Dough, bread, boodle, brass, lucre, readies, folding—it doesn’t matter what we call it, but it’s the key to our dreams. Most of us will never get our heads on it; we’ll be satisfied just to get our hands on it.
My mother, I consider, had an obsession about money being dirty. She was ever watchful. “Get your hands away from your mouth!” she would hiss. “You don’t know where it’s been.” She had her own theories about where it had been, though—her main one being the hands of certain foreigners, who were by definition “dirtier” than our family.
My mother also despised sewing. None of the clothes she made for me had a single unnecessary stitch,which meant no pockets. Since, on occasions, my hands had to be free to ride my bike or to punch cheeky boys, I was forced to store my pennies and threepences in my mouth.
If she’d caught me I would have had more than a mouthful.
But I now know that my mother wasn’t on her own. She was under considerable peer pressure to think the way she did. And when she was born early in the century, banknotes were dirty—filthy, according to the reports of public outrage at the time. In those days each trading bank issued its own notes, and, motivated by profit rather than regard for public sensibilities, the banks renewed their notes when they wore out, no sooner.
“The banknotes issued in this Colony are not fit to be handled except with a pair of tongs,” said Supreme Court Judge Mr Justice Richmond in 1869. “They are calculated to disseminate all sorts of loathsome diseases. Anything so beastly as the paper currency here issued could not be found in any other country in the world.”
Dunedin citizens made plaintive calls to the banks to clean up their notes for the South Seas International Exhibition in Dunedin in 1889 “for the sake of the cleanly, respectable people who will shortly be in our midst.” Complaints about “ill-smelling notes” and calls to Parliament to insist that banks be forced to sterilise their notes continued until our central bank, the Reserve Bank, took over sole charge of our banknotes. That was in 1934, and by then my mother, at 22, had the message that money equalled filth firmly fixed in her brain.
Money. We fret for it and we sweat for it. We invent infinitely ingenious ways to get it—and spend it. Nowadays, no manufactured item is more carefully produced or maintained than is our country’s currency, yet few products are treated with such disregard. We stuff the notes into our pockets and into jars in our gardens. We run our lawnmowers over them and we put them through our washing machines. But if the ink ran or they turned to pulp in the wash we’d be furious.
“You would hardly believe some of the reasons people give us for the state of their money,” says Bob Nicholas, Senior Officer of the Reserve Bank’s Auckland branch. He produces something which looks like a fat cigar, but turns out to be a solid, mouldy roll of notes. The explanation that accompanies the wad says that these had been buried in a jar under the house, with camphor, two years ago. “When I investigated, I found the camphor in the jar had dissolved and all I was left with was these sodden black notes,” added the owner plaintively.
Notes like these arrive regularly at each of the bank’s three branches, their owners hopeful that good money will be returned for bad. They come in mangled, mushed and occasionally even masticated—”Other bit eaten by rabbit,” the letter accompanying the tatty half of one $20 note tersely explains. Examining these notes, which are sometimes little more than crisp ashes, is a job which requires a light touch. Picking delicately through remains of these chewed, burned and otherwise abused notes with tweezers and whatever else is on hand, the examiners assess whether there is enough evidence to enable them to pay out.
Today the owner of the mouldy roll is lucky: staff have managed to separate the notes sufficiently to verify that there is indeed the $5000 claimed. The rabbit owner isn’t so lucky, though: he will get only $10 back of his $20 note.
“It’s what’s missing that’s important,” Nicholas says. “If we’re sure that no one could present the other part, we’ll pay out. If there’s any chance that someone else could also make a claim, we pay half the face value. As a rule of thumb, if there’s only one serial number, they’ll get only half the value.”
Stashing cash up chimneys, then forgetting about it when lighting the winter fire, is a common reason for the burned notes which are sent to the bank. “And nowadays a lot of people put them under their water mattresses,” Nicholas says. “Unfortunately, there’s a heating element under there, and the notes burn.” He laughs, amused at the idea of a waterbed with a fire under it.
Sifting through mutilated money, redeeming it where possible, then getting rid of it, is part of the bank’s task of supplying and maintaining the $1.2 billion cash which floats around our economy. To the bank, there are strong psychological reasons why money should be kept clean. Currency is often the first image an outsider has of a country. It’s the window dressing, and it has to be maintained nicely if the country is to look civilised.
