February 15, 1996

Swiss Introduce First Digital Bank Note


ZURICH, Switzerland -- The Swiss central bank has given the ordinary cash-paying Swiss the first of a new series of bank notes so technologically advanced that it has become a Swiss parlor game to spot the more than 20 anti-counterfeiting features.

The 50-franc bill is the world's first digital bank note -- designed on a computer that resolves its design into 2.5 billion points, each of them individually accessible electronically. There is a raised triangle at one end to assist the blind and a number of official seals and figures that dance around on the face of the note like holograms.

Because studies showed that the currency is mostly passed by people who are standing, its design is largely vertical like other Swiss notes, instead of horizontal like the American dollar.

If the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, which begins issuing a fresh series of American notes later this year, starting with a new $100 bill, has produced a jeep -- a kind of a tough, all-terrain monetary vehicle -- the Swiss have produced the Rolls-Royce of currencies.

Both their note and the new American $100 bill feature a numeral in variable color ink that will veer from green to black when tilted, and fine line print that yields a blur when photocopied.

In part, the Swiss series is intended to thwart the threat of forgery from color photocopying -- though the Swiss franc is rarely counterfeited.

Perhaps that is why the designer, Jorg Zintzmeyer, was chosen. He specializes in creating corporate images for clients like International Business Machines and BMW. Bank notes are interesting, he said, savoring the feel of the new bill, "because they are a medium by which the identity of a nation comes to bear."

The new Swiss notes will feature figures from cultural life -- artists, musicians, architects, writers -- selected in part to emphasize their international influence, but also to remind the nation that they were, in fact, Swiss.

Sophie Taeuber-Arp, a Dadaist and a pioneer of abstract art who is on the 50-franc note, worked mainly in France, dying here in Zurich in 1943, shortly before her 54th birthday. Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, the architect on the 10-franc note better known as Le Corbusier, is often taken for French, and Alberto Giacometti, the sculptor on the 100-franc bill, for an Italian.

The technology of the bank notes also comments on Swiss thoroughness. Zintzmeyer, whose first proposal prevailed over 16 other designs submitted to the central bank, wanted his currency notes to be both esthetically interesting and "technologically at the forefront."

Working with computer experts at his design firm, Zintzmeyer & Lux, and at the venerable Zurich printers Orell Fussli Graphic Arts Ltd., he created the digital note. "My philosophy is that the bank note's security must be obvious to everyone," he said.

There are indeed more than 20 security features, though the precise number is a secret of the central bank.

Looking at the bill vertically, it is divided into seven fields and designated from top to bottom on the left-hand margin with the letters A to H. Down the left side and around a haunting greenish portrait of Taeuber-Arp, Zintzmeyer scattered the number 50. Tilt the bill, and the number magically appears and disappears in the upper left corner. Tilt again, and the number in the center of the bill jiggles left and right across tiny bars, as silvery as the Swiss cross and central bank logo just below. Farther down, a chameleon numeral printed with optically variable ink ranges, when tilted, from forest green to violet.

The numbers are not the only gimmicks. Even the sharp-eyed need a microscope and a smattering of Romansch, the dialect spoken in areas near Davos, Taeuber-Arp's birthplace, to read her biography in a thumbnail orange square on the rim of her wool cap.

"Most of those features have already been offered in one form or another," said Klaus Osch, Orell Fussli's chief executive, "but never was there such a collection." So fine is the engraving, he said, that the main portrait appeared blotched when reproduced by color copier.

The accuracy of the engraving is, at a tolerance four or five microns, "at the edge of what you can do." said Osch, whose company invested $66 million in 1994 to prepare for the new notes. They will be issued in stages through 1998.

Ten printing processes are involved, he said, including silk screening for the chameleon numerals and hot stamping for the silvery elements. In the end, the bills are covered with a fine protective lacquer to prevent de