Did you know that the new coins in your pocket are signed by the original artists who designed them? I went to the United States mint in Philadelphia to meet some of the faces who create the money we all spend every day.
I also found out how our national coin-making process has moved into the 21st century. As strange as it seems, a few years ago, one Mint employee's chance viewing of the Shrek DVD with his grandchildren ended up transforming the way our money is designed and delivered to us.
The Mint doesn't just make coins that end up in your pocket. In fact, only two of its six facilities, in Philadelphia and in Denver, create circulating change. As part of the Department of the Treasury in the executive branch, it's also required by Congress to design and create official medals and non-circulating coins such as bullion, which give investors a way to add small amounts of nearly pure precious metals to their portfolios.
In fact, the Mint is one of the few wings of the government that actually turns a profit -- it makes money in both senses. It regularly returns more than $700 million back to the public coffers by way of collectors' coins, proofs, and other numismatic one-offs.
The 50 State Quarters program of the '00s was so popular with casual collectors that the Mint has kicked off a few more series its hopes will entice new collectors, including the Presidential Dollar program that runs from 2007 to 2016 (currently slated to end with Gerald Ford), and a recent series of Lincoln pennies that climaxed with a new shield-based design for its reverse, or back side.
On the day of my visit, the Mint was producing the new Yosemite quarter, the third in its new America the Beautiful series of 56 twenty-five cent pieces. Five designs will appear each year until 2021. Joseph Menna, one of the senior sculptor-engravers, is responsible for the back side of the Yosemite quarter, which will be released to the public on July 25.
All of the Mint's designers started out as gifted sculptors who are classically trained. Menna studied in Russia and is expert in handling bronze. In fact, as a mark of esteem, every engraver gets to add his or her initials to the money you use every day. Have a close look at the change in your pocket, and you'll find the signed handiwork of some of the only classically trained sculptors given a steady public forum in America today.
Look closely at this high-resolution image, and you can see Menna's initials, JFM, in the branch of the tree at the bottom of the coin. His name will be circulating in your pocket as long as the coin exists, just as it has for other coins, including the recent Hot Springs quarter, the William Henry Harrison $1 coin, and the new Lincoln penny.
But these masters don't work in clay much anymore; many of them now translate their skills to the virtual realm with specialized software called FreeForm, used by Hollywood and surgeons alike. Each software license costs as much as a down payment on a new house.
Menna explains how the old art of coin-making has moved into modern times, yet has never abandoned the practical, classical training that has been demanded of sculptors for centuries. He also talks about the gratification that comes with being the creative mind behind what's jangling in your pocket right now.
That's not all we've got from the U.S. Mint. Click here to go onto the coin production floor, which is off limits to the public, and watch the Yosemite coin in actual production.
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