How often do you think about money?
Currency, I mean. Those coins in your pocket. What’s their story?
The first time I went to Europe, the Euro had been in place about a year. On my debut visit to Paris, half of the menus were still in francs, yet francs themselves were proving increasingly harder to come by. At the time I feigned relief at having Euros and not having to faff about with changing currency and recalculating conversions as I hopped from country to country… but secretly, I felt as if the romance of foreign currency had been stripped away. I wanted the francs. I wanted the experience of figuring out what a peso was to a lira. I wanted to feel out of my depth a little. Isn’t that what travelling is about?
More than a decade on, the whole concept of physical money is looking more like an endangered species. Cash ain’t king anymore; we’re tapping and swiping and ApplePaying our way through the bartering system. Henry Ford once said, “money is worth what it will help you to buy, and no more”, and for the most part I agree with that sentiment; what is money but an invitation to have or do things? But let’s not forget this age-old method of exchange is also an age-old craft.
Earlier this year I met a friend for coffee (which I confess I paid for on a contactless debit card) who revealed a funny little secret – he collects coins. It seems he’s always checking his change, looking out for limited-edition mints; coins I wouldn’t look twice at, other than to decipher its denomination. “Look at this,” he’d said, holding out an unassuming pound coin which, upon further inspection, wasn’t the same design one usually sees – apparently there was only a limited number of those in circulation. See, I would never have considered the designs on my coins. And I found that attention to detail rather poetic.
Curiously, it was just a few weeks later that I was standing inside the Monnaie de Paris. The French Mint. If ever there is attention being paid to detail, it’s here. This historic old building in the Left Bank is unassuming enough from the outside. But it houses the world’s oldest enterprise. This is the place where coins have been struck for 1,150 years and more than 40 countries entrust their currencies to be minted. Inside one of the little tooling workshops, highly skilled craftspeople bent over staid wooden desks, sketching designs and painstakingly etching every tiny detail into plaster – these will then become a gold punch for making coins and medals. Sunlight spilled in from the windows, highlighting the details of their intricate work and delicate tools. All these artists have been trained at the best schools in France, and to think this skill has been carried on for so long is heartening… When an engraver retires they pass down their tools – some 100-150 of them – to a new generation.
But nurturing new engravers is becoming harder. And with coins looking to slowly die out, I wonder if the craft will too. How ironic, that the making of money is so undervalued. So hold onto those pennies; they’re actually little works of art. And one day they’ll all be limited edition.