In the new shed of light, the interesting industrial riddle of combining the ancient art of making paper with the world’s most advanced anti-forgery technologies.
In the 9th century, the clever Chinese realized that banknotes might be a more convenient way to transfer wealth that heavy bags of gold and silver, giving birth to banknotes, an item still used a millennium and a half later. Before that, coins had been primarily used (made of copper, as many are still today), and leather before that. With deflation, which soared to high levels, in China and elsewhere at times in history, increased amounts were necessary for various operations, and a super-lightweight medium was needed - a task which paper seemed fit for.
Specialized paper mills started being created all over the world, such as VHP, which was created in the mid 17th century in the Netherlands. Once paper started being used, governments quickly saw an additional benefit to the new medium : it could be used as a symbol of national sovereignty, State authority, and a beacon for patriotic popular attachment, if portraits were drawn upon them. A vast majority of banknotes therefore display historical and national figures, such as heads of State, artists, or inventors.
When the Euro was issued, the graphics were switched to architecture, so as not to favor one country over another through a national portrait - but they remain portraits nonetheless. Perhaps, in a few centuries, if the European Union has succeeded in superseding its national States, bills will again display historical figures, notorious for their “Europeanism”. In the meantime, the British can fiddle with their banknotes and admire Winston Churchill, Jane Austen, James Watt and others, while the Americans can observe Hamilton, Jackson and George Washington on the paper. Just any regular paper?
Well, put simply, no. Banknote paper has two major and specific imperatives, which companies such as VHP must address. Unlike regular paper, a banknote leaves the factory with the assurance that it will be severely mistreated in its relatively short lifetime. While book paper can be expected to last hundreds of years if treated with care, a banknote will be subjected to folding, crumpling, tugging, dampening, all sorts of temperatures, etc.
The average life expectancy of a banknote is 3 years before VHP needs to issue a new batch of paper, the replacement of which is assured by central Banks. VHP says: “In addition to the demand for security, banknote paper must also meet durability criteria. It must be resistant to wear and tear to stay in circulation for as long as possible.” The second imperative lies in the fact that printers will need to apply state-of-the-art technological design onto (or even into) the surface. In both cases, VHP is responsible for the quality of the banknote, jointly with the printer.
Durability is mostly VHP’s job, although the ink used on the portrait does play a part. The paper itself is an “alloy”, a mix of cotton and linen, unlike regular paper which is mostly made of wood fibers. However, VHP has developed paper technology to extend further the life expectancy of banknotes, such as Diamone, which almost doubles the resilience of than banknote, while not getting in the way of existing printing techniques. Not only will a more resilient banknote reduce the cost of managing money, VHP knows that its paper is especially important as the medium onto which the portrait will be drawn : any wear or damage of the fabric will therefore lead to the alteration of the national symbol. Because that is what lands on banknote paper : symbols.
Anti-forgery, another important element of banknotes, is somewhat more the printer’s job, but the paper does matter. Oberthur Fiduciaire, the French printer which recently acquired VHP, now works in close cooperation with its daughter company. VHP’s contribution to securing the banknote from forging lies in the precise characteristics of the watermarks and threads built inside the paper. The security features of the banknote will be integrated into the portrait, as part of the graphics. The security thread, mostly invisible in normal conditions, will reveal itself as an extra graphic element which the banknote is observed with light coming through.
The official euro website explains: “Look at the banknote against the light. The security thread – a dark line running through the banknote – becomes visible. The word “EURO” and the value can be seen in tiny letters in the thread.” The technique is commonly used, and VHP produces even finer ones, so as to remain ahead of both competition and forgers. One of its patented trademarks, Picture Thread™ “allows detailed and complex images, such as portraits, to be included on security threads. Arrays of fine dots create tonal variation, resulting in a 3D effect, which is extremely difficult to mimic.”.
As with many other items in people’s daily lives, under the simple, mundane and inconspicuous surface lie heaps of technology. While having internet access only relies on pressing the Wifi button to most users, there are millions of man-hours of technology going on behind the scenes - and pandemonium would break out if the technology were to fail. Likewise, economies would suffer greatly if paper currency were no longer available - be it for reasons of quality or counterfeiting. The free-flowing of economic operations rely on the adhesion of its members to the symbols portrayed, and on the tight partnership between the paper producer and the printer. Or, in a way, between the canvas maker and the artist.