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Behind the Scenes With the Engraver

Get an exclusive glimpse into the art of hand-engraving and modeling like never seen before and see how this first Polish release in the US and Canada came to life.

The Making of John Paul II Centennial Commemorative .999 Silver Proof

To truly honor the legacy of John Paul II, we chose a 1-ounce platform; anything else would seem lacking. Drawing inspiration from the iconic Double Eagle design by Saint-Gaudens, we employed a full-strength press. This technique, by exerting increased pressure, allows us to achieve a 'full strike.' The result is an exquisite 'full strike' of unrivaled sharpness and prominence.

Expertly struck to proof quality, each commemorative features a mirror-like background set against a frosted foreground. This striking contrast, sharpness, and an impressive sense dimensionality is enhanced by a larger and rare 45 mm (1.77 in) diameter.

In the numismatic world, it's crucial to differentiate between proof and uncirculated quality as they serve distinct roles. While uncirculated coins are prevalent in investment bullion and "regular" collectible coinage, proof coins command their own unique allure and prestige.

The crafting of the John Paul II Centennial commemorative called for meticulous human craftsmanship, combined with state-of-the-art minting technologies. We employed a series of techniques designed to elevate the quality and value of each piece:

  • Planchets (blanks) and dies were polished to a mirror-like finish for a high gloss surface to achieve the utmost in minting quality – proof surface
  • The medal was struck multiple times with precision and care to achieve the desired 'full strike.'
  • We prioritized traditional engraving for its superior quality over digital methods
  • We selectively applied gold layering, thereby ennobling the .999 silver
  • The large and rare 45 mm (1.77 in) diameter doesn't only provide a more pleasing footprint but also enhances vertical sharpness
  • With a limited mintage of just 1,000, each piece bears a unique edge number, making it a true one-of-a-kind treasure

Proof coinage, with their unique allure, are especially coveted among collectors. They are valued not merely for their metal content and purity, but often at multiples thereof, with rarity escalating their worth. As such, our commemorative is an asset of inherent value.

Behind the Scenes with Master Engraver Monika Molenda

"Carving into a dish-sized plaster demands extraordinary self-control and surgical precision; each movement across the surface is measured in tenths of a millimeter," Molenda explains. 

"Possessing the right tools is vital. My collection includes pointy and hooked instruments, even… repurposed dental tools. But my true companion is my custom-made favorite chisel."

From… Play-Doh to Masterpiece

"It's funny how every masterpiece begins with Play-Doh, which I use to determine the highest and lowest points of the relief," says Monika.

"The model above measures 210 mm in diameter, 4.6 times the size of the final coin, and boasts a relief just 1.7 millimeters high. Creating an illusion of depth within such constraints poses a significant challenge," she explains.

Once the Play-Doh model is finalized, the next step is to create both positive and negative plaster casts, marking the beginning of the engraving process. The versatility of plaster allows for numerous revisions and tweaks, which is crucial for achieving the perfect perspective. The plaster's smooth surfaces add a captivating flow to the forms, enhancing the aesthetic value of the final masterpiece.

This stage starts with pouring a liquid paste into a mold that encloses the wax model. After a setting period of about 40 minutes, the wax is removed to reveal a recessed plaster image, or a 'negative'.

However, the initial result is simply a rough and lacks the desired detail. The artist then embarks on an arduous process of refining her work. With each careful iteration, alternating between the negative and positive images, more detail is added. Through a series of "pours" – up to four in total – the relief height is gradually increased, adding depth and dimension with each step until the relief height aligns with the mint specification:

"My first plaster took an agonizing three months. I swore I would never touch coins again." Monika recalls

The craft is gruelling and requires time, laser-focus, and self-control: even minor mistakes could blemish the work. Coin engraving defies all painting comparisons – while a canvas provides ample space, the task of transcribing depth onto the confined surface of a coin to get the perspective right, can be mind-bending. "Intellectually precise as a poet and as dexterous as a neurosurgeon, all the while understanding die preparation," says Monika.

Special Satisfaction

Despite the demands, engravers get a distinct satisfaction from the traditional art of plaster engraving. Seasoned sculptors may spend a fortnight or more sculpting a coin's relief, yet crafting with plaster presents both a creative hurdle and an avenue to showcase their extraordinary talents and artistry, and results in nothing less than a true work of art. Like coin collectors, engravers too like to get together to show off their work!

"There's an inherent realness and fluidity with plaster that makes it special, particularly in portraiture. The final product makes it all worthwhile," she adds with a laugh.

Illuminating Illusions


By shining light just right on the negative model, Monika creates an illusion that makes small details appear larger and more lifelike. "It's like a magic trick with light and shadow that creates remarkable volume and presence," she elaborates.

See the transformation yourself:

"There's a magical quality to this method that can't be replicated with computer-aided techniques. It's a play of perception, where a small object can give the illusion of a life-sized sculpture – a powerful deception. The Italians refer to this interplay of light and dark as 'chiaroscuro'. A fact that's often overlooked is that the intricate detail you see on coins predominantly originates in the negative.

Defying Design Conventions: The Compelling Central Figure of the John Paul II Centennial

Although style manuals typically discourage placing the subject in the center, coins face a distinct challenge through limited size. The John Paul II Centennial defies this convention with its central design concept, resembling a triptych with the extended arms on the left and the significant dates on the right. Monika ponders, "I wonder if this religious analogy isn't too tenuous maybe?" John Paul II's hands, resting against the gold-accented staff, provides the image with a strong compositional focus that imbues the Polish Pope with dignity and authority. View the piece here.

—Monika Molenda, May 2020

Monika Molenda is a highly regarded Polish medal artist, sculptor, and author of the John Paul II Commemorative Centennial Medal design issued by The Polish Heritage Mint.

The Polish Heritage Mint takes great pride in collaborating with esteemed Polish medal artists like Monika Molenda, showcasing the meticulous craftsmanship and passion that goes into creating each of these timeless works of art. 

All issues by The Polish Heritage Mint are crafted to heirloom quality such as proof, in controlled limited mintages. With an optimal diameter 45 mm struck in pure .999 silver, each piece preserves its value and provides lifetimes of delight.

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