As a convenience driven society, we don’t really give a lot of thought to the physical money we use to make all our purchases with. Namely, we seldom wonder about the humble beginnings of the paper currency we are all so familiar with today. Money and the art of Intaglio are so strongly intertwined that most people don’t know what the style of art is called until you mention currency. This goes all the way back to the simple solution early banks came up with to ease their patrons loads (quite literally) when they started issuing paper receipts for the actual gold and precious metals stored for clients within their vaults. With these innovative ideas came the troublesome task of verifying and standardizing the look of said receipts, and some decades after the first copper engravings were completed in 1430, the art of Intaglio, cutting into a surface in order to engrave and produce an image came to be used on paper currency.
Numismatists who specialize in paper money will be the first to agree that this art form has some breathtaking detail and needs extraordinary skills and exorbitant amounts of precision and detail to produce currency for the governments of nations around today, and occasional hiccups or one-offs in the process make way for an even better, more interesting and fun collection.
We’ve come a long way from woodblocks and early etchings, but what is the Intaglio method exactly, and how do mints put it into practice?
To make the laborious process short, Intaglio is a printmaking technique that utilizes brass, steel or most popularly, copper plates that are aggravated with different styles of small or even microscopic cuts such as etching, drypoint, engraving, aquatint, and mezzotint. The plates are either pressed then or dipped in acids to produce an even bite (a term describing acid eating into the uncovered parts of the plate) and filled with ink or paint and wiped, leaving just the small amounts of product in the grooves desired. Finally, paper is pressed against the plate (usually using huge amounts of pressure) to produce wonderfully intricate and fine detail left behind. In short, ink within the grooves is picked up by the paper.
Intaglio was initially more popular with the aristocracy and the rich, as the look of the pieces produced was so much finer and had a superior visual impression. It was of course, more expensive to make compared to the wooden blocks popular earlier.
Today, the art form is regaining its popularity with artists, and remains in use with the printing of paper money, checks and security-sensitive papers. Governments use Intaglio because the technique is so precise that it becomes virtually impossible to duplicate the pieces printed; for example, often a piece will be worked on by more than one engraver or will be done digitally, allowing for the security needed to produce and retain a legitimate currency. The different inks used on each piece, as well as the chemical makeup of inks (some change colour) are an additional security feature that assures quality and validity. With numismatists, its popularity continues as the added historical aspect of the art is as interesting today as it has ever been, providing an almost infinite pool of collecting options.
Fun fact: The paper that money is printed on also varies, as it is not your usual wood pulp and governments change it up and vary themselves; it often has blends of cotton, linen and other specific materials thrown in, making them unique and hard to duplicate, with forward steps into polymer instead of paper, for an almost impossible to duplicate banknote.