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Old Hands Create a New Line of Money
Treasury Engravers Do Their Painstaking Work The Old Way -- For Now

Barbara J. Saffir ~ February 20, 2003

Special to The Washington Post, Thursday, February 20, 2003; Page A37

NO enlargement of this photograph available.
Engravers Dixie March and Christopher Madden display a Federal Reserve master $50 denomination printing plate. March said hand-engraved notes are harder to counterfeit. (Stephanie K. Kuykendal For The Washington Post)

      Computers still can't match Dixie March's hands. As one of only 13 engravers who create the nation's currency -- which will soon sport new colors -- March carves thousands of teensy dots and lines onto steel plates while peering through her 139-year-old brass magnifier and wielding her hand-made engraving tools.

      "We're kind of dinosaurs," said March, who works for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. "It's a dying craft," March said. "Technology is going to take over. . . . The technology just hasn't gotten there yet."

      March and her three fellow letter engravers, five picture engravers and a single sculpture engraver toil away in relative obscurity on the top floor of the BEP's vault-like annex at 14th and C streets NW. Three letter engravers work at the bureau's Fort Worth plant.

      While millions of people are familiar with the engravers' art, few know the artists. But their latest creations will be in the spotlight this year as the BEP and its customer, the Federal Reserve, start unveiling colorful "NexGen" notes, the next generation of paper currency redesigned to help thwart counterfeiters.

      The $20, $50 and $100 notes will each feature different, subtle colors to distinguish their values, though they will remain predominantly green, said Federal Reserve spokeswoman Rose Pianalto. Colors have been chosen for the $20 note, she said -- though she declined to name them.

      "This is the first time the United States has used color to differentiate between denominations, something other countries have been doing for decades," said Gene Hessler, author of several books on engraving and currency. The notes also will feature some design changes to aid the visually impaired and enhance security. More details about the redesign will be announced by spring.

      The $20 bills are expected to debut by this fall, followed by the fifties and hundreds about 12 to 18 months later. Mock-ups of the $20 bill have received "positive feedback" from focus groups, Pianalto said. Public relations firm Burson-Marsteller is testing them in more than a dozen cities, including New York, Seattle and Moscow, to gauge reactions of consumers, cashiers and bank tellers, part of a five-year, $55 million public education campaign.

      The Federal Reserve is one of the BEP's largest customers. The bureau plans to produce nearly 8.2 billion notes this fiscal year for the Fed. The 140-year-old agency, part of the Treasury, also prints stamps for the U.S. Postal Service, invitations for the White House and security documents, such as the Immigration and Naturalization Service's naturalization certificates.

      Engraving is a time-intensive operation. March labored about three weeks to engrave the ornate letters forming "The United States of America" on the $10 note. It took about nine days to chisel out the intricate pattern of dots and lines that spells out "Ten Dollars."

      "The human touch adds depth, tonality and warmth," she said. "The Secret Service loves it," she added, because the micro-detailed engraving and the raised surface from the intaglio printing process can't easily be replicated by photocopiers, computer printers or other counterfeiting tools. March has also worked on the $5, $20 and $50 bills, etched parts of the popular Norman Rockwell, love and duck stamps, and engraved signatures of several treasurers and Treasury secretaries on currency. The secretary has the final say on all designs.

      Although the bureau hasn't revealed which artisans are creating the new notes, it has begun divulging more tidbits about engravers in recent years. For instance, lead picture engraver Thomas R. Hipschen engraved Benjamin Franklin's portrait on the $100 note. Christopher Madden engraved all the tiny windows, balustrades and other elements composing the Treasury building vignette on the back of the $10 note.

      "It's a kick to pull that out of your wallet," said Madden, who began as an apprentice at the BEP in 1988. "They pay me with my own work. It's a strange concept." "There's a misconception in the public that we do this work large and somehow shrink it down," Madden added, as he sat at his chunky desk with a light table angled above his head. "You do it at size in reverse." "With engraving, every cut must be correct," he said. "There's a very strict discipline, and artists aren't stereotypically disciplined people. You have to be able to kind of tame those savage beasts and sit down and really approach this in a kind of Zen-like fashion if you can."

      Mark D. Tomasko, honorary curator of engraving at New York's Museum of American Financial History, laments that engraving is a disappearing art in the United States. "Once gone, it's gone forever. This is something that's taught by the older engravers to the young engravers," he said. "This isn't something you learn from books."

      Madden, 39, is the last apprentice trained entirely by the bureau, as many of his predecessors were. He was recruited from his fine arts studies at Ohio State University. When Madden retires, he hopes to teach college-level art. He is already sharing his figure-drawing expertise with students near his home in Maryland.

      March, a Virginian, served part of her seven-year apprenticeship at commercial bank-note companies before joining the BEP in 1990. After she retires from government service, March may become the commercial artist and illustrator she dreamed of being when she left Alliance, Ohio, for the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. "I didn't know anything about this at that point," she said. "I was just a little girl from the Midwest who liked to draw."

      Today, there are fewer than 100 security engravers worldwide, because of the dwindling number of private bank-note firms and because governments are replacing much hand engraving with technology, engraving expert Hessler said. He predicts that one day "there could be a handful of freelance engravers" serving the entire world. Many countries already use computer-imaged and photo-etched notes. "It's like the difference between a synthesizer and a live performance by a 100-piece orchestra," he said. "It sounds similar, but it's not the same."

2003 The Washington Post Company
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