Dick Johnson offers these thoughts on the gradual disappearance of analog die-engraving pantograph machines. Thanks. -Editor
In my ongoing research of die-engraving pantographs, particularly the Janvier, I have learned an increased number of mints around the world have mothballed their Janviers or similar machines. They
are being replaced, of course, by computer engraving.
The old “clay and plaster” models are being replaced by the new technology of computer design and computer-controlled milling of dies and hubs. Victor Janvier is turning over in his grave. We can
sympathize with him, but we cannot fault technological advancement.
Janvier’s engraving machines dominated minting and coining in virtually every mint in the world for the 20th century! All other engraving machines (transfer lathes) and techniques pale in
comparison, Save one: hand engraving. But engraving by hand was tedious and time consuming and could only create one size die at a time. The Janvier pantograph was the machine to have.
Yet today engraving machines stand idle in storage until they are sold to used machine dealers. Senior coin and medal artists miss using them and the technology they employed. They recognize,
however, they must adapt to the new technology or be left behind.
Granted, computer design and milling are accomplished in a third of the time or less. As mints are grinding out new coins at an increased pace, the computers are absolutely necessary. Mints now
are factories, guided by tight cost controls. Accountants rule.
There is, however, a subtitle difference in the artistic look of coins and medals produced between the two techniques. For years no one, it seems, could pinpoint what that difference was. Only
recently it has been stated in words. These should be emblazoned on a sign in every mint director’s office:
Clay and plaster models are analog.
Computer generated models are digital
Analog is better artistically.
Why? Analog relief in models is a smooth, continuous surface. Digital’s surface relief is composed of super tiny rough planes. To the human eye the difference is nonexistent. To the trained eye
the difference is evident. The effect is subtly more artistic.
Give a commission to an experienced medallist, even a fine artist, with ample time to form a design to the best of his or her creative ability, then modeled – yes, in clay and plaster – and a die
cut of that model on an old fashioned Janvier and you will have a superb coin or medal with all the fine detail the artist demanded. The result will be an immensely superior piece in contrast to a
production line model.
Before the last Janvier is disposed, one should be retained to create an occasional highly artistic coin or medal. Accomplished medallists should be commissioned – with ample time – to prepare
their clay and plaster models to be processed on that lonely Janvier. It aids in creating a better design.
Mints can grind out computer-generated models as they must. But please don’t overlook an occasional super artistic piece. Don’t let this rare art form drift into meritocracy.
Also, what should be done with those additional Janviers? Instead of disposing them to used machinery dealers, why not sell them to medallists who could use one in their own studio. There is a
strong precedence for this. In the past it was medalists who made their own bas-relief reductions. William Wyon was one of these, he owned several, even while he was a Royal Mint engraver.
But please, don’t scrap those Janviers.
Dick's quite correct. The audio industry has been learning these lessons, with quite a significant subset of modern audiophiles migrating to "old fashioned" analog
vinyl records for their higher sound quality.
As a student of the history of business and technology, I know that older technologies rarely disappear completely, but instead come to address new niche markets. Television didn't kill radio and
the Internet hasn't killed off print publications. So I agree that mints and the minting industry in general should absolutely retain its equipment and expertise for analog production even if it
is only for a small subset of output. Medallists, museums, historical societies and even mechanical engineering schools could be fine homes for the Janviers that aren't retained for specialty
production uses. -Editor
Dick Johnson adds:
I asked Heidi Wastweet to comment on my article on Janvier machines destruction. Heidi is an experienced sculptor specializing in relief sculpture. She is currently president of American Medallic
Sculpture Society, and a member of the U.S. Mint’s Citizens Advisory Committee. Her comments follow (italics mine).
Heidi Wastweet writes:
You say clay and plaster is being replaced by computer design. Indeed, engraving machines are becoming nearly obsolete, but clay and plaster is not. It is perfectly compatible with the new digital
technology. Your article implies that if a person wants the more artistic hand sculpted plaster model (and I fully agree with you that it is still superior to digital sculpting) they then have
to find a Janvier machine to cut it on. I still do all my models in plaster and I have no trouble getting dies cut with the new CNC milling technology. In fact I personally prefer it. Here’s why
When Janvier machines first came into use, the models were all galvanos. They were perfect and durable but time consuming to make. Then came the invention of epoxy. It was a cheap and easy
substitute for galvanos and soon all the mints were using it. The trouble was that the stylus of the Janvier would wear down the less durable epoxy models and the finished die lacked sharpness.
Today, I don’t know of a single source for getting galvanos made. Maybe you know someone?
To truly make the most of these old engraving machines, the dedicated craftsman would need to also bring back the galvano.
In the absence of galvanos, the laser scanners are doing a fine job. They scan directly off the plaster without any damage at all. From there the computer then drives the die engraving [milling]
with precision. In the wrong hands, a Janvier can produce a terrible quality die, while the CNC is more idiot-proof.
The downside is that the expense of the digital system vs the cost of a Janvier keeps it out of the hands of the individual artists and minters. I think it would be nice to let those old machines
go to the small shops who want to keep it alive.
Thanks for the great read. I’m glad to see someone bringing up this topic.
Thanks, everyone. Great info on an important topic. -Editor
Wayne Homren, Editor
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