They’re just bright pieces of paper, yet they remain the stuff of dreams: banknotes. Paper money has a long history dating back to early China, where the ruling dynasty began using paper bills as a means of payment around 650 AD. Europe followed suit some 1,000 years later. “Early banknotes were just the one color,” says Jürg Richter, former Head of UBS Numismatics and expert on historical coins and banknotes. “In Switzerland, the first bills were printed in 1825 by the Deposito-Cassa bank in Bern, in black and white.”
Around 1850, the many different banknote issuers in Switzerland began printing on colored paper. “The bills didn’t look very alike,” explains Richter. There was complete confusion. “The 20-franc note issued by the Cantonal Bank in Bern looked different to that of Ticino,” adds Ruedi Kunzmann, a specialist at Richter’s Sincona AG, a numismatic trading and auction house. “The notes only became uniform when the Swiss National Bank was founded in 1907.” From then on, it alone was allowed to issue banknotes.
Since 1910, the colors have largely remained unchanged. The 1,000-franc note is still purple today, the 100-franc note blue, and the 50-franc note green. In the 1990s the 500-franc note was withdrawn from circulation, the 20-franc note changed from blue to red, and the 10-franc note from pink to yellow. Why?
Roger Pfund, an authority on note design and creator of the new Swiss passport, knows the answer: “Banknotes must be easy to distinguish.” As both the 20-franc and the 100-franc note used to be blue, people mixed them up. “So it was decided to use clearly different colors.” For bills with similar denominations, colors far apart on the color wheel were chosen. That’s why the 10-franc note is yellow and the 100-franc note blue.
Pfund has advised the Swiss National Bank since 1971, and has provided input on the new series due in 2016. Will the color of future Swiss bank notes change? “The basic colors will stay the same,” says Pfund, “to establish a link with the current series.”
Numismatist Ruedi Kunzmann sees a global trend towards more color: “The more modern the bills, the more intense the colors.” This applies to the euro as much as to the South African rand. “A note in vibrant colors has a more dynamic appeal than one in paler tones.”
One exception is the US dollar. The “greenback” has been green for 150 years. “This consistency creates trust,” explains Jürg Richter, “and it would be almost impossible to declare the current dollar bills invalid and exchange them for new ones, as the greenback is used and accepted as a means of payment worldwide.” Changing to new notes would cause economic problems in many countries. Nevertheless, the US currency is about to experience one change: a woman will feature on the 10-dollar bill starting in 2020. In green, of course.