Each day the trading banks pour their surplus cash into the Reserve Bank, which peruses and plucks out the notes which they deem should no longer cross our palms.
Over half of the bank’s yearly cash flow—about 500 million banknotes—is checked at the Auckland branch of the bank, Nicholas explains, leading me to one of the three sorting machines.
Here, workers are feeding bundles of counted notes into one end of the machine. A laser beam, a sort of magic eye, scans them, assessing reusability and genuineness. Soiling, tears and defacing will be picked up, as will any odd feature—the lack of a watermark, maybe, or the metallic security strip—which would alert the bank to the possibility of a counterfeit.
Each day up to 400,000 notes will be sorted by this machine. Eighty–six per cent will be reissued, the rest disposed of. Nicholas plucks out one reject which the sorting machine has spat into its “I am puzzled” category, and shows it to me. On one side of the note someone has written, “How do you confuse an Irishman? PTO.” On the other side is the same message. Even the possibility of a $1000 fine doesn’t deter the amateur artists.
The Queen’s head, sorters tell me, comes in for the most modifications. “With all the things people draw on her head—Edna Everage glasses, moustaches, dreadlocks—she should be glad she’s been taken off most of the new notes,” one worker comments. Usually, Nicholas explains, a $5 note will last about a year. “You’d get up to four years out of a $100 note, and somewhere in between for the others. We’re not very hard on our cash. Not like some countries where they tuck them into their shoes or keep them next to their skin.”
Naturally, the doomed notes are not put at the bank’s door in rubbish bags. In the case of the Auckland Reserve Bank, they are destined for one of two giant furnaces located beneath the bank. Each day, and twice on Fridays, two workers, masked against the ink fumes, stoke up these furnaces into a materialists’ version of hell. I ask one of the stokers if it upsets him having to burn all this money. “No problem,” he says cheerfully. “I just throw it in.” I sense that to those who work here, this money long ago stopped being real money.
At the moment, with our new notes coming in, and our old disappearing, there’s an awful lot of money going up in smoke. As we wait for the padlocked doors of a furnace to be opened after the day’s burn, Nicholas estimates that the bank has burned about 40 million notes here over the last year. Once, he says, the bank’s newest recruits were allowed to throw wads of money into these furnaces—a spectacular introduction to the organisation.
The heat, as the doors are opened, pushes me backwards.
Even as ash, the wads of notes have held their shape. Ghostlike, the Queen’s head is still just visible, which somehow seems symbolic of her disappearance from star position on all bar one of our new banknotes, and her retirement into the watermark.
Today, $2.4 million worth of $5 notes has been burned. These must be New Zealand’s most exquisite fires.
The dates is the tenth of July, 1967. Catchy radio and television jingles that are destined to stay in our brains forever have prepared us well for this day. After months of hype and hoopla, decimal currency has arrived.
The process has not been an easy one.Our national psyche has been humiliated by some of the designs that have been submitted, especially the 50-cent piece with a scene of a high country musterer and dogs. The musterer was realistic enough, but the sheepdogs with him! Stumpy little things; they looked more like the royal corgis!
That afternoon Reserve Bank officials discover that the two-cent coin—OUR new two-cent coin—has “Bahamas Islands” stamped. on the head side. Right queen, wrong country. Imagine the chagrin!
It is the sort of mistake that loses someone, somewhere, their job, but makes the hearts of coin collectors beat very quickly.
Treasury immediately recalls the coins, but 40,000 of them have slid through the system. Within days each coin is selling for as much as £75 in London.
In 1992, with our country poised for its fifth national issue of currency, there must be no repeat of that egg-on-the-face incident, and it is the job of the Reserve Bank’s Chief Manager of Currency, Brian Lang, to make sure there are no glitches. An affable man, who has an engaging way of ending conversations with the phrase “good as gold”, he knows that if there is just one mistake on the new notes the nightmare will be his this time. Within minutes of the currency being released, some sharp-eyed collector will pick up any error.
Yet, the rest of us are an unobservant lot when it comes to recalling what is on our most familiar of objects. And that’s official. The Reserve Bank recently commissioned a street survey, and three out of four people couldn’t name the bird on the reverse of the old $2 note.
