The history of banknotes stretches back a very long time, although one might not think so at first, and the material used to make them has never stopped evolving over the centuries
Counterfeiting is not plain sailing
Banknotes were originally made of paper.
For the Chinese, paper in the 6th century was made from mulberry bark and rattan. The French assignats, in turn, were the subject of great discussions in the National Assembly in order to arbitrate between silk paper and vellum, in particular because of a balancing act intended to combine resistance to wear and difficulties of counterfeiting.
Nowadays, contrary to popular belief, paper is no longer used as frequently.
Euro banknotes are made from cotton fibers. Greenbacks are too, although the United States also adds linen to the mix – the full recipe is a fiercely guarded secret for understandable reasons of security.
However, there are also other nations that have gone even further and opted for a bold and unabashed approach when it came to the design of their banknotes.
Plastic is fantastic
And the pioneering country in this stuff (you can say that again!) was Australia.
History of laminated banknotes
On February 14, 1966, Australia abandoned the pound and declared its love for the decimal system with the Australian dollar. Brand new banknotes with state-of-the-art security systems to combat counterfeiting were introduced into circulation.
On December 30 of the same year, the police, with the help of Interpol, broke up a counterfeit ring of $10 bills. $150,000 Australian dollars were seized. So much for state-of-the-art security systems!
The next step was an extensive research project conducted by the Reserve Bank of Australia in cooperation with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). It went on for 20 years and culminated in the use of a process and a material that were original to say the least.
Even though Canada and the United States had carried out some tests for polymer banknotes using a process called DuraNote in the 1980s, Australia was in fact the first to issue the first polymer banknotes in history in 1988, coinciding with the occasion of its bicentenary.
On the obverse of this commemorative – and in every way historic – Australian $10 bill is a drawing by Harry Williamson depicting the arrival of the first colonists aboard the HMS Supply. On the reverse, in recognition of the mistreatment of the Aboriginal Australians, is a drawing by an Aboriginal artist, Terry Yumbulul.
A whole range of other banknotes were subsequently issued:
A sophisticated technique
The technique involves a number of steps, and the results are impressive.
The core of the banknote is an opaque polymer film onto which multiple layers are then printed with various techniques to add the colors, the background, the superimposed designs, the portraits, etc... All of them include processes which increase the difficulty of reproduction.
For the finishing touch, the banknote is coated with varnish.
Although the varnish could be scratched on the first batch of notes issued, the layer was purposefully thickened to prevent this in subsequent issues.
A little more than a question of security
Apart from any consideration related to the complexity of the task for the counterfeiters, polymer banknotes have proved themselves to be very advantageous for a number of other reasons:
They are more resistant
They can even withstand extreme temperatures. Laboratory tests have shown that they can withstand temperatures ranging from -75°C to 140°C without suffering damage. It is worth noting that at 140°C, we would not a priori have much need for banknotes.
They are easy to handle
And if bundles of new banknotes sometimes have the annoying habit of wanting to stay stuck together, you simply have to tap them conscientiously against a hard surface to separate the inseparable.
They are cleaner
You can now clean your banknotes with a damp cloth (we don’t recommend trying that with paper money).
They are stronger
Tearing them takes a lot of effort (but would you really want to?).
They are more durable
They last at least two and a half times as long as paper- or cotton-based banknotes. This means that fewer series need to be produced. In addition, the polymer used can subsequently be recycled and return to the printing press.
Follow the leader!
While Australia was the first to take the leap, it was by no means the last.
In the 2000s, an exponential number of countries joined the list of those convinced of the plastic banknote – we won’t mention all of them here – including Canada, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Israel, Nicaragua, Honduras, Chile, Nigeria, Mexico, Nepal, and Trinidad and Tobago.
Security, strength, and durability:
It is highly likely that the adoption of polymer banknotes will continue over the next few years and spread to numerous other countries.
Choosing is giving in!
Why settle for one when you can have both? What are we talking about? A banknote made of paper with a vertical polymer strip about 25 microns thick.
Here are a few examples of these hybrid banknotes for your pleasure:
100 Russian ruble hybrid banknote commemorating the 2014 Olympic Games:
500 franc hybrid banknote issued in 2006 by the Central Bank of the Comoros (BCC):
100 dollar hybrid banknote from Fiji with Queen Elizabeth II beaming on the obverse:
100 Mauritanian ouguiya banknote from 2011:
- "George Street, Sydney" by Henry Curzon Allport (1842) (State Library of New South Wales)
- Chinese banknote of 5.000 cash, from 1858
- Francis Howard Greenway portrait, unknown artist (between 1814 and 1837) (State Library of New South Wales)