by Al Doyle for CoinWeek
One of the main reasons for the introduction of the 50 States quarters in 1999 (along with more recent facelifts of the Lincoln cent and Jefferson nickel) was the age of those U.S. series. Seeing the “same old same old” in pocket change for 65 to 100 years resulted in numerous complaints about staleness and lack of creativity in coin designs.
Even with their longevity, U.S. circulation issues are relative newcomers compared to the Swiss 1/2 franc and the 1 and 2 franc. All three coins have carried the same design – the image of Helvetia (the allegorical woman similar to Liberty found on older U.S. coinage) on the obverse with the denomination and date of mintage on the reverse.
The 2 franc debuted in 1874, while the franc and half franc came along a year later. Toga-clad Helvetia is circled by 22 stars representing the Swiss cantons. A 23rd star was added in 1983. That comes out to 137 and 138 years apiece. How has the venerable Swiss trio lasted since before the electric light bulb and telephone were invented?
When a nation’s coinage carries the same look for decades, it’s a reliable indicator of economic stability, and Switzerland for known for a rock-solid currency. Having a classic design with understated elegance also helps keep these series around in an age of bimetallic and plated coins. During the early years of issue, the 1/2, 1 and 2 franc circulated side by side with foreign coins, as they were widely accepted in addition to Swiss issues.
Originally made from .835 fine silver, the old dependables of Swiss commerce weren’t struck every year before the 1950s. There was no need for annual runs of coins, as the nation’s population didn’t exceed 3 million until the early 1900s. The earlier pieces were workhorses for daily usage, and few mint state examples were saved.
Price leaps between Extra Fine and uncirculated specimens can be steep. When it comes to the 1880 and 1904 1/2 franc, the 1875, 1880 and 1904 1-franc and the 1875 to 1879, 1904, 1907 and 1908 2 franc, price tags of four figures in U.S. dollars or Swiss francs are needed to acquire those scarcer dates in the mint state grades.
Aside from the occasional lower-mintage date, year to year production of Swiss coinage tended to be remarkably stable over decade-long stretches. Exactly 1 million 1/2 francs were struck in 1906, 1909 and 1910, while 800,000 pieces were produced in 1908 and 1913. In the 1-franc series, identical mintages of 1.2 million are listed for 1910, 1911 and 1912. As for 1932, 1934 and 1936, the annual output was 500,000 in each of those Depression-era years.
Precisely 300,000 2-franc pieces were minted in 1903, 1905, 1907, 1909 and 1913, while 400,000 per year were struck in 1906, 1911 and 1912. The silver content of .0671 ounce in the half franc is right between the silver Canadian and U.S. dimes. The 1 franc weighs in with .1342 ounce of precious metal, while the 2 franc carries .2685 ounce of silver.
Scarcer dates in the post-World War II period include the 1955 1/2 franc (mintage 1,320,000), the 1947 (624,000) and 1955 (194,000) 1-franc pieces along with the 1953 (mintage 438,000) and 1958 (650,000) 2 franc. The B mint mark found on Swiss coinage signifies the Bern Mint.
The concept of circulating silver coinage lasted until 1967 in Switzerland. Copper-nickel planchets of 1968 to date are 12 percent lighter than the silver versions. As in other nations, yearly mintages of the base metal pieces are somewhat higher than what was typical prior to 1968.
Specimen francs are similar to proofs or other specially crafted coins, and they tend to be struck in relatively low numbers. So where can a collector obtain these long-lasting Swiss series? World coin dealers are an obvious source, and eBay has a decent selection. Careful bidders can sometimes obtain circulated silver 1/2, 1 and 2-franc pieces for bullion-related prices. High-grade examples end up in PCGS and NGC slabs with some frequency. So-called dealer “junk boxes” (or treasure chests for thrifty numismatists) can be a source for bargains.
Are the 80-year old Washington quarter and 103-year old Lincoln cent just a little too new and unproven for your tastes? Think Swiss for a trio of series that has real staying power.