MONETA ARTICLE (OCTOBER, 2011)
Reprinted from Moneta, written by Tolling Jennings, edited by Serge Pelletier.
To view the article, click here or on the image below.
SETTING SAIL ON SILVER CLOUDS: GULF ISLANDERS MINT THEIR OWN MONEY
This article was written by Daniel S. Rubin as an introduction to the Lasqueti Mint.
Tolling Jennings holds a silver disc up to the light, squints at it knowingly and smiles. He is pleased with what he sees. In his hand is the latest solid silver coin from the Lasqueti Mint, a tiny gulf island partnership that has begun producing half ounce commemorative coins in pure silver, copper and gold, all by hand.
As a child, Tolling started to collect old coins as a hobby. But his passion for rare coins has recently become much more than a personal indulgence. Along with his partner, goldsmith Ray Lipovsky, he has founded the Lasqueti Mint. Together, the two partners are doing something many have dreamed of: making their own money. The traditions of numismatics and the laws of Canada decree that fine metal bullion coins may be issued and sold free of any tax, provided that the purity of the metal, the weight of each coin and a maker’s trademark are shown on each coin’s face. This has opened the door to some tantalizing possibilities, which the partners have glimpsed and firmly grasped. If a small, island-based mint can produce its own commemorative coinage by hand, then it is possible for such coins to be given as gifts, generating funds for local communities and organizations, and it also follows that such coins will begin to circulate, providing a key ingredient for economic independence within island communities.
Over the past fifty years, as the official mints of all the countries in the world have moved national currencies away from gold, and then abandoned even the silver standard, official currencies have become more fluid, and less stable. Now, with worldwide trade in international commodities including gold and silver, dollars and yen, carried on by keystroke around the world in milliseconds, the value of any currency can fluctuate wildly in a single trading day. This makes it harder and harder to believe in the intrinsic value of the dollar, and more difficult to find a safe haven for any assets you may have accumulated.
As inflation, recession and international money markets continue to undermine traditional economies, we all share a confusing sense of receding reality. We wonder whether the flimsy paper certificates we exchange for goods and services have any real value at all. Coins have similarly been devalued to the point where we laughingly spend our loonies and toonies without any sense of their real value. This is because currency has lost one of its three essential ingredients; it is no longer a “store of value” as well as being portable and a medium of exchange.
But here are two people who see things differently. Making their own coins by hand, out of .999 pure silver and .9999 gold, the two partners are reviving an ancient tradition. The silver in a half ounce “Silver Cloud” plus the craftsmanship embedded in its design, plus the guaranteed rarity of the coin equals real value.
The first run of coins, displaying the image of Allen and Sharie Farrell’s legendary sailing junk China Cloud was minted in July of 1997, as a way to raise funds for the local Ultimate Frisbee team to attend the national championships. That first run of 222 coins was sold out within five weeks. Production at the Mint continued through 1998, with the two partners realizing they would have to streamline their methods and acquire new equipment.
Now they have upgraded their machinery and improved their methods. But coins produced by the Lasqueti Mint are still being made by hand, using nineteenth century technology.
Each coin starts out as casting grains or ingots of silver or gold. The molten metal is poured, shimmering, from a crucible into a mould which shapes it into a long slender bar. The bar is cooled, then rolled by hand to a precise thickness. Next, discs called planchets are cut. The discs are heated red hot, quenched, cleaned in acid, rinsed and dried, to prepare them for striking. The drop hammer, which looks something like a cast iron guillotine, performs the finishing touch. Each disc is sandwiched between two steel dies, then a cast iron block is raised to the top of the tower. When the weight plummets, striking the dies, the images on the dies are impressed into both sides of the prepared disc. A new coin has been minted.
Working by hand, the partners can produce a limited number of coins per day. That this whole process takes place in a backwoods workshop is remarkable enough. But the crowning touch is the design depicted on each coin. Drafted by renowned local artist Tony Seaman, the image of the three-masted junk under full sail embodies the essence of living independently on the BC coast, since it celebrates the sailing home of this coast’s most independent couple: Allen and Sharie Farrell. The Farrells cruised among the islands on their handmade 50-foot sailboat for fifteen years, while in their seventies and eighties. During this time they lived without refrigeration, navigational gear, a washing machine or even an engine. For residents of the Gulf Islands the image of China Cloud represents all that is most worthwhile about island living: it’s the epitome of doing it yourself: living well, independently and in fine style.
As the coins have begun to circulate, first on Lasqueti, then on the other islands, the inevitable has happened: people are starting to use them for trade. Now coins are being made in two types: proofs, double struck and issued in a commemorative box with a certificate of origin, and BU (brilliant uncirculated) coins, struck only once by the maker’s die, and ideal for circulation. If you stop for pizza at the bakery, or for basmati rice at the Whole Food Store on Lasqueti Island, you may notice a logo behind the counter indicating Lasqueti coins are accepted in trade.
This in itself would be a major accomplishment, but the two Mint partners are not resting on their laurels. With Copper, Silver and Gold Clouds circulating on their own home island, they have begun to eye the other islands of the Strait of Georgia.
A Gabriola Island coin was the next to follow. The summer of 1999 has seen the release of the Gabriola Silver Cloud, carrying the image of Gabriola Island’s well-known pictograph, the Dancing Man, on its obverse side. Backed by the non-profit group Festival Gabriola, as well as by the Lasqueti Mint, Silver Clouds are now being sold on Gabriola to support this worthwhile local arts society.
This summer, contact is gradually being made with artists on the other islands of the Gulf and the Strait of Georgia, with hopes of issuing a commemorative set for all the major islands by the year 2000. In each case, a local artist must be found to draft a design for one side of the coin, and a local society or individual to cover the manufacture of the first 200 coins. After that, things tend to roll downhill, gathering momentum. By the middle of next year the partners hope to issue a complete commemorative set for the Gulf Islands, housed in its own presentation box.
Meanwhile, on Lasqueti Island, Tolling Jennings and Ray Lipovsky are finding that success is creating its own challenges. Their local gold supplier has been bought by a larger American company, and moved south of the border. Multiple stampings have placed new demands on their equipment, and then there is the challenge of contacting exactly the right people on each of the islands.
Elsewhere on Lasqueti, Wildwood Works, an award winning local value-added manufacturing company has been making buttons, pens, picture frames and boxes from materials the forest industry throws away for the past twenty years. Now Wildwood has become a willing partner in the marketing of the new coins. Each proof coin now rests in its own elegant storage box made from a slice of tree branch. With natural bark on the outside and the image of China Cloud impeccably stamped on the lid of each box, the proof coins have become instant cultural icons and gifts to be treasured.
Back at the Mint, Ray has joined Tolling at the window where the sun glints down through the arbutus branches. Ray too is peering at the coin, examining the Lasqueti Mint’s latest issue carefully through his jeweller’s glass.
“Yep,” he says, “Looks good. Let’s make some more coins.” As more and more silver and gold China Clouds set sail for the islands, the two makers are laughing at their own presumptuousness. Making money by making . . . money? It’s just another day at the Lasqueti Mint.