Gold comes to cinemas nationwide today, so in association with its release, Flickering Myth went to The Royal Mint in pursuit of gold…
SEE ALSO: Read our review of Gold here
On a dreary winter’s day, an industrial town in Wales doesn’t sound like the ideal destination. However, much like Kenny Wells (Matthew McConaughey in Gold), sometimes you can strike gold in the most unassuming of places.
Royal Mint is the largest mint in western Europe, every single British coin in circulation is made here – that’s right, all of those coins tunefully jangling in your pockets. The Royal Mint produces roughly 90 million coins each week, averaging a cool 5 billion per year.
The Royal Mint Experience, a purpose built exhibition and visitor centre, opened its doors for the first time on the 18th May 2016. This provides visitors with the chance to explore the rich history of Royal Mint, the production of worldwide currency in action, and the opportunity to strike your very own coin – not just any old coin mind, the twelve sided pound due to begin circulation in March this year.
Taken on the factory tour at the Royal Mint Experience, it was an unexpected pleasure to discover more about those small round discs we use on a daily basis. There is no gold to be found within that pound coin in your hand – composed mainly of base metals including copper, zinc, and nickel. Gold was phased out of circulating currency in the early 20th century, and is now used exclusively for commemorative coin and bullion (investment bars and coins) instead.
The main processes that create our currency are: melting, blanking, and striking. The components begin life in a furnace that reaches temperatures of up to 850°C, to create an 18mm thick coil of roughly half a mile long. This is then punched, think industrial sized hole puncher, to create blanks – Royal Mint firing up to 10,000 blanks a minute; do with that information what you will. These blanks are then ‘pickled’ and edged in a rimming machine, to ensure they are in their very best condition for striking. This final stage involves an intricately designed steel die and immense pressure on the blanks, to create the designs we see today.
Gaining an insight into the 24/7 operation at Royal Mint, by peering out onto the factory floor and listening to the cascade of coins pouring out a lifetime’s worth of wealth, is mesmerising and industrially impressive. The surrounding walls in the warehouse are adorned with flags from around the world, as Royal Mint produces coinage for an average of 60 nations.
We had been witnessing the process of striking, so, naturally, it was time to strike our very own uncirculated 12 sided pound coin – dubbed ‘the most secure coin in the world’. As you press the button to set the wheels in motion, your tiny blank is put under pressure in a shed-sized machine and is presented to you as absolute perfection. The tails side adorns 15 year old David Pearce’s design in all its glory, depicting the English rose, Welsh thistle, Scottish leek, and Irish shamrock.
This year’s line up of coins joining the 12 sided pound in circulation, includes the Jane Austen £2 coin, Isaac Newton 50p, and the First World War Aviation £2.
The Royal Mint wasn’t always in south Wales and, with a history going back over 1,100 years, made its first major base within the Tower of London in the 13th century. As demand increased and mechanisation of minting came into fruition in the 17h century, Tower of London could no longer hold the fort, as it were, and moved to a larger four acre complex in Tower Hill in the early 19th century. In the 1960’s it became necessary to begin a phased transfer to its current site in Welsh town Llantrisant, with over 30 acres of space. London’s final coin was struck in 1975.
Throughout its history coinage is described as more than just a means for trading, but as a symbol of status, wealth, and a vessel to convey political messages. From Henry VII golden sovereign to the rare Edward VIII sovereign. Not only did Edward defy 300 years of convention by breaking the alternate facing effigy rule – each successor facing the opposite direction to the previous monarch – to ensure the coin depicted his ‘good side’. This sovereign only exists as a small number of trial coins, due to his abdication before circulation began.
The exhibition provides a fascinating insight into the evolution of coinage, its production through the ages, and some of history’s enduring methods. We were introduced to a 13th century ritual called ‘The Trial of the Pyx’, a quality control system that endures to this very day. ‘Pyx’ refers to the box which contains the coins for inspection. Isaac Newton’s mathematical genius was employed at the Royal mint (1700-27) as the highest officer: ‘Master of the Mint’. A little grandiose, no? This role as an independent entity no longer exists, but has become integrated within the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s role in parliament. This week sees the new pound coin subjected to the Trial of the Pyx before it is released into circulation – I think it’ll be OK.
But where does gold come into all this, aside from being a valued piece of history behind glass? After our tour we were introduced to my new best friend the gold bar, weighing in at 400oz (almost 3Ibs in weight) and worth roughly £400,000…
Until 2016, the departments of production at Royal Mint included: Circulating Coin, Commemorative Coin, and Medals. Now, Bullion has been added to the list, which was introduced last year as a way of making gold buying more accessible for the UK market. Evident in films like Gold, gold buying is a generalised investment product in the US and is nowhere near as prevalent in the UK. Not yet, at least…
The idea of a gold bar seems like a Hollywood trope, but there it was in my hands – not dissimilar to the weight of a house brick – a slab of wealth, allure, and the ability to make men like Kenny Wells (Gold) hungry for the possibilities that striking gold can provide. For me? My reflection and a hernia…
GOLD is the story of Kenny Wells (Matthew McConaughey), a modern-day prospector, hustler, and dreamer, desperate for a lucky break. Left with few options, Wells teams up with an equally luckless geologist (Edgar Ramirez) to execute a grandiose, last-ditch effort: to find gold deep in the uncharted jungle of Indonesia.
Gold is out now in UK cinemas.
For more on the Royal Mint Experience and bullion please visit:
Emma Withington – Follow me on Twitter