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Updated: 14 Apr 2022

Remaking a mint: why the Royal Mint decided it's time for change

As cash usage continues to decline, here's how the 1,100-year-old institution is transforming itself for the future
The Royal Mint Experience exterior

'After that day, I was broken.' That's how Dan Johnson, visitor attraction manager at the Royal Mint Experience, remembers January 31 2020.

Also known as 'Brexit Day', it saw the Royal Mint's on-site tourist attraction stay open for 24 hours, welcoming a record 2,500 guests.

Coin collectors flocked here to strike their own commemorative Brexit coin and get their hands on exclusive packaging proving they did it on Brexit Day itself.

'It was full all day and all night,' said Johnson. 'But the adrenaline was just incredible. It was nuts, but it was a lot of fun.'

That thousands would converge on the Mint in South Wales for rare coins won't surprise you if you know about the fervour of coin collectors.

While cash usage may be at a historic low, coin collecting is thriving - and it's at the heart of the Royal Mint's strategy to futureproof itself.

Hear more: the Which? Money Podcast goes behind the scenes of the Royal Mint to find out more about how coins are made. Listen to interviews from the factory floor, and tales from the Mint's storied archive.

Why the Royal Mint is at a turning point

The Royal Mint has a mandate to create coins for the UK. The volume of circulating pounds and pence it produces is set by HM Treasury, which owns the Mint outright as its sole shareholder.

With the rise of card and contactless payments, the Treasury's orders are in decline.

In 2018, no 1p, 2p, 5p, 20p or £2 coins were minted at all. A 2020 National Audit Office report said no new 2p or £2 coins are needed for another decade. So where does this leave the Mint?

Chris Barker, a historian at the Royal Mint Museum, says it's now facing one of many key moments in its long history.

Buckets of coins in Royal Mint factory
Containers of coins on display at the Royal Mint Experience

Those other key moments include the Mint's 1971 relocation from London to Llantrisant to scale up its production for decimalisation.

'The Mint's always had to be adaptable,' said Barker. 'Over it's 1,100-year period, you can't have an organisation which is fixed and stuck, doing exactly the same thing.

'It's always had to change with new technology and it's always had to change with society as well.'

This focus on adaptation has spawned new divisions, products and purposes. It's inspired countless new coin collectors and made the Mint profitable again in 2021 after two years of pre-tax losses.

Royal Mint mintage figures
The number of coins minted each year for two decades

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Coins around the world

This isn't the first time domestic coin orders have declined. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, the deputy master of the Mint, Robert Johnson, noticed dwindling orders from the Treasury.

Faced with the prospect of shrinking the business and mass redundancies, Johnson broadened the Mint's horizons. He boarded the Orient Express and travelled the world hoping to secure contracts with other countries.

The legacy of his trip is seen today on the Royal Mint's circulating coin factory floor, where foreign currency frequently outnumbers sterling.

Royal Mint circulating factory floor
Machines minting coins for circulation

When we visited, Wayne, a team leader, referred to workers on the production line fulfilling orders for 'clients'. These clients turned out to be Egypt, Kenya and Surinam.

Even with this global expansion, the Mint's circulating currency business is on a downward trend. It fell from a $14m profit in 2016-17 to a £1.4m loss in 2020-21.

Meanwhile, its 'consumer' division is growing. It has out-earned the circulating coin business by millions of pounds each year since 2017.

Operating profit from currency business vs consume
Operating profit from currency business vs consumer business

The rise of rare 50ps

Consumer coins are coins the Mint sells to the public. Usually these are commemorative coins, struck with unique designs to celebrate special occasions.

Sometimes they're higher-quality versions of coins that go into circulation, such as the Brexit coin or the Queen's Platinum Jubilee 50p. But increasingly they're designs produced exclusively for sale.

Chris Barker in the Royal Mint Museum and Jubilee
Left: Chris Barker with artefacts in the Royal Mint Museum. Right: Jubilee 50ps in production

Clearly, this approach has paid off financially. But the subjects of these commemorative coins are becoming broader and less tethered to specific events and anniversaries.

Sure, David Bowie is one of Britain's most iconic musicians, but why produce a coin for him in 2020 of all years? And yes, Paddington Bear is enduringly popular, but what event justifies his 2018 and 2019 50p appearances?

Clare Maclennan, director of commemorative coins, says it comes down to demand: 'We conduct consumer research across every theme to make sure we create highly collectible coins for the future,' she said.

How are commemorative coin themes chosen?

The process of researching, developing and producing a commemorative coin can take up to two years.

Themes will be chosen, discussed, and then sent to be approved (or rejected) by the Royal Mint Advisory Committee, a 10-strong group of independent experts from various fields.

Finally, every coin design is signed off by the Queen.

Clare Maclennan with coins
Clare Maclennan in the factory with The Snowman coins

These coins are not just for collectors; they're also bought as gifts. Mum has every David Bowie record? Buy her the coin! Too many Paddington plushies in your kid's bedroom? Coin!

These less traditional designs are all part of pulling in a broader audience: 'We're very keen to make sure that we are not only delivery beautiful coins for our collectors who will continue to like royalty, historic events and key anniversaries,' said Maclennan, 'but also the collectors of the future.'

'It just feeds your creativity'

Dominique Evans has been a designer at the Royal Mint for 17 years. 'Every year gets more exciting,' she said.

