This was a less than precise method, and since the mold had to be hammered by hand, the design would vary. These examples of medieval coins are examples of that process. As time went on, the process improved. Dies replaced the molds. The die process is similar in theory to the mold process, but there is a lot more quality control involved. Dies are cast from a master die. The design for the master die is drawn on paper, and then hand carved in clay then plaster by an engraving expert, in a much larger size than the coin will be. That is then coated in expoxy, which takes 18 hours to set and cure, then it is placed in a machine that is called a “reducing lathe” which spins the design around while transferring every minute detail from the large epoxy mold to a coin-sized die. This die is called “the reduction hub” and is used to make the master die.
When the master die is made, the reduction hub is placed into a machine with a cone-shaped piece of metal. The machine presses the hub into the cone, creating the master die. This master die is used to make “working hubs” which are used in the die press. Dies have the image of the coin reversed, so they come out properly in the minting process. Planchets come about from 1,500 foot rolls of prefabricated metal, which has the correct mixing of metals. The planchets are punched out, and the waste metal is recycled. These are two examples of modern planchets, one is a quarter, one is a dime. After they are washed and cleaned, the coins go through an “upsetting mill” which uses a large spinning disk to move the planchet through a groove which grows narrower and narrower. This adds a raised edge to the coin, higher than the design, which is called a “relief.” This is done to protect the relief. Then the planchet, with the raised edge heads to the press, where a die set is waiting. The coin press can stamp out 750 coins a minute, or 12.5 coins a second! One die is the “hammer” which moves back and forth during the stamping process, and the other is called the “anvil” and is stationary.
After the coin is struck, mint technicians examine a sample from the batch. If there are die errors, or other forms of damage, the lot it scrapped, the metal recycled, and a new hub is brought in. This is done for several reasons. The mint takes pride in their work, but the main reason is that new vending machines have scanners that scan coins as they are inserted. Errors of any kind mean that the scanner will reject the coin as it sees it as fake.
Interestingly, the US Mint doesn’t simply throw away used coin dies. They realize that there is a huge demand for coin dies. The relief is removed from the die, and destroyed. The end result is packaged with one of the coins it minted, and sold in sets to collectors, such as this example here.This set comes from the Philadelphia Mint, and the die, this one #P6-122687 was used from February 14, 2006 to February 16, 2006, and was used to strike 286,000 Nevada P quarters. The relief has been removed, and the Brilliant Uncirculated Nevada P Quarter it comes with is one of the 286,000 quarters it minted. The has obviously had the relief removed. This is not a minor issue, as there are a lot of counterfeiters out there, who want to make money the illegal way, rather than earn it. This also goes back to the Canadian Voyager Die incident. In 1986, the Royal Canadian Mint shipped both sets of master dies from Ottowa to Winnepeg. In the following investigation, it was discovered that the Royal Canadian Mint had no set procedure for shipping dies, and in a bid to save $43.50 Canadian. This disastrous decision forced the Mint to come up with a new design, due to the very real fears of counterfeiting, and as such, the Loonie was chosen as the new design for the dollar coin.
While it is impossible to get a die used in a monetary coin, medallion dies are easier to get. While some dies are clearly canceled, others, such as these three examples, still have the reverse image present. These two small dies were used to make a small “B.T.” token, slightly bigger than a nickel. The accompanying token is a fit to the mold. This second die is from a 1960’s Wildwood Medallic Arts Wildlife series medallion. This is from the 3rd medal in the series, this is the Grizzly Bear die from the Grizzly Bear/Golden Eagle Medallion. The relief is just under 1.5 inches across, and is in perfect condition, having no evidence of cancellation. The detail in it is amazing.
Next week, I will discuss bank note design. Until then, here is a video showing the dies pressed into soft clay.