Being able to state what is on each note, though, isn’t as important as being able to tell that something is wrong when handed a note with, say, a moa on it. That’s called the recognition factor, and it means that designs have to be clear and simple enough to stay in our minds. Even so, we are still remarkably gullible. Several years ago a reasonably large run of counterfeit twenties was being circulated (“we believe about $250,000 worth,” a police spokesperson said). Photocopied, the smeared results were so poor that the features on the notes were difficult to pick out. It’s hard to see how anyone could have accepted them; but even some trading bank tellers did. (We’re not as gullible as Australians though—recently they were happily accepting $10 lookalikes with the amount changed to $12,and a photograph of Crocodile Dundee star Paul Hogan substituted for the legitimate figure of colonial architect Francis Greenway).
Pushing a sheet of the new designs towards me, Lang comments that these should be easier to remember, since each of them will carry the face of a famous New Zealander. “They’ll stick in your head more than ducks,” he says cheerfully.
So far only two of the new notes have reached our hands: the five, featuring a craggy Sir Edmund Hillary, and the twenty, with a suddenly much older Queen Elizabeth. Still to come are the fifty, with Maori leader Sir Apirana Ngata, and the hundred, with the discoverer of the atom’s structure, Ernest Lord Rutherford. These notes will be released in November. Then, next year, for the celebration of women’s suffrage, the ten will be released, with the portrait of suffrage campaign leader Kate Sheppard. Behind these faces, though, were 18 months of research, debate and hard decision-making.
The decision to change our note designs came when Thomas De La Rue closed its money printing works in Whangarei in 1990, and New Zealand then had to put its money-making out to international tender. The cost to design a new series of notes would be no more than re-making the old, and, anyway, the Reserve Bank decided, it was time for a new image.
“We wanted New Zealanders to be able to pick up these notes and feel proud that they were distinctively New Zealand,” Lang says. “We felt it was time to move forward with our own identity.”
Around the world there is a range of motifs for banknotes. Some countries use them for political messages—many presidents insist on appearing on their currency, their portraits becoming constant reminders to the money’s user of who is in power. Others, Cuba and Vietnam for example, feature heroic episodes of their wars for independence. Some carry commercial messages. Belize, for instance, with an eye on the tourist trade, has a paradisiacal underwater scene with the words, “Largest barrier reef in the Americas.” The United States prefers complicated symbolic references to stability and peace. Along with Sri Lanka and Singapore, we are known as part of the “flora and fauna set”—birds on one side, heads on the other. One of the main problems this time was: whose heads?
Lang has nursed that debate through the last 18 months.
“Since we wanted more New Zealand content, the big questions facing us were: Should the Queen be replaced by New Zealanders? If so, by whom? The choices would need to have made a major contribution to New Zealand’s persona. But how should you define a “New Zealander”—someone born and bred here, or someone who made a major contribution regardless of where they were born? And finally, should we have only dead—and therefore absolutely predictable—people on the notes?”
How, so to speak, did one decide what a notable person was?
Lang decided to seek public opinion. The response was not unpredictable. Women wanted a woman, Maori groups a Maori. Canterbury University physicists drummed up a campaign for Rutherford. Someone wanted supermodel Rachel Hunter, and there was a small lobby running for Murray Ball’s famous cartoon character, Dog.
The only very strong reaction against the Queen’s removal came from the Wizard of Christchurch’s guards, Alf’s Imperial Army. The army served outraged notice on the bank, calling the possibility of losing the Queen a “heinous conspiracy by the vile Servant of Mammon, Bank Governor Brash, and his cringing minions.” When Lang replied that it would be “weak and wrong” for the bank to meet their demands for appeasement—assurance that the Queen would stay, plus a barrel of cool beer (with pump and tap) delivered to regimental headquarters—the army arrived in a 1938 Ford Prefect covered with Union Jacks and photographs of Prince Charles to lay siege to the Temple of Mammon.
“In the end,” says Lang, “there was no real groundswel against taking the Queen off and r placing her with New Zealanders.” So the Queen, it was decided, would fade to a shadow of her former self, into the watermark of the new notes, and feature in colour only on the $20. The shortlist for others on the notes included Sir Edmund Hillary—the favourite—along with author Katherine Mansfield, prime minister Richard Seddon, athlete Jack Lovelock, rugby legend George Nepia, politician Sir Apirana Ngata,Lord Rutherford, Kate Sheppard, aviator Jean Batten, anthropologist Peter Buck, Maori King movement leader Te Puea Herangi, and military hero Bernard Freyberg.
