Banknotes, pieces of art impossible to forge: Oberthur Fiduciaire’s stated ambition

Everyone loves money for the opportunities it provides. Besides, there’s one more thing for which we love our coins and bills, and this is their design.


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Indeed, banknotes of any country are small pieces of art, be it colorful Samoan bills with national birds or flowers, the Indian rupee with Mahatma Gandhi or Swiss francs with more abstract concepts like time, light, water, matter and language. To some extent, the design of banknotes reflects the national identity, but also carries a completely practical function – protection from forgery.

Technically, scammers can photograph or scan a banknote in order to print it out and use illegally. However, there are some details that an office printer cannot reproduce. These are special security features hidden behind colorful pictures.

These security add-ons are not a secret, but there’s also something more than meets the eye. And brochures and posters of central banks websites are not as informative as if you ask those working in banknote printing industry. One of such experts is French security printer Oberthur Fiduciaire.

The company is not a newcomer to the market. Oberthur Fiduciaire, then called just Oberthur, was founded in 1842 in a small French town of Rennes. Since then, the company has been actively developing, opening new directions, but has always paid special attention to R&D activities. At the moment, Oberthur owns 17 patents that cover a wide range of technologies in anti-counterfeiting devices. Its production capacity reaches five billion banknotes per year that are delivered to over 70 countries in the world.

One of the most notable Oberthur’s patents is Swing®, a printed security feature with variable optical effects on a transparent window. A few years ago the feature was presented on the Mauritian rupee, and quickly became popular among local citizens and government representatives. Mr. Rundheersing Bheenick, the Bank of Mauritius Governor, tells about this experience: “As we were innovating, we wanted to go all out with modern features to the extent possible. The Swing® feature fitted this requirement very nicely because the alternatives proposed were widely used in many other polymer notes elsewhere. The public was actually demanding the notes to be put in circulation faster than the Bank was able to get them out! The reception has been enthusiastic. The Swing® feature is easily recognizable and it makes life easier for users and merchants.”

Swing® and the like are relatively new technologies. However, Oberthur, with its more than a century of history, knows how important it is to use old proven methods. Here, for example, intaglio printing, when the image is incised into a surface and the incised line or sunken area holds the ink. Intaglio printing was invented in the late nineteenth century, but is still relevant thanks to constant improvements.

Oberthur Fiduciaire is no stranger to it, since the company has always been one of the industry innovators. Antony Duckels, Senior Banknote Designer, explains: “We are one of the first banknote companies to use 5 colors intaglio presses. When we were considering how we should promote this capability the answer was obvious. We would print 5 different colored notes at the same time! In fact, we would print an entire series at the same time, starting with a low security banknote and finishing with a high security banknote across the sheet.”

Today, traceability has also become a fundamental factor for banks that trust Oberthur Fiduciaire. Not only does the finished object, the banknote, has to be impossible to counterfeit, but the entire supply chain must be transparent to ensure quality and security. Not all countries can guarantee the same level of security, as the example in Liberia of the disappearance of almost $100 million in new bank notes illustrates.

Banknotes of any state, be it a huge developed power, or a small island nation, are a unique mix of technologies and art. It is impossible to recreate them without special equipment, materials and without a particular set of skills. Bills and coins symbolize economies of different nations, and therefore must be equally beautiful and well-secured. Oberthur’s CEO sums it up: “The design is essential because it’s a matter of security and conveys the image of a country. We incorporate the security features into the design. But there is also an artistic part to it. You have to be able to understand the history and the symbols of a country to create attractive designs tailored to the specific culture. That is what makes the design of each banknote very interesting.”


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