In 1936 – at the depths of the depression – Medallic Art desperately needed work. The shop was running part time, half days at best. President Clyde C. Trees was seeking medal jobs anywhere he could. He tried not to fire any worker. Instead they worked in the mornings, the workers sent home after processing what little medallic work they had on hand.
One of the jobs Trees was successful in procuring was for Paramont Pictures Corporation, one of the few firms in America that was booming because of the low cost escape the public found in attending the movies. The medal was to show the firm’s president on the obverse to commemorate his silver anniversary, 25 years, in the motion picture field.
Trouble was the film company needed a large quantity of medals in an impossible short time (perhaps also at an extremely low cost!). Instead of losing the job, Trees solution was to try something he had never done before, instead of striking the large medal on his own presses, he subcontracted the job to a die-casting firm.
Die-casting is different from the tradition means of making a medal. Traditionally a medal is struck between dies, then annealed when it becomes work hardened, then struck again as many times as necessary until it brings up the full relief. Some large high relief medals could require six, eight, even ten blows.
Once you set up the pattern in a die-casting machine and keep the metal intake filled with molten metal, you turn on the casting machine; it operates on its own continuously. It could run day and night spewing out high relief casts in one-tenth, one-twentieth the time for normal multiple striking of fine art medals.
Normal medal production is highly labor intensive, more so in pressman’s time for large medals requiring multiple striking. Die-casting requires only an operator to keep filling the metal intake pot. The casting machine does the rest.
Sculptor Pietro Montana prepared the model for the uniface medal bearing the portrait of Adolph Zukor, head of Paramont Pictures. This was furnished to the die-casting firm. I don’t remember the name of this firm, or even if it was mentioned in the files I examined, when I cataloged this medal for Medallic Art Company archives. Vaguely in my mind, this could have been a New Jersey firm.
The medal was cataloged in the 1960s as “36-5,” now it would be recorded as 1936-005. This was not the fifth medal made in 1936. There was no means of knowing their chronological sequence. Instead, it was the fifth medal I archived for a medal to have been made in the year 1936. The medal even bore the date 1937, the 25th year from Zukor’s 1912 entry into the film business.
Fortunately, I did record the quantity produced from data found in the files – 11,883 were delivered to Medallic Art in 1936, 11,250 were furnished to the client. These were all finished in Medallic Art’s shop by lightly silverplating.
It should be mentioned die-casting requires a low-melting point metal composition. More often than not, this is a zinc alloy. As is the Zukor medal. It was a zinc composition lightly silverplated.
Next we should mention the 3-inch medal had an unusual edge, more than a half-inch wide. It had six circular bands around the entire circumference. It was hollow inside this multiple-band rim. Inside this was a blank side, no relief, save for two lines of lettering: MEDALLIC ART CO / NEW YORK.
The medal with this unusual rim resembled a Mason jar lid, a name applied to this medal by all who view it. Mention Medallic Art’s “Mason jar lid medal,” and every medalist knows exactly the medal in question.
The lettered name was on the face of the plunger. As a controlled amount of molten metal is shot into the chamber – one side forming the obverse – the plunger forces all the metal into all the cavities of the mold, in effect forming the reverse of the medal. The cast object is then cooled and ejected.
That same 1936 year Clyde Trees sold the Paramont Pictures firm a traditional medallic item, also modeled by sculptor Pietro Montana. This was a uniface horizontal plaquette with a three-quarter standing portrait of Adolph Zukor. Catalog number 1936-032. This was struck in traditional bronze and was also silverplated. Quantity: 400.
It is unknown how the motion picture firm distributed either medallic item. The large quantity of the first possibly suggest the number of movie houses across America. The lower quantity of the second, might suggests friends and employees of the firm. This is undocumented however.
Two years ago a dealer friend sent me the attached photos of one of these medals he had just acquired. Please tell me what this is, he pleaded. “I have no idea what it is … the way it is here has me stumped.”
My reply was a discourse on why die-casting and the use of zinc is not appropriate for fine art medals. Time has not been kind to his specimen. Zinc deteriorates rapidly. The silverplating clings to the zinc still intact. However, particularly on the back, vast areas of the zinc has deteriorated to the extreme, it has flaked off taking the light coating of silver with it.
The total appearance now is unsightly. The obverse, while it has not been so severely affected, displays a gray nose on the portrait, a high point susceptible to wear and dislodging any silver coating leaving the dull gray zinc undersurface. Refinishing of this piece would have a mixed result. It could be refinished as one color, but the pits where metal flaking off would still be evident.
On the internet we see dozens of firms offering their services to produce die-cast medals. These are all made with low-melting point white metal. Such a composition required for die-casting does not have a precise formula. The composition could contain any of the following: tin, lead, zinc, antimony, copper, bismuth. Tin and some of the others are expensive, lead is not politically correct these days, thus zinc dominates a white metal composition for die-casting.
These die-casting firm show medals with a range of colors. These are applied colors, enamels or pigments. White metal does not take a patina like what can be applied to the traditional medallic metals, bronze and silver. Thus white metal is used today infrequently for any medallic item. It has been more often replaced by aluminum, a medallic composition similar in color and cost.
White metal is quite similar to pewter. Both are like pure tin and lead – easy to strike. The first medals were struck in white metal in England in 1761. An entire white metal industry arose in England because of the nearby tin mines in Wales and Cornwall. White metal has been called a number of names in various commercial applications, including: Alpaca, Argentine, Babbitt metal, Britannia metal (or simply Britannia).
But its use for fine art medals is not satisfactory, as the attached photos document.