It was decided—and this may raise some eyebrows—that Mansfield and Batten had too much scandal in their pasts to qualify. The question of who was a “New Zealander” eventually came down to the patriotic loyalty of the candidate. Freyberg dropped out because even though he’d been in New Zealand since the age of two, his biography made it clear that he thought of himself as British. On the other hand, Sheppard, who came here in her 20s from Scotland, saw herself as a New Zealander. It was judged that Nepia’s rugby prowess didn’t have the lasting impact that, for better or worse, Rutherford’s splitting of the atom had.
There is a strong banknote convention that only dead people should appear on notes—if a person should blot their copybook it is an embarrassing and costly procedure to get rid of them from the currency. It was a delicate state of affairs for the bank, and could have been for one of our most loved national figures and clear favourite, Sir Edmund, who, in his words, “felt reasonably alive” when asked by Governor Brash if he would agree to being on the note. The implied emphasis on continuing respectability was no burden, he says. “I’ve been watching my Ps and Qs for years.”
By a process of research and debate, then, the decisions were made. Throughout the process, suggestions for design content and research of the factual detail of the notes were handled by Wellington designer Lindsay Missen, along with Reserve Bank staff and a research team made up of Professor W. H. Oliver, former editor of the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, Dr John Andrews of Victoria University’s School of Biological Sciences, Ben Morgan and Lou Ormsby. These people collected thousands of research items over 1991, and their attention to detail has been formidable.
At his Cuba Street studio Missen pulls out his files. In one folder there are 30, maybe 40, photographs of the native falcon, the karearea. They show the birds in dozens of rest and flight positions. Written references on the kokako give such morsels as “since the bird displays remarkable, squirrel-like climbing ability, its agile legs should be shown to good effect.” Inside another folder there are 23 photographs of a grass used in one small scene, every stage of its development relentlessly recorded.
On the $10 note a white camellia accompanies Kate Sheppard, but finding the right one almost defeated the team. Keen gardeners had long since uprooted that particular variety, given by women to the MPs who supported the 1893 Bill which gave women the vote. With the camellia season almost over, the pressure was on to find the right flower in time. Experts around the country joined the search, and, at the eleventh hour, the perfect, fragile blooms were discovered in Dunedin’s Botanic Gardens.
A Flimsy chain stretches between two pillars at the grand portals of Thomas De La Rue’s British office—the only obvious sign of security. It is not there, it turns out, to prevent burglary but to discourage vehicles from drawing up to the aristocratic porch and depositing oil stains on the crunchy new gravel.
“We only take it off when an official visitor is due to arrive—an ambassador or someone like that. We can’t have them splashing through grease,” says the deputy managing director, David Hosie. That sense of fastidious care and British discretion pervades the air at the headquarters of the world’s biggest supplier of banknotes, in Basingstoke, south-west of London.
Inside, the presence of any intruder would be detected by electronic sensors, judiciously hidden so as not to distract employees and guests as they walk around the ground floor, enjoying the specially created atmosphere of a continental village, complete with tree-lined boulevard, cafés and shops.
Upstairs, in the hushed design department, Richard Jebbitt can concentrate on meticulously copying the photograph of a camellia petal—that elusive camellia—dot by dot, for what is known as a vignette, a small piece of engraved decoration. He looks tired, as well he might; he has been stippling away on these camellias for almost five weeks, and he has been nursing the New Zealand project for almost a year.
In a company renowned for its traditions and long-serving staff Jebbitt is a relative newcomer. He used to be an artist, illustrating animals, but joined Thomas De La Rue because he wanted to make money. Five years on, he is making New Zealand’s money. It is his first time in charge of an issue as big as this.
On his desk is evidence of the slow evolution of early ideas: large cardboard versions since discarded. Most prominent on top of the pile is a pink note bearing the portrait of Katherine Mansfield, now dropped. At least he had known something about her, he says. He had never heard of most of the other New Zealanders who were chosen to represent the country.
It is Jebbitt’s job to take Missen’s designs and “banknotise” them—make fine adjustments to the design and add features which will ensure they fit the rigid security requirements of a banknote.