Among her designs is the Diversity Built Britain coin, 10 million of which went into circulation in 2020.

'It's a real pinch-me moment when you think there are so many out there. But what's lovely is that they're still going from hand to hand and engaging with people.'

Dominique Evans holding the Diversity Built Britai
Dominique Evans with the Diversity Built Britain 50p

The Mint's designers decide which themes they want to take on. The diversity brief is one Evans says 'resonated with me immediately'. She's also designed coins celebrating VE Day and Jane Austen.

'The subject is the most important thing,' said Evans. She dedicates a lot of time to research, and to finding out what each theme means to people.

'I think it's a really exciting challenge. Coins are teeny weeny as well, and shiny, and you've not generally got a lot of colour to play with.'

As the commemorative coin business has grown, the Mint's needed more designs. 'We're a little bit busier,' she deadpans.

'There's a big team now. We've got bigger and bigger and bigger.' But having such a wide variety of subjects to tackle has been invigorating: 'It just feeds your creativity.'

The Royal Mint's expensive masterpieces

Some commemorative coins are one of a kind - like the solid gold design made to commemorate the death of Prince Phillip.

It's about the size of a 7-inch record, weighs 5kg, and costs £375,495. You have to call a special number to buy it.

The Mint produces several coins like this each year; it made 10 coins weighing more than 2kg in 2020-21. They're what it calls High Net Worth Products and, as you may have guessed from the RRP, they sell to a small international group of wealthy customers.

This side of the business has really started to take off over the past two years, according to Maclennan, and is something the Mint is looking to expand.

Describing the coins as 'real works of art,' Maclennan said: 'We're very pleased to be able to have the opportunity to create masterpieces.

'They are actually master craftsmen at work polishing a gold coin for 400 hours to make it the most beautiful coin in the world.'

One of those master craftsmen is Tony, who has worked at the Mint for 30 years. He explained that the process of creating these coins involves chiselling by hand, machine cutting and, yes, hours of polishing.

Craftsman at work on a coin
A 10kg gold coin being crafted

It also involves one of the most high-stakes clean-up processes in any workplace, where craftsmen like Tony must collect every speck of gold the machines shave off during the coin carving process. Even the mess these coins make is worth a fortune.

How the Mint helps coin collectors keep collecting

Since collectors are crucial to the Royal Mint's survival, it won't surprise you to learn that it has a division dedicated to helping them out.

The 'collector services' department was created four years ago to help the Mint's customers get more out of their hobby.

This includes authenticating, evaluating and storing rare coins. It also includes selling historic coins secondhand.

The department even employs 'coin hunters' who track down specific pieces collectors need.

The team recently sourced the elusive Edward VIII Sovereign for a customer. Edward abdicated before his coins were mass produced, so just five of these were made.

The coin, originally produced in the UK, had found its way into a US-based collection. Coin hunters located it, convinced the owner to sell it and brought it back to the UK.

'That coin was bought for a cool one million pounds,' said Rebecca Morgan, director of collector services.

This example might make collector services sound like another income stream aimed at the super rich, but Morgan assures us that these services are available to those with smaller budgets, too: the division has served more than 20,000 customers since it was created.

'We are trying to be one step ahead'

When Sean Millard joined the Mint in May 2020 as its chief growth officer, his job description was this: take a 1,100-year-old brand and transform it for the next thousand years. 'It's quite a lofty aspiration,' he said.

Millard's job has involved meeting with a global strategy consultancy to diversify the brand even further, beyond the currency and consumer departments, the Royal Mint Experience tourist attraction, and the thriving gold investment side of the business.

'What we needed to do was to look at what the Royal Mint is really good at. And when you look at it, it's incredibly diverse.

'So the question then became not what should we do but - in a way - what shouldn't we do,' he said.

In the end, they came up with two new projects. One is a new jewellery range and the other is to become a world leader in ethically sourced precious metals.

Working with a Canadian startup called Excir, the Mint plans to extract gold and other metal content from the circuit boards inside discarded electronics, and reuse that material in its products.

'Our consumers are going to start to demand we have ethically sourced materials,' said Millard. 'So we are trying to be one step ahead.'

They're also trying to be part of the solution to what is a growing problem, with tonnes of electronic waste either left in landfill or disposed of in an environmentally harmful way each year.

A circuit board undergoing the extraction process
A circuit board undergoing the extraction process

'We have a mandate to grow, build and protect the Royal Mint brand,' said Millard. 'And there's another one which is very different from other companies: we have a mandate to create jobs.

'It's a really serious mandate for use and what I think gives us a social mandate that a lot of other companies don't have.'

The future of the Royal Mint

The Mint might be hoping Sean Millard is the next Robert Johnson - the man responsible for keeping the business afloat during the Great Depression.

Millard doesn't make this comparison himself, and not just because he's more likely to be jumping between Microsoft Teams meetings than hopping on the Orient Express.

'I think if you see yourself as the single pivot point, it disrespects the great work, and all of the colleagues before and after you. But equally the expectation may crush you.'

That expectation, whether or not Millard and his colleagues want to think about it, is very much there.For the Mint to last about 1,100 years, it will need to keep adapting.

There will be more meetings, more projects and, of course, more coins. But perhaps one day, we'll be buying more coins than we're spending.