Leon Worden

No Small Change at the Mint
John Mercanti heads up the creative team

By Leon Worden
COINage magazine • Vol. 42, No. 11
November 2006

is coworkers call him "Chief," but that isnít his title. There hasnít officially been a "chief engraver" at the U.S. Mint since the last one left in 1990, and the Mint isnít likely to resurrect the position.
    The hand-written name card at the U.S. Mint booth at the American Numismatic Associationís summer convention identified him as "head engraver," but that isnít his title, either. He does more than heads. He also does necks, torsos and a few other things.
    John Mercantiís new title is a mouthful: "Supervisory design and master tooling specialist." It understates his role as the man in charge of the small staff of artisans who create the images on the nationís coinage. And yet his title hints at the changes underway in the secret laboratory in Philadelphia where the latest congressional mandates are brought to life.
    This change isnít nickel-and-dime stuff. Mercanti is bringing the sculpting and engraving division into the future, one baby step at a time, transitioning it from plaster and clay to a virtual reality where models are made from ones and zeroes by digital artists using touch-enabled computer interfaces that make it feel like theyíre sculpting in the physical world.
    "This is not the mint that I came to 30-some years ago," said Mercanti, hired by then-Chief Engraver Frank Gasparro in 1974 after a stint as a Defense Department illustrator. "I like to think of myself as [leading] the first new division of the 21st century because the old chief engraver [position] doesnít exist. It doesnít even apply to this position anymore."
    "In the old days," Mercanti said, "the chief engraver did all of the designs." Gasparroís underlings "were lucky to get a reverse."
    It was a slower time. Longtime hobbyists remember all too clearly that Congress rarely revitalized the nationís coinage in the 1970s. Changes were authorized so infrequently that sculptors had the luxury to spend months on a single design.
    The pace started to pick up for the engraving staff when commemorative half dollars made their comeback in 1982. Then came new, multi-denomination coin series for collectors and new bullion products in silver and gold for investors. Throughout the 1980s, Chief Engraver Elizabeth Jones would parcel out the design work to her staff.
    Hobbyistsí dreams really came true in 1999 with new designs for circulating coins. But five new reverses for Washington quarters each year meant some things needed to change in Philadelphia Ė both in the number of coin artists and in the way they were practicing their craft.
    Rather than expand the in-house engraving staff, in 2003 the Treasury Department began aggressively soliciting help from outside artists when it launched the Artistic Infusion Program (AIP), "to enrich and invigorate the design of United States coins and medals."
    Then in 2004, in hopes of speeding up the design process, it awarded a sole-source contract for a digital modeling package from SensAble Technologies of Woburn, Mass. According to the Treasuryís procurement documents, SensAbleís Freeform Modeling Plus system "enables users to produce coin designs on a computer screen, where the images can then be saved and forwarded to a CNC [computerized numerical control] machine which then creates the die."
    Actually Mercanti isnít sending designs from FreeForm to a machine that cuts the dies. From FreeForm, he exports them to machine that creates the master hub, which is used to make production hubs, which are used to make the individual dies. But going directly from desktop to die could be just around the corner.
    "I have done some experiments with cutting a die directly, but thatís as far as I have gone," Mercanti said. "They have done it in Europe for years. They call it a master punch. Why we do it [hubbing] this way, I donít know. Itís the way we have always done it."
    To John Mercanti, that is no longer a valid reason.
    "Weíre in a [research and development] phase right now," he said. "I am trying to streamline the process and make the product-to-market time a lot shorter."
    He will have to. Maybe itís a lesson in being careful what you wish for, but Congress took hobbyistsí dreams of new coin designs to nightmarish levels when it approved the Presidential dollar series Ė four new circulating coins each year that arenít likely to circulate, beginning in January Ė together with their companion First Spouse medals in gold. Four different Lincoln cent designs are on the drawing board for 2009.
    Already in the bank are five Jefferson nickel redesigns since 2004 and a .9999-fine Buffalo gold bullion coin. Every year brings new platinum issues, two commemorative programs, two three-inch meals and, through 2008, five new quarters.
    "Right now weíre in the busiest time ever," Mercanti said. "Some of these programs just drop in on you. Youíve got to make room for them, so thatís what we do. We need the technology that will aid us in moving these things along. Once we get this flowing on an even keel, weíll be fine. Thatís the key to it: time management."
    He is managing a staff of relative newcomers. Heís got more than a quarter century on the second-longest tenured sculptor, Norman Nemeth, who came on board in 2001. As a result, Mercanti holds all of the institutional memory.