A few changes had to be made—partly for the sake of decorum. For instance, the tractor that accompanies Sir Edmund’s portrait on the five-dollar note had to be moved from the upper right hand side to the lower left. On the right is the watermark with the Queen’s portrait; she would not have looked sufficiently regal with farm machinery suspended above the crown jewels. One of Jebbitt’s early versions of Mt Cook had bare rock all the way to the summit; for the sake of realism a layer of virgin snow was added. (During the time he was drawing it, the top fell off the real mountain. Fortunately, his reference photograph had been taken from an angle unaffected by the rockfall )
Jebbitt’s drafts then went back to the Reserve Bank, and the painstaking process of revision and re-revision began.
On the whole, though, the final designs are very close to those supplied by Missen. The company’s main function in this case has been to ensure that the notes contain the proper security features.
The threat from forgeries has become much greater since the advent of colour photocopiers, and every week the company’s security evaluation executive, James Robinson, receives samples of counterfeit notes from police around the world. In the past seven years since he has been doing this job he has seen only one from New Zealand, “a typical and mediocre” effort which failed to reproduce the true colours and the intricacy of some of the patterns.
“We have to stay one step ahead, constantly making the counterfeiter’s job more onerous,” he says.
A tidy, clean-cut man, he picks his words carefully, like a policeman in court, as he sips a soft drink in the tastefully furnished club rooms. The soothing sound of Acker Bilk can be heard in the background, along with an incongruous clatter of coins as someone hits the jackpot on the poker machines.
Robinson heads a team of 20 scientists who look at ways of making the manufacture of notes ever more complex and difficult to imitate.
Certain colour combinations, for example, are needed to deter the would-be forger. Quite what they are, Thomas De La Rue is disinclined to divulge. When it comes to questions of security, the air of discretion can become a cloud of secrecy. Suffice to say that the colour of some of the flowers had to be altered. Other features are more easy to understand. Take our new $5 note, for instance. The metallic strip is easy to see, as is the Queen’s head in the watermark. When the note is held up to the light it becomes obvious that the perfect register of some parts of the note on both sides would be almost impossible to duplicate—on the left hand bottom corner the fern matches exactly its mirror image on the other side, while lines at each corner dovetail with others on the reverse.
Under a magnifying glass the micro-letters RBNZ become visible in the strip under Sir Edmund, and, held flat to the eye, the letters NZ emerge from the oval pattern above the top number. This is only the first, public layer of precautions. All notes contain “spectral finger printing”—hidden images which are only visible under ultraviolet light. On our five-dollar note, under UV the eye of the yellow-eyed penguin suddenly fluoresces, and the grass at its feet twinkles prettily. And every engraved portion of the note—in this case Sir Edmund, the lettering and the pattern at the top right of the note—is printed by a process which leaves a raised surface.
The engraving work is probably the most painstakingly specialised part of the notemaking process, and is performed by only a handful of people in the world.
On the ground floor at Thomas De La Rue there is a row of mechanical engravers, looking like ancient, menacing dentistry drills. Some basic decorative work is done by these machines; everything else is done by hand.
Steel engravers are a rare ilk and hard to come by. There’s no way to shortcut the engraver’s 12- to 15-year apprenticeship. Although these artisans work with both eyes open, one will develop much more than the other, which will become lazy. And because of their work, engravers can read a paper held up to a mirror more quickly than most people could read it the normal way. All their professional life is spent working back to front. Everything is done backwards, text and all.
There are engravers responsible solely for lettering and patterns, engravers who make the vignettes, and engravers with something approaching celebrity status who do only portraits. One of the most celebrated is the aptly named Terry Chipper, who was responsible for Sir Edmund and the new updated Queen. He is one of an elite group: there are only about a dozen portrait engravers in the world.
Chipper began training as a student in 1947, became an apprentice in 1950, and worked his way up through lettering, vignettes and finally to portraits. Up until now Thomas De La Rue’s portraits of the Queen have usually been engraved by someone more senior still, but the royalty specialist Stan Doubtfire is now 70, and semi-retired, and Chipper, who is a comparatively youthful 57, quips, “Perhaps this means I am finally taking over from Stan.”
The Queen took him more than two months to complete, a quite usual length of time. He has to copy a photograph by eye. Every tone has to be represented by a multitude of tiny, delicate incisions in the steel plate. A metal image cannot be reduced as a photograph can, so the engraving has to be the actual size of the final picture—barely two inches high. Chipper achieves extraordinary clarity of detail—the Queen’s teeth, for example, which, unusually, are clearly visible in this portrait.
