Protecting Switzerland’s banknotes like a lion – the Swiss National Bank.
Protecting Switzerland’s banknotes like a lion – the Swiss National Bank. ETH Library Zurich

Banknotes for emergencies

What do you do when counterfeiters or a hostile power flood the country with counterfeit money? The contingency plan formulated by the Swiss National Bank: reserve notes.

Thomas Weibel

Thomas Weibel

Thomas Weibel is a journalist and Professor of Media Engineering at the Fachhochschule Graubünden and the Hochschule der Künste in Berne.

The fledgling Swiss federation took its time. Although Switzerland had had a national currency in the form of the franc as long ago as 1851-52, banknotes were still being issued by dozens of local ‘Zeddel banks’. But in 1906 that came to an end: the new ‘Federal Act on the Swiss National Bank’ stipulated that only the National Bank could issue banknotes, thus bringing a close to the decentralised system. The former regional and cantonal issuing banks discontinued their central bank transactions by 1910.
50-gulden note from St Gallen, 19th century.
50-gulden note from St Gallen, 19th century. Swiss National Museum
The new central bank authorities took precautions, because unlike coinage, which was not so easy to fake, the new banknotes were essentially nothing more than printed paper, and this fact has always attracted counterfeiters like flies to a dunghill. The National Bank had a Plan B. In the event that counterfeiters – or worse, a hostile nation – were to flood the country with high-quality fake money, the National Bank would be able at a moment’s notice, almost overnight, to invalidate all banknotes in circulation and replace them with brand-new notes. So in the bank’s vaults, reserve banknotes were kept in readiness – banknotes that no one except the national bank officials and the printers had ever set eyes on.
Built between 1919 and 1922, the main building of the Swiss National Bank on Börsenstrasse in Zurich, 1944.
Built between 1919 and 1922, the main building of the Swiss National Bank on Börsenstrasse in Zurich, 1944. Wikimedia
Banknotes for emergencies: the National Bank came up with the idea as early as 1914. The Fünfliber five-franc coin, which at that time still consisted of 90% silver, had to be imported from France at great expense – a process that was becoming increasingly fraught in view of the turbulent situation in foreign policy and trade. In December 1919 the price of silver actually rose so sharply that the purely material value of the five-franc coin was suddenly Fr. 5.52, raising fears of a large-scale melting down of the five-franc coins in circulation. To enable it if necessary to withdraw and stockpile the silver five-franc coins in the event of war or during a major crisis, the National Bank had a new 5-franc note printed. Coloured in shades of brown and designed by a staff member at the Orell Füssli printing company, the new note was issued on 3 August 1914 – just 36 days after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo, and 6 days after Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. This five-franc note was to have a long life, remaining legal tender until 1980; it wasn’t formally declared worthless until 2000.
The 5-franc reserve note from the second banknote series of 1911 (obverse).
The 5-franc reserve note from the second banknote series of 1911 (obverse). Wikimedia
Print money while the sun shines, so you’ll have notes put aside for a rainy day! Of the nine banknote series produced by the Swiss National Bank, two complete sets of banknotes were designed purely as reserve series – that is, series whose visual appearance remained veiled in secrecy and which ultimately were never put into circulation: the 1938 fourth series, co-designed by artists Victor Surbek and Hans Erni, and the seventh series, from 1984, designed by husband-and-wife graphic artists Roger and Elisabeth Pfund. ‘The rationale behind this was having the ability, in the event of damaging counterfeits, […] to immediately replace the entire stock of banknotes in active circulation with a new series. This would maintain the population’s trust in the country’s currency, and any attempt to destabilise the economy would be thwarted,’ wrote the National Bank in the Festschrift (commemorative publication) to mark its 100th anniversary in 2007. Some of these reserve notes remained unique specimens: the 500-franc note from the series from 1938, for instance, only existed as a proof.
Chemistry as a science of the future, designed by Lucerne artist Hans Erni: the 500-franc reserve note from the 1938 fourth banknote series (reverse of the proof).
Chemistry as a science of the future, designed by Lucerne artist Hans Erni: the 500-franc reserve note from the 1938 fourth banknote series (reverse of the proof). Wikimedia
The idea of being able to replace all paper money from one day to the next existed not only in Switzerland, but also in numerous other countries in Europe. But reserve banknotes were always an emergency solution, and an extremely expensive one at that: even though a modern-day banknote costs an average of just 40 centimes to produce, designing a complete set of notes is an enormously expensive undertaking. In Switzerland, the reserve series of 1984 was therefore to be the last. The security features of today’s banknotes are now so sophisticated that in Switzerland, per million banknotes printed each year, only two or three forgeries appear. The National Bank no longer considers a Plan B, the printing of reserve banknotes, to be necessary.

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