    "I feel like I am the link between Gasparro and (John) Sinnock and (Gilroy) Roberts into the new 21st-century technology," he said.
    Sinnock was chief engraver from to 1925-47. Roberts, designer of the Kennedy half dollar obverse (with reverse by Gasparro), followed him in 1948, leaving in 1964 to form the private Franklin Mint.
    Nemeth, like fellow U.S. Mint sculptors Don Everhart and Charles L. Vickers, worked at The Franklin Mint at a time when it was producing medals and foreign coins that often outshined U.S. government issues.
    "I have a staff now that is in my opinion the best staff in the world," said Mercanti. "Don Everhart is probably the fastest sculptor I know. He can knock out a model in no time. Charlie Vickers is absolutely incredible. Norman Nemeth can replicate everything I give him."
    Joseph Menna, hired in 2005, "was a sculptor [who] learned his skills in Russia and in Philadelphia. He just blows you away," Mercanti said. Phebe Hemphill, a new hire this year, "came from the toy industry. She is one of the most amazing sculptors I have ever seen." Rounding out the design staff is a classically trained digital sculptor who was in the process of being hired in mid-August.
    Mercanti will need to rely on his small crew to pull off the miracle of the 2006 San Francisco commemoratives. Congress authorized two coins, a silver dollar and a gold $5 half eagle honoring the San Francisco Mint and its role in the 1906 earthquake recovery, late in the year. Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. didnít approve the designs until Aug. 3, following a mix-up over design approval from the recipient organization (a surcharge benefits construction of a money museum inside the former Mint building). Under congressional mandate, all of the coins must be sold before yearís end. The Mintís marketing department is crossing its fingers for December availability.
    "Itís faster than any commemorative [program] that we have every done," said Mint spokesman Michael White.
    But buyers neednít fear an inferior product.
    "The design itself never suffers," Mercanti said, "because these people are professionals. They can put a design together that works, and works beautifully, very quickly."
    He said it helps to have close working relationship with the Mintís marketing division.
    "We work in partnership," he said. "Those people are on the ball and they know how to space these things out."
    "My group probably talks to John on a daily basis, if not multiple times a day," said Gloria Eskridge, associate director of sales and marketing for the Mint. "It really is a team. Weíve always tried to work really closely with manufacturing, because after all, we only sell. They have to make."
    So, does Mercanti ever balk?
    "We have to have lively discussions," Eskridge said with a smile. "You have to push the limits. But heís been very good. He is really looking after the interests of the Mint and the collector, because they ultimately are very important."
    While the official position of chief engraver has faded into obsolescence, Mercantiís new role restores the tradition of having a coin artist in a supervisory capacity. After Elizabeth Jones left in 1990, the artisans and machinists in the engraving division were overseen by an engineer, not a coin designer.
    "We always had a real good working relationship with the engravers, because they were the ultimate end game," said Eskridge. "Weíre really glad that [Mercantiís] position is there and that John is in it."
    Bill Fivaz, a member of the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee, one of two government panels that reviews all new coin designs, believes it best to have someone with hands-on knowledge overseeing the other artists.
    "[Mercanti] does spectacular work," Fivaz said. "He is very conscious of the proper designs and elements, and I think there couldnít have been a better selection."
    "He is going to be mentoring several people I know who will be studying under him, and I think thatís a big, big plus," said Fivaz, known to collectors as the coauthor of "The Cherrypickersí Guide to Rare Die Varieties."
    Early next year, Mercanti will take his mentoring role to new heights when he takes six college and graduate-level art students under his wing. Through Oct. 16, the Mint is accepting applications for participation in a three-week internship in Philadelphia.
    "Weíve revamped the [AIP] program," Mint spokeswoman Cynthia Meals told the citizensí committee at its meeting in August. Selected art students "will work directly with John Mercanti and his staff to ... learn how line art and drawing can be translated into sculpture.
    "Weíre going to try to build a curriculum with our internship so that they can go back to their universities and [try to] get independent study credit for it, as well," she said. "It helps in their education [and] helps us mentor the coin artists of the future."
    She said applicants are being solicited from "the top drawing and visual arts schools in the country," with attention to cultural diversity.
    Mercanti is hopeful some of the students will be inspired to make a career of it.
    "Itís a good way to set up a system where you have a group of people ready to move in and take the place of the people who are leaving. Because weíre not all very young people."
    Mercanti, who is 63 but looks younger, has no plans to retire. He is quick to point out that several predecessors were still working while they were quite elderly. Jocular about his age, he quips that Felix Schlag (1891-1974), designer of the Jefferson nickel, was "one of my best friends."
