In the early days there was fierce argument about the age of the woman on the gold coin.
In the early days there was fierce argument about the age of the woman on the gold coin. Illustration by Marco Heer.

The golden girl

The Goldvreneli is one of Switzerland’s best-loved coins. In the beginning, however, the Vreneli was a Helvetia and what’s more, one that stirred heated debate.

Bernhard Graf

Bernhard Graf

Bernhard Graf is a cultural mediator and has been living in Ticino for many years.

Christmas will soon be here again. At this time of year, a very special coin becomes even more popular in Switzerland: the Goldvreneli. The Vreneli were minted between 1897 and 1949 in varying quantities and with different values (10, 20 and 100 francs). The Goldvreneli has become a coveted collector’s item since the mid-20th century. Interestingly, the Vreneli depicted on the coin is actually a Helvetia. Her likeness was designed by Neuchâtel artist Fritz Ulysse Landry. His depiction of the mother of the nation came under fire from the very beginning. The jury responsible for assessing the image thought the woman depicted seemed too young and too unrefined. Landry made some adjustments to the image, and the coin was approved for minting. But even after that there was constant criticism: Helvetia was still too young, William Tell would have been better, the mountains in the background would be representative of only a small part of the country, and so on. But whether Helvetia or Tell would have been better, the Swiss people nevertheless liked the coin. And they liked the young woman in particular. And so the name Goldvreneli entered the vernacular in the 1940s, and has remained to this day.
20-franc Goldvreneli from 1897.
20-franc Goldvreneli from 1897. Swiss National Museum

William Tell, or not William Tell?

Sometimes, there is similar disagreement over the man’s head on the ‘Fünfliber’ five-franc coin from 1922 – this coin got its name from the Bernese five-pound coins, which were called 5 Livres in French. The patriotic among us choose not to look any closer, and simply insist that it’s William Tell. But there’s no sign of either his beard or his crossbow as possible attributes! On the other hand, his head is covered by a hood not unlike the hooded jackets widely worn today which, as one advertising blurb enthuses, exude ‘masculine appeal with a twist’. This wording could easily be applied to the man on the Fünfliber coin, were it not for the fact that it doesn’t fit with the official statement that the figure in question is a (prototypical) Alpine herdsman (although today’s Alpine herdsman perhaps no longer looks like the one portrayed on the Fünfliber). What is beyond dispute is that the current five-franc coin is the only Swiss coin – with the exception of collector coins – featuring a male image.
Fünfliber dating from 1931.
Fünfliber dating from 1931. Swiss National Museum

More men abroad

If we take a look beyond the Swiss border into the eurozone, things get a bit more ‘manly’. On the coins, at any rate. Spain’s Juan Carlos was followed by Felipe in 2014. The Belgian King Albert wore glasses in 1999, and Greece commemorated Eleftherios Venizelos, a leading advocate of the modern Hellenic republic, who died in 1936. The fact that Athens didn’t choose a living person may also have something to do with the fact that, through his maternal grandmother, the Spanish king is also the ‘king of the Greeks’… Anyway, thanks to the different images on the euro currency, the great diversity of Europe’s countries is still reflected in the trove of coins left over from any European holiday – and there’s no need for any conversion into lire or drachma. So the panettone from the Christmas market in Aosta is a true pleasure, and the Greek honey tastes even sweeter. The Vreneli, however, calls for a little brainpower and a calculator. Depending on the price of gold, the coin moves up and down in the collector’s market, which is not always predictable. It can quickly turn into money. But what wouldn’t you do for your loved ones…
King Albert II of Belgium on a euro coin.
King Albert II of Belgium on a euro coin. Wikimedia

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