Chipper works from home, sitting at a small desk with his mongrel dog Sadie by his brown-slippered feet and Vaughan Williams on the record player. It is a tidy, modern, single-storeyed house which wouldn’t look out of place in one of Christchurch’s more upmarket suburbs, but its location, somewhere in England, cannot be revealed for security purposes. His scrapbook alone would be of great interest to a collector; he has copies of everything he has engraved, from the Queen to Surinam’s only Olympic swimmer.
An artist who works diligently from 8am to 5.30pm, Chipper is dedicated to his exacting craft, and, he says, is still learning. Hillary, for instance, must have presented a rigorous challenge. The photograph from which Chipper worked is of a young Sir Edmund, fresh off Everest, jubilant but unshaven. Stubble is hard to reproduce without giving a smudged and dirty appearance. Chipper says he aimed for a “rugged masculine look” by using clear, deep engraving lines, particularly around the jaw.
Fortunately, he made no mistakes with either of his portraits for the New Zealand issue. Changes to minute etchings on thick-plated steel are not straightforward to achieve. The engraver has to scrape away the offending lines, making a hollow on the plate. Thomas De La Rue’s alterations department then marks the precise spot on the back of the plate and gives it a hefty punch, and the engraver reworks that portion.
More often, engravings have to be re-done for reasons other than those of the engraver’s own making. A president or head of state somewhere is deposed or murdered, and a new face is needed on the currency. “Yes, it’s a fascinating business because of its political content,” says David Hosie. “Every night you turn on the television, and it’s possible you’ll see another customer going up in smoke.” For reasons like that—although Thomas De La Ruvians would be the last ones to discuss such indelicate matters—clients pay for their goods up front. And in hard currency.
Thomas De La Rue makes notes for 100 countries—six billion notes a year. When the Soviet bloc started to crumble, whole new money-making vistas were opened up. Thomas De La Rue is not out there hustling for the new custom; it is not like that. But it does have “its ear to the ground”, is “putting out feelers”, and Hosie says, with a discernible glint in his eye, that if all the existing former Soviet states became single-currency countries, there would be 23 more potential clients.
Printing money is a business which has been built on the old-fashioned virtues of solidity and restraint, or at least the appearance of these virtues. Inside the front door are two grey-haired, kindly-looking security guards. The guards provide the only gap in the armour of discretion. Security controller Peter Henshaw recognises me as a New Zealander and accosts me on the way out: “I don’t like your new Queen,” he says jovially. “Too many teeth.”
The atmosphere at the company’s printing works in Singapore has an almost palpable hard edge to it. A high spiked fence surrounds the facility, which looks like a military blockhouse, and there is a noticeable lack of windows. A heavily-armed Gurkha guard stands watchfully by the entrance.
Security controller Jim Tate is a bluff Englishman who fondly remembers some years he spent as one of the Queen’s guards. In his office a sign says: “Trust but verify.”
One senses that this is an uncomfortable exercise for Tate. His job is to think like a terrorist, and make sure he’s always one jump ahead. And visitors—especially those with cameras—represent the unpredictable. More so than the employees.
“We have a very good understanding of what people are,” he says, “how they can be tempted, and what they are likely to do. I say to anyone who joins here, ‘Everyone has their price. Everyone.’ When they disagree, I say, ‘How about if your mother was dying, and the only way she could be cured was to send her to New York for an operation, and you couldn’t find the money to send her? What about that?’ My job is to make sure that whatever the pressure on an employee, the system is invincible.”
On the factory floor there is ample evidence of that vigilance. Under bank upon bank of bright fluorescent lights, the printing presses thumping around us, a hundred or so workers mix inks, tend presses, check notes. Overhead, hundreds of cameras look down on them. At the end of each day each worker will be searched by deft hands, while ears listen for the crackle of crisp new paper. As general manager Andrew Blundell shows me through the factory, one of the uniformed guards strolling quietly around the factory floor courteously asks to look through my notepad. She fans through and hands it back. It is a sobering reminder not to get carried away by the sight of these millions of dollars pouring steadily from machines around me.
Blundell peels a sheet of blank paper off a stack. “Currency paper is not, in fact, paper,” he tells me. “It is made of cotton, and made to last.” Thomas De La Rue makes sure of that. Their notes are continually subjected to scrunching, tearing and folding tests, and exposed to human sweat, laundry detergents, dry cleaning fluids. Recently, another banknote company produced Western Samoa’s new notes—printed on plastic. Within weeks, the ink came off, starting with the portrait of the head of state. A banknote company’s credibility is only as good as its notes.