    In truth, Mercanti might have been a talented illustrator, but he knew little about sculpture when an apprenticeship position opened up in the year of Schlagís death.
    He remembers: "When I applied for this job, Gasparro said, ĎDid you ever [sculpt] anything?í I said no. So he said to do something and bring it in tomorrow. I had a piece of round wood and a book on Michelangelo and took one of his paintings and replicated it.
    "As soon as I started modeling it, I said, this is my life. It was just one of those things. It was like finding the love of your life. You look into her eyes and you say, this is the woman I am going to spend the rest of my life with." Mercanti said his wife, MariAnne, "understands that this is my mistress. She knows, but itís a tolerable mistress."
    Gasparro sent Mercanti to school to learn the basics, but it was the opportunity to apprentice under "some of the best portrait artists who were around at the time" that turned him into a coin artist.
    "Schools actually donít teach this," he said. "This is something you learn in the field. You learn by doing. You learn by apprenticing."
    The gradual transition to a digital modeling platform doesnít obviate the need for classical training, said Mercanti, although he is calling his designers "medallic artists" rather than "engravers" in recognition of the diverse array of tools they use. Computer programs can do some cool things, but they are ultimately just one type of tool among many Ė a means to and end in the consumerís pocket.
    "You have to have classical training as an artist," Mercanti said. "People have to know the anatomy of the face. They have to know which muscles work on other muscles, and why people smile. I have an anatomical figure in my office that shows all the muscles. My people are constantly looking through anatomy books. There is great deal of time and effort to that goes into this art form."
    No matter what tool is being used.
    Sometimes the most efficient method involves the use of an old-fashioned plaster model, as when historic designs are revived for use on new coins. For instance, when Mercanti enhanced the back of the Jefferson nickel to create the 2006 Return to Monticello reverse, "I went into the vault and got the artistís original model and added the detail where it could be added."
    Other times, no original two-dimensional artwork exists to load into a computer and make it 3D. That is the case with the reverse of the San Francisco $1 coin, which replicates a 1904 version of George T. Morganís silver-dollar eagle, and the San Francisco $5 coin, which uses Christian Gobrechtís half-eagle reverse of 1906. They are being resculpted in plaster to mimic the originals as closely as possible.
    The resuscitation of James Earle Fraserís Buffalo nickel designs on the 2006 $50 gold bullion coin presented a different challenge. Fraser had created a textured field. It wasnít meant to be smooth, as is the area between the designs and lettering on most coins. The truest way to replicate it was on a computer.
    "In the old days, and in fact when I first came [to the Mint], we would sculpt the basins by hand," Mercanti said. The basin is just that: the round, flat starting point when sculpting a coin or medal. "It was a long process. When Fraser did his model, he actually had a hand-sclupted basin that was never really smoothed out."
    With FreeForm, all it takes to create perfect basin is a click of the mouse.
    Mercanti took Fraserís original four-inch plaster model "and scanned it into our machines. We establish this perfect basin and then literally pick up the artwork off the bed of the scanner and move it onto this perfect basin."
    FreeForm then digitally reconstructs Fraserís original design, lumpy field and all. His imperfections couldnít have been replicated precisely by hand.
    The Mintís first all-digital sculpture was a medal honoring former Mint Director Henrietta Holsman Fore, who "was very proud of the fact that we did that digitally," Mercanti said. The first all-digital coin with brand-new designs, as opposed to historic redesigns, will be next yearís commemorative dollar honoring the 50th anniversary of desegregation at Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas.
    Mercanti said he could have shaved two days off of the production time for civil rights activist Dorothy Heightís Congressional Gold Medal in 2004 if he had been able to use FreeForm. As it was, he turned it around in only nine days.
    "The Dorothy Height medal had amazing amount of text cut into the reverse, which I had to cut in by hand," he said. "Now we can generate all of that digitally.
    "That in itself is a major step forward," he said. "When we used to make a drawing 20 years ago, we lettered in the drawing, and if we had to adjust [the portrait to fit the lettering], weíd have to go back and make a new drawing. Now the text is generated separately and the image is generated separately. We can actually move the text around and move the image around and change the size and ratios."
    Moving things around, streamlining processes without sacrificing artistic integrity, meeting shorter and shorter deadlines, experimenting with new technologies, coaching outside artists, mentoring art students, supervising machinists Ė and all the while, trying to satisfy collectors and produce pleasing coin designs for the American public Ė itís little wonder his subordinates call him "Chief," even if the Treasury Department doesnít.
    "Weíre moving at an incredible pace, thatís all I can say," Mercanti said. "Weíre doing designs for next year, so weíre ahead of the game and weíre trying to keep it that way."

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