In the 1990s, currency circles were rocked by the arrival of the “supernote,” a nearly flawless counterfeit of the $100 bill, which included a color-shifting ink similar to that on genuine US bank notes and was printed on paper with the same composition of fibers: three-quarters cotton, one-quarter linen. Hipschen says the workmanship on those fakes was so good that they were virtually the same as the real bank notes.
“Almost all counterfeits had some variation, and these did not,” he says. “They were as good as or better than the real stuff, so the banks couldn’t tell the difference. This wasn’t created by a handful of guys in a studio somewhere.”
It wasn’t new technology that tipped Treasury officials off to the fakes—it was the engraving. They noticed that the clock tower on the back of the note was drawn more sharply and with more precision on the counterfeit version, Mihm says. A wide range of evidence pointed to the North Korean government, which denied it was distributing or manufacturing counterfeits.
To thwart such forgeries, the bureau launched new currency designs, ending a drought in new currency that had lasted from 1928 to 1996. Most of the engraving fell to Hipschen, who worked from photographs, slides, and paintings to create larger likenesses of Franklin, Grant, Jackson, and Lincoln for new $100, $50, $20, and $5 bills.
These days, the Secret Service reports that counterfeiters are increasingly turning low-denomination bills into higher-value bank notes. “We are seeing more people taking bleach to bills and upping the denomination,” says Max Milien Jr., a spokesman for the Secret Service, which has been combatting counterfeiting since 1865. Illegally “recycling” the currency paper this way preserves the raised feel of the paper that results when an engraved plate is run through an intaglio press.
Inside the Bureau of Engraving and Printing—a five-story limestone building at 14th and C streets in Southwest DC—a machine with super orlof intaglio 901 on the side operates nearly around the clock, pounding out a loud rhythm that echoes through the money factory. The noise sounds like water dripping, but much louder. Sheets of printed money fly over metal rollers.
This intaglio press coats printing plates with ink, wipes the surface clean, and leaves ink in the grooves of the engraving. It presses the paper and plate together with rollers under tons of pressure, forcing the ink out of the grooves and into the paper to form a relief-like texture.
On the new $100 bill, which goes into circulation on February 10, Hipschen’s portrait of Franklin has been moved to the left to make way for a thick blue security ribbon that creates a shifting 3-D effect. That blue ribbon in a single bank note contains 875,000 micro lenses, each of which focuses to a point over microscopic images. With motion and light flickering through the lenses, the images morph. When the note is tilted, tiny Liberty Bells become 100s. If the note is tilted from side to side, the images move up and down.
The technology, known as “Motion,” was invented by a lab in Georgia and licensed by Crane & Co., the primary paper supplier for the bureau since 1879. Doug Crane, vice president at the Massachusetts-based company, says the technology took eight years to develop. He says the trickiest part was making the blue ribbon one-third the thickness of a sheet of paper.
He says the company keeps all the customized production machines for the technology tightly secured under its own roof, but it has sold the finished product to Mexico, Paraguay, Sweden, South Korea, and Chile.
Crane says Motion would take millions of dollars to recreate and that his dream is that potential counterfeiters “will get a look at this note, just throw their hands in the air, and say, ‘We won’t even try.’ ”
The new $100 bill also contains top-secret “security inks” designed to stymie counterfeiters. These inks arrive at the bureau in an armored car, which transports them from SICPA Securink Corporation in Springfield. SICPA manufactures specialty inks for most of the world’s bank notes, except for those produced in North Korea and Japan. The company, based in Lausanne, Switzerland, has been supplying the bureau since 1983.