Initially created to meet the challenge of decimalization in 1966, The Royal Australian Mint has a top-notch reputation for excellence and design world-wide. Michael Alexander of the London Banknote and Monetary Research Centre speaks to Ross MacDairmid, the RAM’s CEO about fresh directions for the Mint and also a bit about Australia’s memorable & impressive numismatic past.
It was difficult not to notice the headlines earlier this year where Australia was concerned. Floods, drought, cyclones, and if that wasn’t enough, a plague of locusts… it ruined the wheat crop for many farmers and drove up the price of that specific commodity significantly. What is also difficult not to notice is the indomitable Australian spirit, which made the country what it is today. When it’s not affected by natural catastrophes, it is deservingly referred to as the “lucky country”.
Over the last 20 or so years, Australian coins have come to the forefront of collectors worldwide in a big way. With the issue of Kookaburras, Kangaroos and Koalas within the bullion market alone, that would have been enough to focus attention on the numismatic activity of this nation-continent. More recently with the various series of coins marking anniversaries, sporting events such as the 2000 Olympiad and highlighting Australian culture and landmarks, the Royal Australian Mint have pushed the boundaries of what was once considered “comfortable” perimeters and dazzled the numismatic field with bold and imaginative designs.
The Mint’s new CEO, Ross MacDairmid has assumed the reigns of an institution which continues to carve a place for itself both nationally and world-wide and looks to redefine both the position as well as the direction the RAM takes in the next few years. They look set to embark on more options and choice not only for the collector but for their new partners with innovative and challenging projects ahead. It goes back to that indomitable spirit which I believe will surely put Australian coins firmly on the numismatic map… the difficulties of recent, hopefully being left well and truly behind. We wish the very best to all of our Australian friends!
The Royal Australian Mint (RAM) is always a real favorite at international fairs when so many collectors can catch up with the latest coins from down under. Do you think it’s important for the RAM to have a high-profile presence and does it benefit your many different coin programs?
We really value our relationships with our international partners and clients, so we make an effort to be here every time. Whilst we didn’t have a booth this time around at the World Money Fair, we were readily available and made our 2011 5c piece available for the WMF coin passport so visitors to the Fair were still able to take away a piece of Australian coinage with them. Last year you would have seen that we worked with a few international dealers to produce coins with some of our most iconic designs and we look forward to creating more of these partnerships in the future.
Let’s go back to the beginning. Although Australian coins have been struck in the country since 1855, the Royal Australian Mint is itself, relatively young as far as national Mints go. Can you share with our readers some background information on the Royal Australian Mint and how it came to be?
Yes, we are one of the young ones out there. Like you said the history of coinage in Australia does start in the 1800s and in fact, last year (2010) we celebrated one hundred years of Australian coinage even though the Royal Australian Mint hasn’t been around for that long. Prior to the Royal Australian Mint’s existence there had been several branches of the British Royal Mint (Perth, Sydney, Melbourne) however once the Government decided to introduce decimal currency, the Royal Australian Mint was built. The other Mints were decommissioned as official Mints however, as you know, the Perth Mint still functions as a State Government owned Mint producing collectible coins and refining metals. The Royal Australian Mint is a prescribed agency within the Commonwealth Government portfolio of the Treasury and is the sole supplier of Australia’s circulating coinage. It was opened by His Royal Highness Prince Philip on 22 February 1965 and production went full steam ahead to produce decimal currency in time for the introduction date of 14 February 1966, so, this last month, Australian decimal currency celebrated it’s 45th anniversary. Over the years we have had a few changes such as the removal of our 1c and 2c coins and the addition of $1 and $2 coins. And would you believe, we still have some employees working with us who have been at the Mint since those first couple of years back in the 60s. Our employees have amazing passion for what they do. We also undertook a three year refurbishment which ended late 2009 and really brought both our tourism and production facility up to a world class level.
I’d like to discuss the substantial coin programs which have emerged from the RAM if I might. For a long time, there were few collector’s coins issued from the Mint, and then from the mid 1980’s on, there was an abundance of coins. At what point did the Mint come to the conclusion that a more augmented coin issuing program would not only be a money-earner for the Mint but it would also generate many more collectors for Australian coins, when did this take root?
Well as I have only been the CEO for about a year, my understanding is that collector demand drove an increase of coin issues. Collectors wanted to see different finishes, new designs, demonstrations of new technology and it grew from there. Also as different commemorative designs were released into circulation there was demand to see them in proof finishes. Also one can speculate that demand was influenced as metal prices and the price of gold rose so significantly in the 80’s more people were collecting prospectively and the Mint supplied this demand.
The Royal Australian Mint’s Olympic program was deemed quite a success and I believe that the Royal Mint in the UK looked to your program for inspiration regarding their Celebration of Britain series so, how do you begin to embark on such ambitious programs in the first place and, is there ever any concern that it won’t be as successful as anticipated?
There is always an element of risk when you are taking on something so big and you know if it works it will be successful. But for the Mint, I imagine it wasn’t so much a question of whether it would be successful or not but more that we pride ourselves on capturing moments in history and celebrating important achievements. The Olympic Games in 2000 were quite big for the Mint. We were lucky enough to have our world-renowned coin sculptor of over twenty years, Wojciech Pietranik chosen to design the medals. And the bronze medals were made out of melted 1c and 2c coins which had been removed from circulation some eight years before. So the year 2000 was a very memorable year for the Mint.
