Finland is an extraordinary country in so many ways. Often called the land of a thousand lakes, its size is equal to two and a half times that of England but with a population of just 5.4 million. Neither Scandinavian nor Slavic, Finns are actually ethnically related (though distantly) to the Hungarians and culturally (as well as linguistically) to the Estonians and Karelians. Finland declared their independence in 1917 after the fall of the Russian Imperial Government and became a republic on the 4th January the following year. Through an Imperial edict from the Russian Czar Alexander II, the Finnish Mint in Helsinki was established which was responsible for the production of Marrkka coinage, also granted to the Finns in 1860.
As we were approaching the end of 2010 at the time of this interview, the Mint of Finland was looking back at the year of celebrations to mark their 150th year anniversary, reflecting on the fact that the Mint, older than the Finnish Republic itself has grown in both prestige and size. Innovation has come easily to the Mint, they were the first to strike a commemorative coin to mark the summer Olympiad they hosted in 1952 and to experiment with sleek and un-traditional coin design. A radically different company has emerged from those early days of originality, from even that of just ten years ago. It has expanded and acquired other national mints in Scandinavia which has increased its size three-fold and its minting capacity to being the largest exporter of coins to foreign markets.
The Finnish Mint proudly boasts of producing over a billion circulation, collector and commemorative coins annually. Consistently acclaimed at the Coin of the Year (COTY) awards, (this year they were awarded the 2011 COTY for the best silver crown) Finnish coins have definitely made a name for themselves with a reputation for a cutting edge approach to numismatic design. The Finnish Mint is also the largest producer of EURO circulation coins. Aside from minting their own EURO coins, they are the minters for countries such as Cyprus, Greece, Ireland, Slovakia and more recently, Estonia. What the Finnish mint may lack in numismatic history, they more than make up for in style and originality, their unique approach to design in any field is quintessentially Finish & widely acclaimed and, their coins are no exception. A favorite country of mine to collect coins from for many years, I can wholeheartedly recommend that as a collector of world coins, if you haven’t yet discovered the coins of Finland, do so sooner rather than later…and be prepared to be amazed!
First, a heartfelt congratulation to the Finnish Mint on your 150th anniversary, your Mint is actually older than the modern Finnish state, can you give our readers some background on how the Mint came to exist before the Republic of Finland?
Quite simple really, in 1809, Finland became an autonomous part of the Russian Empire which was technically, the birth of our nation. In year 1860, Czar Alexander II also granted us our own currency which was the Markka. It was equal in exchange to 25 Kopecks, which meant 4 markka made up one Ruble. The First Mint of Finland was built near Helsinki Harbour and the original building is still there, very near the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. We moved to our present location in Vantaa in 1987.
Can you tell us if anything was done to mark this event either nationally or within the Mint itself?
There have been some new changes during the anniversary year. There has been an official name change with our Finnish name to Suomen Rahapaja, (Finnish Mint) which was our original name to begin with. Our name in English, Mint of Finland remains the same. There has also been a change of logo or insignia which you can see on our website. There was also a celebration of 150 years of Finnish currency which began with a reception at the Finnish Embassy in Berlin during the World Money Fair last January. A gold coin was issued to celebrate the Finnish Markka and there was also a webshop opened for the first time at the Mint itself. Part of the ongoing celebrations is the Mint’s exhibition and inter-active display here at Heureka titled “About a Coin” which will interest young coin collectors and, hopefully, inspire future coin collectors.
Finnish coins which have gained quite a reputation over the years with regard to design, If there is a pre-cursor to the Dutch sense of abstract & concept of a modern approach to numismatic design, it is the Finnish Mint with some very innovative designs from the late 1960’s. Was this intentional of the Mint & the designers of the time and if so, how did this concept begin and continue?
I think it goes back to the 1950’s when Finnish design received international acknowledgment. The Nordic concept of simple and functional design was prevalent at that time and because many of our coins were designed by first year sculptors of the Finnish Design Academy, this is reflected on the coins, not so much the medals we make but definitely on the coins. There is a similar sense of design that you find in our buildings, home products and the like, you see that simplicity and modernity comes through on our coinage… is it intentional? Well, we are Finns and its part of our heritage and it seems that this trend will continue, I must also say that Helsinki is to be designated the design capital of Europe for 2012. If you look at today’s designers, they seem to be on the same track with those who were before them.
Is it ever a concern that as the coins become more abstract or the design becomes more of a topic of discussion, that this actually lessens the actual anniversary or event the coin is supposed to commemorate?
There is a concern with this, but collector and commemorative coins are a great means to reflect a legacy, history and the values of a people to the future generation. We mint between 10,000 to 50,000 pieces per coin, we use the skills of front row sculptors to create the message and as I mentioned before, our mission is to “give value to money.” Whether they are circulation or collector coins, the value is the legacy or message of that Finnish person in history or event which is depicted. The design and event isn’t separate, it’s really a total package or a unique part of Finnish history which is interpreted.
