The peso – the weight of precious metal
One of the many enchanting aspects of classic gold coins is their captivating history that reveals the past of former civilisations that in some cases stretches back several hundred years. The Centenario is one of these coins, and its two names “the Centenario” and “the Mexican 50 pesos” have each a unique story to tell. The Mexican 50 pesos, the coin’s most common name, derives from the fact that the coin carries on its obverse the denomination “50 pesos”. However, it is the word “peso” that is of particular interest. This Spanish word literally means “weight” and was originally used as a reference to the famous Spanish silver dollar.
The Spanish silver dollar burst upon the world following Spain’s currency reform in 1497, establishing itself as the main trading coin in the Americas and Asia between the 16th and 19th centuries. The currency reform that helped make this coin popular included the definition of a silver standard that had the “real” as its unit of account. Each real was equal to 3.195 grams of silver, with the Spanish silver dollar carrying a denomination of 8 reales. This meant that the coin contained a silver fineness of 25.56 grams since it was divisible into eight equal parts (25.56/8 = 3.195), hence this coin was referred to as the “weight of eight” (peso de ocho in Spanish).
A fascinating and key reason why the Spanish 8 real silver dollar was divisible into eight equal weights was because of a particular method of counting. It could be divided into two, four or even eight weights so that Spanish traders could more easily count the currency on their fingers while settling commercial transactions with other traders. But doesn’t a person have 10 fingers? Well yes, but the Spanish traders decided that thumbs would be used to indicate the total of four fingers. Therefore, the Spanish silver currency was constituted on the base of eight, which meant that the smallest denomination was theoretically 1/8.
An interesting detail is that all major financial exchanges in the United States used the Spanish silver peso system of counting to value securities, bonds and company shares for more than 200 years. In fact, this system of counting in fractions was in place until the year 2000 when all US stock markets switched to the decimal system.
The gold Centenario – a glorious century
The word “Centenario”, which is the official name of this gold coin, is a Spanish adjective that relates to a period of 100 years. The reason it received this name was that it was issued to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Mexico’s War of Independence that ended in 1821. It can therefore been seen that the Centenario gold coin embodies the gripping history of this war and gives a tribute to the revolutionary ideals that set in motion the Mexican uprising against its Spanish overlords. Prior to its independence in 1821, Mexico was a colony of Spain and was repeatedly exploited as a source of income by the Spanish crown which levied taxes on the country’s trade and production of goods.
The extraction of wealth continued for 300 years until the early 1800s when the educated Creole population of Mexico began to question their relationship with Spain. The Creoles were Europeans, but mostly of Spanish origin, born in Mexico. Although they were legally equal to Spaniards, they were excluded from holding any higher positions in the church or the state and their commercial activities were likewise heavily restricted. In 1810, the population of Mexico had passed the six million mark, with only 15,000 being Spaniards. In contrast to the Spaniards who enjoyed a lavish life in Mexico, the large majority of the country’s population, especially the indigenous Indians and the local farmers, were poor. That same year, the revenue of Mexico was 24 million pesos, whilst the Royal Treasury in Madrid took 25% of this sum, or 6 million pesos, in tax. “Enough,” said a group of Creole intellectuals who, on 16 September 1810, began Mexico’s revolution for self-rule.
The revolution was headed by the Creole priest Miguel Hidalgo who managed to gather an army of more than 80,000 men. Although a large force, the revolutionary troops was mostly made up of poor Mexicans who had no formal training and were inadequately armed. This became apparent at the Battle of Calderon where 6,000 heavily armed and trained Spanish soldiers defeated Hidalgo’s revolutionary army. Many revolutionaries lost their lives in this battle and Hidalgo himself was captured and executed.
The revolution was stopped dead in its tracks only one year after it had sprung to life. However, in spite of the loss of its leadership and the disintegration of its army, the spirit of the revolution lived on, and by 1821 many loyal Creole monarchists, who had previously upheld the interest of the Spanish crown, switched sides to support an independent Mexico. That same year, the revolution led finally to the proclamation of the sovereign First Mexican Empire. All these events are commemorated in the aptly named Centenario gold coin, which also exhibits the beautiful Angel of Independence, Mexico’s symbol of freedom from Spain.
The Angel of Independence depicted on the Mexican 50 pesos gold coin
One of the key aspects that sets the Mexican 50 pesos apart from other historical gold coins is the beautiful design of the Angel of Independence, also commonly known as Winged Victory. The Angel of Independence is an allegoric personification of Nike, the goddess from Greek mythology that flew over battlegrounds and rewarded the victors with honour and greatness, symbolised by the wreath of leaves she held in her hands. The depicted Angel of Independence on the obverse of the coin is a miniature replica of the victory column that was constructed in 1910 in Mexico City. The victory column was built to mark the 100th anniversary of the year of Hidalgo’s uprising in 1810. The monument is impressive: the stone column is 36 metres tall and is crowned with the Angel of Independence who clutches a laurel crown and rises almost 7 metres into the sky. The Angel, excluding the stone column, weighs 7 tons and is covered with 24 karat gold. At the base of the stone column is a mausoleum that keeps the remains of several heroes who fought for Mexican Independence, one of them being Hidalgo.
Following Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the New World, the territories of what today is considered Mexico were in the early 1500s absorbed into the Spanish Empire. Spanish settlers soon discovered that Mexico was rich in minerals, especially in silver. With commercial activities growing in Mexico, there was an ever-increasing demand for coinage that would expedite this trade. Considering the abundant supply of silver ore, the logical decision was taken in 1535 to establish a mint in Mexico City. The Mexican mint, which also minted the 50 pesos gold coin, began to strike the Spanish 8 real silver dollar coin in the late 1530s.
Thanks to royal Spanish manuscripts, a great deal is known about how the Mexican mint operated in its founding years. The mint offered refining and assaying services, and the mintage of coins. Whenever merchants were in need of coinage, they turned to the Mexican mint that provided them with coins in exchange for a fee. The transaction between these two parties happened in the following way: either the merchant could bring his own silver, which was then melted, assayed and struck into coins, or he would buy silver bars at the mint’s foundry and have them re-shaped into coins. For example, if the merchant bought the silver at the mint’s foundry, he then had to pay a fee of two reales (2 x 3.195 grams of silver) for every 214 grams of silver he wanted turned into coinage. Thus, the mint’s fee turned out to be approximately 3% of the total weight that was due to be turned into coins.
Almost 35% of this fee went to the supervisors who ran the operation of the mint, 32% went to the mint’s treasury, the coiners received 11%, the assayer and the die-sinkers each received 7%, and the last amount was split between the weigh-master, the secretary, the overheads and the guards.
Once the contract between the mint and merchant was agreed upon, the merchant’s silver was taken into a designated area of the mint where the metal was assayed and rolled into strips. The strips were cut into round planchets that were then weighed to ensure that the weight was correct. Thereafter the planchets went through an annealing process. This means that the coins were heated and cooled at a specific temperature in order to restore the ductility that had been lost when the metal was rolled and cut. Finally, they were placed between two dies (metallic pieces that contained the image to be transferred onto the coin) and were struck with a hammer to produce Spanish silver real coins.
The Mexican mint is today still in operation, making it the oldest mint in the Americas. Besides being responsible for minting Mexico’s circulating coinage, it also produces what many consider to be one of the most beautiful investment-grade bullion coin series, the gold and silver Libertad coins.