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Lighting the way with glowing hearts—and coins

2018 $5 PURE SILVER COIN—HEARTS AGLOW

Some things never lose their cool factor. Ever since the first consumer glow sticks were waved in the air at a Grateful Dead show in 1971, glow-in-the-dark technology has never lost its... well, shine. The Royal Canadian Mint has been a pioneer in bringing glow-in-the-dark effects to a wide range of coins, most recently with the 2018 $5 pure silver Hearts Aglow  tribute to Canada’s multicultural makeup.

The Mint’s journey into the (glowing) dark started in 2012, recalls product manager Erica Maga.

“We’d been approached by a supplier who was interested in exploring applications for photoluminescent [glow-in-the-dark] coatings,” Maga says, “and we were right at that time working on a series of four 25-cent pieces featuring prehistoric creatures. We thought, ‘Kids like dinosaurs and things that glow in the dark. How fun is that?’ So we decided to use photoluminescence to light up the creatures’ skeletons.”

Maga’s colleague, Mélanie Luis, says attempting glow-in-the-dark coins was a bit of a gamble, but adds, “The Mint isn’t shy about trying out new technologies.”

In that case, the gamble paid off, with the entire prehistoric creatures series proving enormously popular.

FROM LONG AGO TO HERE AND NOW

There are various accounts of the history of glow-in-the-dark technology out on the web, but historically the first “discovery” of chemical photoluminescence — in phosphorus — dates back to the 1600s and an alchemist named Hennig Brand. While Brand didn’t successfully find a way to turn lead into gold, his identification of phosphorus laid the foundation for centuries of experimenters.

In the 1960s and 1970s, researchers looked for practical applications for glow-in-the-dark technologies, such as signalling between naval vessels. That work eventually became commercialized and today we have everything from glow-ring bracelets for outdoor festivals to maps of the solar system on kids’ bedroom walls.

FINDING THE RIGHT SUBJECTS

With the success of that first foray into the world of glow-in-the-dark effects, the Mint team started developing other photoluminescent coin concepts. Luis says the technology is used only if it is appropriate for the coin’s theme.

“The theme drives the technology, never the other way around,” she says. “We choose things that are going to be meaningful for people; that involve something significant in people’s lives or will capture their imagination. It’s once we’ve selected a visual proposal from an artist that we start talking about what technologies might work well — including glow-in-the-dark.”

Luis says photoluminescence has a few ideal applications. It can bring natural phenomena to life, as was done on the Mint’s two-coin Arctic Animals and Northern Lights series  and on the four-coin Great Canadian Outdoors  series, which featured off-seasonal sports activities by day and night. It’s also obviously a fit for themes involving lights — like Fireworks at the Falls, which comes with its own small blacklight to render the brilliance of the nocturnal lights and fireworks at Niagara Falls.

Glow-in-the-dark has been used as well to produce eerie effects for coins about strange or unexplained events. Maga’s personal favourite in that category — one she worked on directly — commemorated the Falcon Lake Incident on an egg-shaped coin.

“The coin uses blacklight-activated features to render the best-documented UFO incident ever recorded in Canada,” she explains. “It happened in 1967 to a man named Stan Michalak, who actually came into contact with some kind of unexplained object.”

With only 4,000 struck, the pure silver Falcon Lake coin sold out in no time.

WITH GLOWING HEARTS

The Mint has used glow-in-the-dark technology on several coins celebrating Canada specifically. Its first photoluminescent circulation coin — the first of its kind in the world, in fact — was a two-dollar piece released ahead of Canada’s 150th anniversary celebrations that received national and international acclaim, with coverage by the likes of Smithsonian.com, BBC News, the Guardian, and even Conan O’Brien’s late-night show.

This year’s Canada Day coin, Hearts Aglow, was particularly suited to photoluminescent treatment.

“We thought there was a really strong tie-in with the theme,” Maga says. “We wanted to do a coin that highlights how Canada has grown and been enriched by its cultural diversity. Adding a glow-in-the-dark element similarly enriches the experience of the coin.”

With its name a play on the national anthem’s “with glowing hearts” verse, Hearts Aglow has been in high demand since it was released. By daylight, the pure silver five-dollar piece is anchored by a central red maple leaf. surrounded by numerous smaller leaves representing the many cultures that make up our country. In the dark, the coin transforms, showing a ring of brilliant green leaves around a now back-lit red leaf.

“It was designed by one of our engravers and is a fun application of design and technology,” Maga says. “You don’t expect tiny maple leaves, invisible in the daylight, to glow in the dark, let alone glow green.”

PUSHING BOUNDARIES

What motivates the Mint’s development teams to continually innovate? For Maga and Luis, it’s the opportunity to learn and stretch their own horizons.

“I wasn’t so much of a history buff,” admits Luis, “but I’ve had to really dig into topics like the Seven Years War between Great Britain and France — when they were competing for dominance in North America — and about people like the famous explorer and British navigator Captain James Cook. And I’ve loved what I’ve learned, I’m so grateful for the experience, and I know it’s influenced the way I look at the world. That opportunity — and requirement — to keep learning, all the time, is something I really love about this job.”

Maga adds that even for the simplest-looking coin designs, she and her colleagues always go as deeply as possible into the subject to understand every aspect of it.

“One day, you’re finding out how some historical structure was built,” she says. “The next you’re getting into some highly complex scientific topic, or new species... or UFOs!”

Both product managers agree coin making requires a sense of curiosity and wonder about the world — a wonder that is as pure, open and captivating as that feeling a child has of closing the bedroom door behind them and watching a photoluminescent coin reveal its greenish glow in the dark.

Discover all of the Royal Canadian Mint’s glow-in-the-dark coins here.

 

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