In mint conditions
When designing coins, the artists strive to capture a piece of history while reinforcing the three pillars of Thai society
With loose, pulled back hair and a cowboy necklace, Vuthichai Sangngeon looks like a rocker from a previous generation. But behind the free-spirited artistic appearance is a 57 year old responsible for designing millions of coins minted every year.
Spectrum met the coin arts specialist one week after the passing of His Majesty King Bhumibol in the main building of Royal Thai Mint in Rangsit, where hundreds of collectors were lining up to buy a commemorative coin.
Waiting for reporters with assistant designer Rungsan Chotrungsun, 47, Mr Vuthichai was quietly observing people who were longing to own a coin that his team had made.
None of the crowd was aware that the bearded man was the person behind the designs of the collectibles.
Mr Vuthichai said, “No, we never tell anyone that we designed these coins, even though we enjoy watching people appreciating what we designed.”
Despite his low-key attitude, both designers and their team are behind several coins people use in their daily life, as well as limited editions and medals for people to wear on special occasions.
“My proudest moment was when we saw the King wearing a commemorative medal that our office designed,” said Mr Vuthichai. “My friends said they envy my work.”
Their small-denomination coins can fetch exorbitant prices. Old coins with small denomination value are sold at a much higher prices compared to their purchase value as they are hard to find and become sought-after items.
“Coins are a testament to changing times. They are more durable than banknotes. People collect coins to remind them of specific events,” Mr Vuthichai said.
The first commemorative coin under the reign of King Bhumibol was made in 1961 after the King and the Queen’s state visits to Europe and the United States.
The design team works on both circulation coins and commemorative ones. Rookie artists begin their work at the Royal Thai Mint by designing the commemorative coins before working on circulation ones which are more difficult.
Mr Vuthichai said more than 30 years ago he began with a commemorative coin of the Government Savings Bank. Shortly afterward, he was assigned to sculpt the reverse of a commemorative coin to mark the passing of Her Majesty Queen Rambhai Barni, the consort of King Rama VII.
“After that, the rest is history. I have done many and I’ve lost count,” he said while guiding the reporters through a showroom of different coins in a glass cabinet.
THE RIGHT DESIGN
The process of making Thai coins starts from a small team of six designers who draw up sketches.
The design of each coin varies, but they all have to embrace the concept of the Kingdom.
“Every circulation coin has to embody the concepts of the country, religion and monarch,” said Mr Vuthichai.
Generally, the circulation coins show a portrait of King Bhumibol on the obverse, symbolising the monarchy. The word “Thailand” refers to the nation. The image of a Buddhist temple appearing on the reverse symbolises religion, he explained.
Mr Rungsan said the age of the King in the portrait will be close or slightly younger than his age at the time of production. The portrait often has the King wearing full regalia.
After the team comes up with the design, they have to forward it for approval from a committee consisting of representatives from the Council of State, the Bureau of the Royal Household, the Office of His Majesty’s Principal Private Secretary and artists.
The artists will look at the aesthetic elements, while the rest will look at the appropriateness such as the location of emblem signs on the coins.
Asked whether the committee has ever rejected any design, Mr Rungsan said, “No, because we always presented alternative designs for them to look at as well.”
After the approval, the team would sculpt the model, which is eight times larger than the actual coin, before using a reduction punch to create the engraving plate.
While other countries apply more machinery and computerised machines in sculpting the mould, Thai designers still use their hands to sculpt it.
“Thai coins have generally more details than others. We have to use our hand to create more dimensions and layers. But we also work on simpler details such as letters by machine,” said Mr Rungsan.
The circulation coin series is composed of nine denominations: one, five, 10, 25 and 50 satang, and one, two, five and 10 baht. Of the satang coins, only the 25 and 50 are in wide use but the smaller denominations are minted in limited runs. Each coin has to be different to make it easy for people to differentiate.
The frequency of the new production varies. “I cannot recall when the last time we made a new design for circulation coins was. The interval is not fixed,” Mr Vuthichai said.
Before coming up with the new size of the coins, the Royal Thai Mint has to consult with the international mint community to ensure that the size of the new Thai coin does not duplicate those in other countries.
Years ago, it was reported a 10 baht coin was deposited in a European country’s telephone slot as it was similar to a coin used there. “We have to ensure the diameter of our new coins will not duplicate another,” Mr Rungsan said.
There are also other details to consider. The coin has to pass the test of visually impaired people as there has to be a Braille code to distinguish different denominations.
Each coin is expected to circulate on the market for nine years before it is sent for cleaning at the Royal Thai Mint for redistribution. The materials used in each coin are worth more than its face value.
“We have to collect the old coins because they are valuable. It is more economical to reuse them rather than minting new coins,” said Mr Rungsan. “Therefore, we have to prolong their life by making the design more durable. For instance, the portrait on the coin would not be a frontal because in the long run, the nose part can be easily broken. That is the why the edge of circulation coins should be a little higher than the centre area to protect the surface.”
As old coins have become collectibles, there are places popular for vintage coins such as Sanam Luang and Tha Prachan in Bangkok’s inner city.
Some coins became much sought-after items such as the limited edition 10 baht coins released in 1990. Coin collectors said they wanted to hunt it down because only 100 units of the series were created with the imported minting machine, which was being used for the first time in Thailand.
Mr Rungsan declined to comment on it, saying, “I cannot discuss the market prices. They are the results of our artistic crafts.”
Mr Vuthichai said, “When I see people lining up to buy our coins, I’m proud to see that people have placed high value on them.
“I am proud of my work because people say our coins are beautiful. Also, it’s cool to see our work in our purses every day.”
Not just spare change: Rungsan Chotrungsun, a designer at the Royal Thai Mint. Coins displayed at the Royal Thai Mint building, left. Each coin is designed to depict key concepts of Thai society, including the nation, monarchy and religion. Some coins reference specific historical events.
Times changing: The 10 baht coins made in 1990 are one of the most sought-after collectibles. Collectors eagerly sought ownership of one of the 100 units made in the series, which were created with a then-newly imported minting machine in Thailand.
History engraved: Students look at coins at the Royal Thai Mint. Collectors also like to find coins at Sanam Luang and Tha Prachan.