The Coin Analyst: U.S. Mint’s New Laser Frosting Technique Pushes the Envelope in Coin Design Process
by Louis Golino for CoinWeek ………
Modern U.S. numismatic coins have until recently tended to be more conservative in their use of newer technologies. But major change is brewing at the U.S. Mint today.
Steve Antonucci, who serves as branch manager for digital process and development at the U.S. Mint facility in Philadelphia, is at the center of a major push by the Mint to use new laser technologies and computer software to significantly enhance the coin design process and make coins more visually appealing by making the various details of the designs more distinctive from each other.
In a telephone interview with CoinWeek, Mr. Antonucci explained that customer feedback in recent years frequently asked why U.S. Mint proof coins using laser frosting were resulting in the loss of significant details on coins. An example would be the obverse of proof America the Beautiful quarters in which the details on President Washington’s portrait are obscured.
Mr. Antonucci explained that the reason is that the intensity of the laser was so high on those coins that it created surface roughness and absorbed light. He also said that the Mint’s artists and sculptors were just as disappointed with this situation as collectors were.
About a year ago when he assumed his current position after a decade working on the digital process at the Mint, Mr. Antonucci was tasked to find a solution to this problem. In late 2012 he was asked what upcoming projects could be used to help develop an alternative laser frosting process, and he said the 2013 Five-Star Generals commemorative program, specifically the proof coins, were an excellent candidate for that effort.
As the photos and images provided to the numismatic press by the Mint show, the areas of the proof versions of the $5 gold and silver dollar coins in that program that use the new laser frosting technique really make the details much more distinctive, such as on the portraits of Generals Marshall and Eisenhower on the silver dollar obverse. Another example is the ornament on the lamp on the reverse of the coin. These details almost “jump out” and look much more life-like than for example the detail on the obverse of the uncirculated versions of these two coins.
In recent years as the Mint has explored the use of alternative technologies, it has consulted with officials at foreign mints that work in these areas. In particular, the Royal Canadian Mint and Perth Mint have been issuing numerous innovative coins using new approaches, which the Mint has taken note of. In fact, the U.S. and Canadian Mints currently use the same type of lasers, which the American Mint purchased in 2005.
I also asked if there is any connection between the development of the new laser frosting technique on proof coins and the new enhanced uncirculated American silver eagle that will be included in the upcoming West Point silver eagle set slated to be released on May 9.
Mr. Antonucci responded that although his team’s project has a different focus where the most important things are die life and the fidelity of detail, a laser specialist from his team was sent to the West Point Mint to help with development of the new silver eagles with multiple finishes , which he refers to as “reverse brilliant uncirculated” coins. Even though the West Point team was developing a different approach, they were using the same basic technology and applying it to different elements of the designs of the respective coins.
That gets to the heart of the new laser frosting techniques being developed for proof coins. And that is that “while every coin design is its own animal, requiring its own analyses,” the plan is to keep trying different approaches based on the art work and the level of detail.
For example, the national parks quarters and five-ounce silver coins frequently use landscapes of the parks they are honoring as the design of the reverse of the coin. Michael White, the Mint’s spokesman explained that at meetings he has attended of the CCAC, the Citizens’ Coinage Advisory Commission , commission members will often ask when reviewing such designs how will the Mint emphasize different design elements and make, for example, the trees look different from the water in the design.
A big part of the answer is to explore the use of different laser frosting techniques to add “visual intensity to the coins,” and to have the Mint’s coin artists and sculptors thinking about these issues during the coin design process. As Mr. Antonucci said, the new technologies should drive the coin design process and vice versa.
In addition, moving forward, his team will be exploring the use of different laser frosting intensities to develop different looks on coins. There is no fixed number of frosting intensities, and Mr. Antonucci said he foresees that as many as seven could be used at some point. The main current obstacle to doing that is that in some cases the computer software may not yet exist and would need to be developed.
The Mint has not made any final decisions on which coins will use the new technologies in the future, but collectors can expect to see them used on various numismatic and commemorative coin programs.
During a telephone conference last week with members of the numismatic press, Mr. Antonucci said that he is also exploring the possibility of having the Mint keep the experimental strikes used in the process of developing these new approaches. Normally they are destroyed, but he said he would “hate to lose visual reference to that coin” since it would be so useful to the team of artists and sculptors at the Mint to have them in hand as they think about and work to develop new coin designs. This is another example of his idea of the technologies and coin design process working together in a symbiotic way.
Collectors should check out what the new proof coins of the Five-Star General program look like in person, and see what they think of the new laser frosting technologies.
Louis Golino is a coin collector and numismatic writer, whose articles on coins have appeared in Coin World, Numismatic News, and a number of different coin web sites. His column for CoinWeek, “The Coin Analyst,” covers U.S. and world coins and precious metals. He collects U.S. and European coins and is a member of the ANA, PCGS, NGC, and CAC. He has also worked for the U.S. Library of Congress and has been a syndicated columnist and news analyst on international affairs for a wide variety of newspapers and web sites.