Although Australia produced some very iconic and memorable coins such as the ram’s head shilling, the kangaroo penny and more recently, the dollar coin depicting a group of kangaroos, having said that, Australian coins haven’t changed much since the adoption of decimal coinage in 1965 and the addition of the $2 coin in 1988 so, is it time for an entire re-think and overhaul the circulation coins?
The most recent change was indeed a while back but there was good reason for it. Back in the early 90s the 1c and 2c pieces were removed from circulation because there had been a decline in the worth of the coins. The decision of changes to coinage lies with the Government of the day. We do indeed keep a watching brief on metal prices and what everyone else is doing but there are no plans for any changes at this stage.
With the issue of a possible new set of circulation coins, do you think there will be a preference from the Australian public to have the Queen’s image removed from the coins to compliment the banknotes which only has the smallest denomination with her portrait?
If we were to make any changes consultations will be held in the appropriate forum in which I am sure those sorts of issues may be raised. However, in the end it will be a decision made by Government and I couldn’t speculate on what might happen.
As with many national Mints over the years, you are the Minters of coins for other countries in Asia and Oceania, do you find your proximity geographically a hindrance to competing for more lucrative contracts or have you benefited from it?
These days with the internet, blackberries and regular flights, geography doesn’t even come into it. The Mint may have had a slight hiatus over the past couple of years but that was because we were under refurbishment and getting ready to show the world of our capabilities and capacity. Since the Mint Directors Conference last year, our international relationships are stronger than ever and advancement of technology has definitely assisted us in maintaining them.
Related Article: RAM Designs and Produces New Samoan Circulating Coinage
I’d like to touch on the subject of direct competition in Australia and the presence of the well known Perth Mint. Many countries do not have this kind of co-existence with another national Mint, can you explain how this works… two Mints producing legal tender coins for one country and what the benefits are, if any, to Australians?
As I mentioned previously the Perth Mint existed as one of the branches of the Royal Mint in the UK. It was built to refine the gold that was mined in Western Australia and mint sovereigns. Once decimal coinage was introduced and the Royal Australian Mint became sole supplier of Australia’s circulating coinage, the Perth Mint was sold to the Western Australian Government and became the Gold Corporation, dealing in precious metal investment and related collectibles. Whilst it can be a little confusing to the general public, each Mint has its own characteristics and branding and to those valued collectors, they can easily tell the difference between the two Mints’ products.
I’m hoping you can take this time now and let our readers know what’s in store as far as new issues are concerned, I’ve come across an excellent new dollar coin for this year which replicates the classic Ram’s head shilling, can you explain why this coin is being issued and if there will be any new issues similar to this for collector’s or circulation?
We do have a few special coins for 2011 which included our royal wedding collection. But, about the ram’s head, we did some market research and found that collectors wanted to see Australian themes with historical significance so we researched the wool industry and decided to honor the impact that it has had in Australia’s economy in the past with the release of several products. The ram’s head is actually the second 2011 release with the wool theme. The ram’s head dollar design was released on New Year’s Day and there are a few products available with this design. We are also selling it as a part of a four coin set with three privy marks of the same design. And there is also the silver proof version so if people really love this design then this is the coin to get as the frosted relief really enhances the design. You may have seen this ram’s head before and that is because it originally appeared on the one shilling from 1938 to 1963. The design was modeled on a champion Merino at the Annual Sydney Sheep Show in 1932 and came to be known as the “Shilling Ram”. So it seemed fitting that as we were celebrating the wool industry we should make our own link with coinage in the past and the industry.
For many of our readers, Australia will only ever be a far away destination not in easy reach so, what about your country would you like would-be visitors to know and is there a place on the national coinage and banknotes which can help the world become more acquainted with Australia, do you think it’s an effective way of “spreading the word” so to speak?
Even though Australia doesn’t have as much history as many of the countries overseas there is still a story to tell and I believe that coinage plays a part in that which is why we pride ourselves on maintaining records, capturing moments and celebrating important achievements with Australia’s rich heritage and culture. And in addition to that, I must admit the popular coins that promote tourism for us overseas are the coins with the kangaroo designs. It’s typically Australian and something that they can connect to when they hear about Australia.
You’ve been the CEO of the Royal Australian Mint for a relatively short time but, that’s no excuse not to be a collector, so as we conclude our interview, I’d like to ask if you are in fact a coin collector and if so, what’s in your collection?
Well even though I have only been CEO for a short time, I have actually been involved with the Royal Australian Mint for a number of years as I was a member of the Mint’s Advisory Board so I did have some knowledge as well as attended a number of their coin launches and events. As for my coin collection, I will admit, I am a new collector but I indeed have some coins in my collection that have a special meaning to me such as the ram’s head as I live on a farm and have sheep and understand how important the wool industry has been to Australia.
We seem to come back to that iconic ram’s head coin once again, classic’s never go out of style… Ross MacDiarmid, Chief Executive Officer of the Royal Australian Mint, I would like to thank you for your time today.
Thank you Michael, it was a pleasure