“Color sells!” was our credo when I was an advertising salesman at a newspaper many decades ago. Color, obviously, is more appealing than a monochrome world of black-and-white. But for centuries coins have been only the single color of their primary metal content – bronze, silver or gold.
Not any more. Mints – both national and private – are outdoing themselves in creating ways to make coins and medals more appealing by adding color, holograms, striking multi-ring blanks, lettering the edges, and even pasting stickers on fully struck coins.
Formerly, a new innovation in coining technology was first tried on medals. After all, it could be tested on a medal, before introducing it to the hazards of a circulating medium. If it passed the test on a few hundred medals it could be applied to multi-million coin production.
We have proof coins today because a proof surface was first applied to a medal, a tiny Pitt Club Medal in England, in 1762 (placed in a watch crystal to protect the delicate reflective surface). It worked and was then applied to coins. While a “proof” means a test or first made, today we have proof coins made by the millions.
However, nowadays, it seems, innovators at our national mints are going right for a new process applied directly on their country’s coins, omitting any testing on medals. This is particularly true for commemorative coins they can sell to the public and collectors. Canadian and Australian Mints are two of the leading innovators in this movement.
Canada, just last year, issued a coin with a crystal chip embedded on its surface!
Innovation to add color has been a lengthy development. Here’s a sampling of methods for getting added color on a coin or medal:
Contrasting metal in the blank. This can be done by a plug or an outer ring of the blank. In 1792 Philadelphia Mint employees added a silver plug to a proposed cent coin. Granted this was to raise the value of the blank rather than any color ascetic.
In 1982 Italy was the first to strike a coin with a bimetal blank, its 500-lira coin had an outer ring of stainless steel with a bronze center. The Paris Mint carried this technology one step further in 1992 with a 20-franc coin for circulation with a center core and two rings of contrasting color! The U.S. Mint has struck only one ring-blank coin – the Library of Congress $10 coin struck in 2000 with a gold ring and a platinum core — certainly not intended for circulation!
Plating. While not practical for mass million coins, partial plating has been applied to medals for a duo color of contrasting metals. The area not to be plated can be masked off, the entire piece is immersed for plating, then the masked material is removed. This is labor intensive but can be utilized for short-run medal jobs.
Organic coating – paint. Any paint applied to a metal surface is not satisfactory because of the ease in which the paint chips off. This becomes unsightly and is not satisfactory for the long life of a medal. However, Medallic Art Company did make such a medal – apparently that is what the customer wanted. In 1937 Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park Association Medal was painted with a black paint. True to form, in time these medals have been observed with the coating in uneven covering. High points were vulnerable to the paint chipping off.
In 1966 for an issue of silver plates, the design bore a panda. An artist was hired to work in Medallic Art’s Danbury to paint by hand a black-and-white panda on each plate.
Enamel. Enamel is the most common method for applying color to medals – not so for coins. All the highest forms of medallic art – including orders, decorations, heroic medals, fine art medals – have been colored with enamel. The process of enameling is an ancient art of firing a vitreous material, colored glass, so it melts and flows into a cavity of the metal item where intended.
There are several kinds of enamel, hard and soft, both with and without fences to corral the enamel. The fences can be built into the design of the metal base or added with wires. These are called cloisons, and the technology called cloisonné (the fences form each cell of color). Other forms of enameling likewise have French names: champlevé (like Limoges enamel) grisaille (a type of pained on enamel), plique-a-jour (a transparent of translucent enamel), and others.
In modern production the colored glass is supplied in any of several hundred colors in almost powder form and is dispensed from a hypodermic needle-like device, filling a cell with only one color. When all cells are filled with appropriate color glass, the medal is placed in an oven and heated. Glass melts at 750 to 850 degrees Centigrade. While the glass melts, the metal base does not (copper, for example, melts at 1085 degrees C). The glass hardens on cooling and is locked in that cell.
Medallic Art Company has produced hundreds of enameled medals. In the past at its plants in New York City and Danbury Connecticut it did not perform this process in house. It subcontracted this all this work to seven specialists, nearly all of which were in the jewelry centers of Attleboro, Massachusetts, with a few on hand in New York City.
After the enamel is added to the medal it can then be plated – plating does not adhere to the enamel – so medals were returned to MACO’s plant usually to be gold plated, finished, often mounted with a ribbon, and packaged.
Embedments. Relic items have been embedded on medals. While this added another color, the intent was to honor an event with a preserved piece, an artifact or memento of that event. In 1937 the C.D. Peacock Jewelry firm issued a centennial medal with an embedded piece of steel from their safe that survived the Great Chicago Fire intact.
[Tiny hard metal shards are easy to embed by placing the item on the medal’s surface before the final blow of the press on a multiple-struck medal. Otherwise such items must be affixed by epoxy. It is preferable to have a depressed cavity on the medal surface where the embedment is located.]
Holograms were first applied to medals in 1967. This occurred in Israel on Yaacov Agam’s And There Was Light Medal. The technology for applying holograms is so easy they are now widely applied to coins.
In one of the most innovative medals issued by Medallic Art Company, half of the entire obverse was embedded with a silver insert over a bronze base. It was created for the metal firm of Handy & Harman for their centennial medal. Artist John Amore created an obverse motif that was divided in half. The concept was brilliant since Handy & Harman was a supplier of both metals.
Prior to delivery of the metal strip Handy & Harman layered a thin narrow strip of silver on a wider strip of bronze the intended gauge for the medal. MACO production officials solved the intricate production problems of keeping the medal in register between multiple strikings by an added projection in the blanking die at both the top and bottom of the blank. A corresponding notch was placed in the open face die. The blank – or partially struck medal – was reseated in exact register for each blow of the press. The obverse was half silver and half bronze.
Pad printing. This is a new technology of “printing” one or more colors on the modulated surface of a coin or medal. The ink is applied to a pad which imparts that permanent ink to the metal surface. It has been utilized for applying color to both coins and medals.
Stickers. Paper stickers printed in color are pasted onto a coin or medal. While not as permanent, nor as “medallic” as other processes, this has been used for cheaply made items. “Elvis Presley coins” were made this way.
What does color hold for the future of coins and medals? Certainly more will made in color, and perhaps the technology can be extended to include the coins we use in everyday commerce.