When Blundell holds this sheet up to the light our watermark, the Queen’s head, and the new glittering security thread become visible. Both are built into the paper when it is made.
“Every inch of this paper is accounted for at every stage of the process,” he says. “This is a precise business. This is not a business where you order a million pieces of paper and get a million and one.” He pauses to make sure he is making his point about the tightness of internal security. “You get one million, precisely. And if the amount of paper that comes out of this machine is less than what we put in, we’ll take the machine apart to look for the rest. And every offcut, every piece of faulty printing, is burned under supervision.”
The value of the money being printed is not relevant here, it is pieces of paper which count. Each year up to 1000 million pieces roll off the presses of this factory; the New Zealand order is for 125 million pieces, 80 million of those our $20 and $10 notes.
Today, five currencies are going through the factory, and it is only when we get to the intaglio printing machine that we see our first sheets of New Zealand $20 notes. All the background colours have already been printed on them by a lithographic process which prints both sides simultaneously and gives perfect back and front registration of the security features. The engraved portions will be added at this machine, and, later, the security inked areas and, finally, the numbers.
Here, Chipper’s art is finally being brought to life. Four working plates made from copies of the original engravings have been wrapped around a spinning drum. As the drum turns the plates are coated with thick sticky ink. Their surfaces are then wiped, leaving ink only in the incisions. Then, a sheet of paper is squeezed on to the plate at a pressure of about 40 tons per square inch, and when the paper is pulled away tiny mounds of ink remain. It is these which give our notes their embossed texture, and give blind people vital clues to distinguish between denominations.
Sheet after sheet of the twenties-40 to each sheet—float gently down on to a growing stack. They are handsome notes, and I feel a rush of patriotic pride. “Lovely, aren’t they, when they’re in sheet form?” Blundell says as I watch, mesmerised, the equivalent of my entire year’s salary passing before my eyes in seconds. To him they represent a successful and stylish product. To me they are apartments in the world’s top cities, and wondrous journeys through sun-drenched lands.
Mistakes do, of course, happen—that’s the nature of the printing business. Preventing them from sneaking through the system into the eager hands of collectors is the critical part of the process. In a corner of the factory 25 Singaporean women are checking the uncut sheets, their eyes scanning right top to left bottom of each sheet, looking for spots or smears. All the notes that pass this test will go on to be cut and numbered before their final check in the single note room. In this room the security presence is intense, the presence of rows of cameras and roving guards unable to be ignored.
“This is where it turns into real money,” Blundell says, by way of explanation. The concentration on the faces of the rows of women checking the notes is just as intense. Carefully, they fan a bundle of notes like a hand of cards. Then they riffle through it—expert dealers in an exclusive casino. I am reminded of the childhood game of drawing stick figures on pads and flicking through the pages. Just as the stick figure jumps and somersaults because each is advanced one movement, so too will any shift in the pattern’s register, any odd mark leap out at the inspector.
“They flick through the bundles seven times,” says Blundell, “twice for the back of the note, five times for the front—the side that carries most of the note’s information.”
I ask one of the women how many times she will look at Sir Edmund’s face today. She calculates: 320 bundles, or bricks, of 1000 notes each day, so that’s 320,000 times. Does she know who he is? “As yet, no,” she says, smiling.
As I watch these bricks of notes being packed into boxes for delivery-50,000 of them at a time—I try to calculate how much money I’m looking at. A quarter of a million dollars to the box, a pile of boxes as big as a small house. The closest I can get is millions—and millions—enough, maybe, to buy another Clyde Dam, maybe even a frigate or two. Each of these notes costs six cents to make—so will the tens, twenties, fifties and hundreds. Nice mark-up. At this cost, it seems like a pretty good return on our investment. One of the world’s last great bargains.
I am back in Auckland, and the cold winds licking my face instead of the 32-degree heat of Singapore tell me so. I seek warmth in a café, and across from me is a table of teenagers. One of the girls pulls out a new five-dollar note. It doesn’t rip, she tells a friend. “It does,” he says, snatching it from her. The pressure he applies would tear a phone book in half. It rips. He holds it above his head tauntingly, waving the two pieces. Oh, well. The Reserve Bank has millions of replacements. If she can get the two halves from him,that is.