Photo courtesy of the Taiwan Central Mint
The Tang Prize medal, a homage the Tang Prize Foundation pays to its illustrious laureates, was tailor-designed by Fukasawa Naoto, who won the International Tang Prize Design Competition for this work. To come up with a design, nonetheless, was only the beginning of the story, and it would take concerted and painstaking efforts to convert Fukasawa’s ingenious idea into a tangible artefact. Weighing 211 grams, made of 99.99% pure gold, sporting the shape of a multi-planar, cylindrical spiral with a circular opening in the middle, the medal is characterized by these symbol-laden features. But the more sui generis it is, the harder the whole manufacturing process turned out to be.
Located in the Guishan District, Taoyuan City, the Central Mint is a subsidiary of the Central Bank of Taiwan. Entrusted with the important duty of providing the currency used in Taiwan, its main job is to make the nation’s circulating and commemorative coins, though it does, on some rare occasions, accept private commissions, such as minting commemorative bronze coins for the Li Mei-shu Memorial Gallery and silver coins for the Guantian Temple in Taichung City.
While the craftsmen in the Central Mint were very skillful and experienced in making commemorative coins, when the project manager for the production of the Tang Prize Medal got in touch, they were quite hesitant about whether to take on this assignment. These consummate artisans first went online to study the Nobel medals, trying to puzzle out the techniques needed to strike one for the Tang Prize. But however well-prepared they’d managed to be, they were still caught off-guard, upon seeing the winning design and realizing that renowned Japanese designer Fukasawa Naoto had decided to core out a medal that is usually solid. That was far from their routine job of minting coins. The complexity and difficulty involved in turning a two-dimensional figure into a 3-dimensional sculpture were well beyond imagination.
Days and days of sweat and toil were spent on the research of viable production methods. The Foundation didn’t give the Central Mint much time to complete this task. With trials conducted one after another and with the help from academia and relevant industries, the final decision was reached: “lost-wax casting” would be employed to make the medals for the five inaugural laureates.
But the Central Mint itself didn’t have the equipment and had to rely on the teaching equipment at the New Taipei Vocational High School in New Taipei Municipal. The preliminary work, such as preparing and freighting the materials, weighing gold and transporting it into and out of the Mint, and preheating the casting molds, was a real hassle and called for the hard labor of many people. Besides, this method suffers from a serious drawback. Unlike forging, casting doesn’t require using localized compressive forces. Moreover, the highly viscose nature of pure gold means the inside of a casting is prone to porosity. It may look nice on the outside, but this flaw will reveal itself during the polishing process, increasing the likelihood of having a large fraction defective.
To solve the two problems mentioned above, Deputy Director of Precious Metal Workshop at the Central Mint Jun-ming Lin (second from the left) kept carrying out different experiments with his colleagues until a new technique for producing the medal, which they named “rounding the curve,” was finally developed. The medals the 2nd to 4th generations of Tang Prize laureates received were all produced this way.
Based on this technique, a thin piece of gold in the shape of number nine was made first and then twisted to form a spiral. Director General of the Central Mint, Sheng-shang Chou (third from the left) explained that as it was impossible to create, in one attempt, a spiral-shaped medal where parts of its two arms overlap, “we made a curve by fashioning one end of the spiral first and leaving the other open. The second step was to round this curve into a spiral.” As for the issue of porosity, a lay person would not be able to detect it. But these minters had high standards for themselves. “Because they were so used to making quality proof coins, they desperately wanted to get rid of pores in order to meet the standards set for the precision manufacturing industry,” added Dr. Wilson Lin (second from the right), deputy director general of the Central Mint.
“To polish a gold casting is not easy,” Mr. Chu noted. Gold is sticky, soft and deforms easily. Having to gauge the weight of each medal and control material loss just made the production process more challenging. The intricacy of this work entailed burnishing the two surfaces that face each other at the section where the two arms intersect and are separated by a 1 mm gap. Not only did Mr. Chou reiterate time and again the difficulty of manipulating pure gold, but Mr. Lin, responsible for devising new methods, also mentioned that when you bent gold, the point of curvature would become thicker. Therefore, many techniques had to be implemented to make sure the size of the medal was compliant with the design specifications. “To make this medal, the Central Mint had to adopt a range of techniques. That was how this work of art, one of a kind in this world, was born,” Mr. Lin remarked.
In addition, there are texts elaborately inscribed on the front, back and edge of the medal. Chief of Marketing Su-mei Huang was in charge of laser engraving at the time. It took her a huge amount of time to split images and measure the focal distance of the laser as well as the rotation and deviation angles, all for ensuring the characters on this three-dimensional spiral would appear straight up, not slanted.
Mr. Chou remembered clearly an anecdote relayed to him by his colleagues. When Fukasawa saw the first polished casting of the medal, he took out a business card and swiped it across the surface to see how level it was. “His eyes lit up” after the inspection. “How did you do this?” he kept asking, and was filled with grateful delight, knowing that the hard work done by the Central Mint had been able to give his design a perfect, world-class rendition.
The Tang Prize is a distinguished, international award established in Taiwan, and that the Central Mint could live up to the Foundation’s expectations by accomplishing this mission was something Dr. Jenn-chuan Chern, CEO of the Tang Prize Foundation, truly admired. “This is such an exquisite medal, made with such sophisticated technologies, and Taiwan’s Central Mint has been able to draw on its technical expertise to manufacture it. For that reason, it deserves the Foundation’s unreserved recognition and praise,” Dr. Chern complimented.