My wife is quick to remind me that I have expensive tastes in travel. I do, without shame, believe in the “swing for the fences” theory of vacationing, whereas she prefers to “walk in a run,” meaning for her, heading to the nearest beach or kid-friendly destination. Each spring I unceremoniously and ingloriously propose the same, predictable idea: “Why don’t we go back to Switzerland this summer?” And each spring I am reminded that we cannot afford it. Heck, we can barely afford Swiss cheese. But with its diverse topography, magnificent towns and villages, and surprising cultural diversity thanks to its history and location at a crossroads in Europe, there are few places that I would rather be (however impossible) than Switzerland.
Of course, one of the joys of numismatics is travelling vicariously through the coins that we amass. Naturally then, Switzerland is one of my core collecting areas. A country with a history this rich (or, we might say a country as rich as Switzerland) comes with centuries of numismatic output. Below I will discuss three highly collectible subsets; 1) Swiss cantonal coinage from each of Switzerland’s three main linguistic zones, 2) Shooting Thalers, and finally 3) the persistent Swiss Franc. While each of these subsets has enough depth to occupy a collector for a lifetime, I enjoy dabbling—and vicariously spending time in Switzerland—with all three.
Historians claim that Swiss history is defined by its rejection of its neighbors’ geopolitical advances. Contemporary Swiss identity contains a streak of fierce independence (think William Tell), probably rooted in this centuries-ago liberation from foreign intrusion. Nevertheless, culturally speaking, Switzerland is a quilt work stitched together by these larger, foreign influences, namely German, French, and Italian. Swiss coinage bears out this history. Coins have been produced in this part of Europe since before the Roman period, including by various Celtic tribesmen. Centuries later, several churches acquired mint rights under the Holy Roman Empire, and the region gained in importance as tradesmen carved routes linking the Mediterranean, the Rhine River, and the North Sea. Swiss towns, abbeys, and merchants profited immensely.
If you don’t know anything about Swiss cantonal coinage, understand that the subset is similar to that of the more recognizable German States coinage. If you don’t know anything about German States coinage, then imagine coin collector’s heaven; a vast, seemingly unlimited array of coins, ranging all the way from fractional cents, through kreuzers and thalers, all the way to gold ducats weighing over an ounce. Spanning the course of centuries (from the medieval period through the early 1850s) the coins of the Swiss cantons count among the most diverse and beautiful in the world. A collector has many options here, but one simple way to collect is by favorite canton or cultural region. My interests steer toward the Germanic, so I am always on the lookout for examples from the well-known cantonal cities of Basel, Bern, and Zürich, but I am just as happy finding coins from lesser-known cantons such as Chur, Luzern, and Schwyz. Of course, many collectors prefer the French or Italian cultural areas, and one certainly can’t go wrong zeroing in on the coinage of Geneva, Lausanne, or Ticino.
Naturally, the pattern of coinage through the centuries shifted with the historical development of the Swiss cantons. Cantons came and went, and so did their coins. Fortunately, collectors with finicky thematic interests can do quite well here too. So-called “city view thalers,” of which Basel and Zürich produced many, are among the most beloved European silver coins. In lieu of a regent’s portrait, as was typical for most Thalers (Swiss cantons did not have royals, with some exceptions), these proud commercial cantons featured their own magnificent cityscapes. Animal collectors will find this a rich collecting area as well. St. Gallen bear thalers are highly sought after, as are the lion thalers of Zürich. For shoestring collectors like me, the Swiss cantons issued ample enough centimes, rappen, haller, kreuzer, and batzen (these are all small denominations) to make the hunt affordable, yet still beautiful.
Shooting Thalers (pronounced and spelled as Talers, without the “h,” in modern German) is the area in Swiss coin collecting that has the greatest cross-over appeal with non-Swiss specialists, and for good reason. These gorgeous silver pieces were originally issued by individual cantons in the mid-19th century to commemorate fundraising shooting festivals. Recreational shooting is a time-honored tradition in Switzerland and is curiously linked to the nation’s feisty sense of independence (though, a Swiss friend who had been a conscript in the army once confessed to me that he spent more time learning Power Point than drilling with a gun). Silver and gold Shooting Thalers were issued periodically in the twentieth century, and they are still produced today in extremely limited quantities to generate revenue for the mint. The majority of collectors hone in on the period 1855-1885; this was certainly the golden-age of the silver Shooting Thaler.
Although they are designated as 5 Fr(ancs), these Thalers were not circulated, which explains the relative ease of finding examples in well-preserved states. With weights of 25g and diameters of 37mm, these .6706 ASW coins command attention. But what really appeals to collectors is the complexity of each design (usually based on a historical or mythological theme) and the quality of the strike. The canton which hosted that year’s shooting festival also issued the Thaler. The first of this series, issued by Solothurn in 1855, is among the more difficult to find and thus can fetch breathtaking prices. Later issues, including Fribourg (1881) and Lugano (1883) are among the more common (30,000 of each were minted), though an XF-AU example will still require at least a $100 investment. One of my favorites is the Basel issue from 1879. The reverse features a dragon fronted by Basel’s coat of arms while a circular pattern around the dragon displays the coats of arms of the remaining twenty-three cantons (there are twenty-six today). If ever there was a way to capture the beauty of Switzerland in numismatics, these Shooting Thalers do just that.
While Californians like to boast that their state’s geography allows one to surf and ski in the same day, I am far more titillated by the occasion in Switzerland to gobble an omelette fromage for breakfast in Geneva, sample an aufschnitt and brötchen platter during a late lunch in Zürich, and then wind the evening down with a delicious cornetti ripieni di cioccolato in Bellinzona. No matter one’s preference, however, it turns out that Switzerland and the United States have more in common than just their natural and cultural diversity. Both have impressive democratic traditions that are reflected in their national coinage. The United States and Switzerland have monarch-less histories, and their coins often reflect this political reality by exhibiting symbolic representations of democracy and equality, including eagles, figurative images of liberty, and monuments important to the rise of a national democracy. This democratic tradition is so important in Switzerland that the Swiss have not made any dramatic changes to their coinage for well over a century. Although the pose has changed on one occasion, the Swiss Fr. has since 1850 featured a wreathed and gowned Helvetia, the allegorical personification of the Swiss confederation. The ubiquitous Helvetia always clutches a crossed shield.
The centerpiece of this democratic coinage is the Swiss Fr. Yes, the Swiss Fr. In a nation with four official national languages, “Fr.” conveniently stands for Franken (German), Franc (French and Romansh), and Franco (Italian). The inscription on the Swiss Fr. simply contains the universally accepted “Helvetia.” The Federal Coinage Act of 1850 ended the existence of cantonal coinage systems and replaced them with a single currency. No individual canton was large enough to handle the new national currency, so the earliest Swiss Fr. were minted in Paris and Strasbourg. By 1890, the Swiss government had taken over the former cantonal mint in Bern and had transformed it into the national mint. The Latin Monetary Union, a group of European nations spearheaded by France, had created a uniform currency system in 1865, standardizing the Swiss Fr. at a fixed weight and fineness (5g and .8350 Ag). The last major change to the Swiss Fr. occurred in the late 1960s, when cupro-nickel replaced silver as the base metal mix. The design remains the same, more than 140 years after its introduction.
Swiss coinage, like the Swiss landscape, is varied and adventurous. I will keep collecting with the hope that one year I can skip the beach and head back to the geographical and cultural center of Europe. As for now, however, I need to apply more sunblock.