Concerning the substantial expansion of the Finnish Mint, the former Royal Norwegian and Swedish Mints are now a part of your company, so it looks as though the entirety of Scandinavia is under one centrally located entity. Why do you think this was a good move or, did you?
It was a good move and, a necessary move. Primarily because we want to preserve the skills, culture and the history of making coins in Scandinavia. Norway, Sweden and Finland are small countries in relation to population and in order to continue as a viable business, you must combine your resources and activity just to compete in this market effectively.
So this was a move to both preserve & enable these Mints to continue their activities?
I think that’s the problem with many mints and their brands, the smaller ones really don’t have a rationale to their existence when you look at this financially. They end up being supported by budgetary funds from the state or government.
Having said that… there was a Royal wedding in Sweden this year and while the commemorative coin for this occasion was struck at the Mint of Sweden, there is criticism about Swedish circulation coins being produced in Helsinki instead of Eskilstuna, how is this criticism handled?
As you know, Finland was itself under the Swedish crown for 600 years…but it’s not a counter-act in any way I assure you. (smiles) It’s good that Swedes are proud of their country, and we’re not that far from them, just on the other side of the Gulf of Bothnia. We’re quite close and there’s been that discussion here in Finland. I can tell you that Princess Victoria was here just a week ago visiting us (October) and also here in Helsinki and I can say that the Finns love the Princess and her new Husband very much, a lot of people on the streets were cheering whether they were Swedes or Finns. Sweden also issued a one krona coin to mark the 1809 separation of our union… though it was struck here in Helsinki!
What pitfalls do you think other world mints are facing in the new era of competitive coin production? Is it product, cost, design, lack of innovation & modernization, their sheer size or is it as simple as competition on an increased level?
All of these are important for us, financially and business-wise. We try to utilize the most up to date technology also training and education for our people and we do have some very good people working at the Mint. Our organization is also pretty lean, we’ve been practicing since 1993 at being a private company and operating from the revenue that we’ve generated from our business in the marketplace and in this regard, the culture has changed a lot from being funded from a state department. The Finnish Mint is a limited company and all shares are owned by the state. Besides reporting to the Board of Directors, we report to the Government Office that is responsible of the ownership steering and they let us know if we’re going in the right direction.
I’d like to talk about recent public & collector input with competitions and artist’s designs who send in their ideas. This wasn’t the “norm” for many years, so when and how did this occur?
The recent 20 Euro silver coin “Children and Creativity” in the Ethical coin series was designed by a 17 year old art student. This coin was launched here at the Heureka because both the coin and our current exhibition are related to children & creativity which is why the competition was also introduced. Our chief engraver was also part of the process and guiding the students who were taking part in the competition to make sure the designs could be put on the coin. So far, this is the only coin which has been designed by a member of the public in this way, by open competition and by someone so young.
Finland has stayed true to the traditional crown size coin, with 36 mm 10 & 100 Markka coins from the 1970’s & 1990’s and the transition over to the 10 and 20 EURO coins of 38 mm. Was this a deliberate decision on the part of the Mint or is it due to market demand?
It’s partly to do with the Mint and the Collector Coin Committee but also to do with the sculptors who want to make sure that we can reproduce their designs on the coin. If the coin is too small, there are difficulties and without a magnifier, you can’t see the detail that they intended. The end result is a beautiful coin which also goes back to giving value to money.
There has been an increase in the demand for Finnish coins over the last nine years of EURO coinage and even for the last of the markka coins. Would you put this down to design or limited numbers of strikes, many of the new coins now have very small mintages?
I think in the last markka years and the first EURO years, there was an accelerated demand for the coins but maybe it was because Finland is a EURO-zone country, maybe this does give us a greater demand for Finnish coins in Europe. However, if you just like beautiful coins and the Finnish sense of style & design, then you should look to adding some of our coins to your collection both for their beauty and value.
As we come to the end of our interview, I always like to ask my guests if they collect coins, especially since they’re around coins so much in their work life, so can I ask this of you?
Well, I am a collector but… not a coin collector, I collect Bob Dylan record releases! I only buy coins because I think they look nice or I really like it usually for myself or as a present. I have many coins in my drawer but I wouldn’t call it a collection. There are some interesting coins from Iceland from the 1980’s and some of the Danish coins, they are very nice and of course, some of the EURO’s from other countries, just to see what they’re doing with their coins,…something which catches my eye, you see, I’m already used to Finnish designs! (smiles)
I’m not sure there are coins that can match the designs of Finland, Mr. Paul Gustafsson, thank you very much for your time today here at the Heureka science Centre and the Mint’s “About a Coin” exhibition, I think I’ll have a try at making my own coin while I’m here!
You’re most welcome!
My thanks go to Ms. Henna Karjalainen, Communications and Marketing Manager of the Mint of Finland for arranging this interview, it is greatly appreciated. The Mint of Finland’s Exhibition “About a Coin” where you can create your own coin is at the HEUREKA Science Centre until at least the end of 2013. They are located at: Heureka, the Finnish Science Centre, Tiedepuisto 1, Tikkurila, Vantaa.