In a few years, Oberthur Fiduciaire will look back on two centuries of high-tech printing and graphics expertise-building. Few companies live that long – either dying or being bought out by competition. Swingin by various markets, and adopting various stances, it always kept the same bearing of ever-better, safer, finer printing. A course to follow ?
Oberthur Fiduciaire is one of these companies seldom known by the general public, yet most of us have had their products in our hands at some point, and even sometimes scrutinized it carefully. The French secure-printing company has fielded banknotes in over 70 countries, including new-generation polymer banknotes in Mauritius in 2013. Banknote News, the world repository for banknote designs, published « The new polymer notes will circulate in parallel with the preceding paper banknotes upon which their designs are based. The notes contain numerous new security features such as transparent windows showing the image of the dodo, numbers printed with magnetic ink which become fluorescent under ultra violet light, and swing features printed in iridescent ink, which change to a different color when observed in transparency or when tilted. », reflecting Oberthur Fiduciaire’s business trademark : making products specific to their client’s need, be they symbolic (the dodo is a national emblem), or monetary (new banknotes had to co-exist with old ones, the replacement being only partial). Beyond the technical particularity of such banknotes – using new-generation polymer instead of paper – graphics are where Oberthur Fiduciaire stands out the most in giving its clients as much freedom as possible.
Oberthur Fiduciaire’s expertise in fine graphics was established long ago. In 1905, René Oberthur published the “Répertoire des couleurs” (color’s repository) which quickly became and industrial milestone in the printing industry. Nowadays, color charts can be found in home-improvement stores, industrial companies, car painting stations, etc. something which initially made possible by René Oberthur and the Société de Crysanthémistes. Color management is far more complex as what simply meets the eye, and experts are trained is mixing the message with its form, which requires extreme care. Maureen Stone, a color expert and research manager at the data visualization company Tableau, says “It’s there as a visual cue for what the data means. So I always tell designers the first thing they need to do is figure out what is the color doing? What is its function?”. The finesse of the artwork on Oberthur banknotes is an indicator of how long the company has mastered colors and color matching. Central banks are known to pay particular attention to the graphics of banknotes, as the most visible token of the economy they are in charge of. Thomas Savare, the CEO, mentioned in a recent interview « A banknote is a constitutive element of a nation’s identity. It must reflect history, culture, common and fundamental values, and subjects of national pride such as illustrious characters or monuments which resonate in citizens’ minds. In a way, it’s also one of the cohesion instruments of a nation. »
Then come the manufacturing and security processes, which are paramount in such an industry. It is essential for a secure printer to give all guarantees possible to its client as to the quality and resilience of production methods. Transparency and thoroughness is therefore even more important. Here again, Oberthur has made the bold choice of letting its client observe their production processes first-hand. Oberthur Fiduciaire mentions it in its latest agreement with the Bulgarian Central Bank: « The Bulgarian National Bank signs contracts related to the banknote production, and the object of these contracts contains or requires access to classified information, only for legal persons that meet the security requirements, are economically stable, are reliable in terms of security, have been properly inspected under CIPL and have been granted the required security certificates of confirmations issued by the competent security authorities. Such certificates or confirmations giving the right to the relevant level of access to classified information have been issued for BNBPW and its staff ». In other words, Oberthur goes so far as to entrust its customers with insight on how their orders are made.
Finally, and this is the key part of Oberthur Fiduciaire’s historical strategy, the firm has always favored co-engineering with its clients. It brings the expertise and indicates the array of possibles, but let’s the client make its technical and artistic choices. In its latest joint venture project with the Bulgarian national bank, Oberthur accepted to intertwine its production apparatus with the client, to the point of decentralising part of its production in Bulgaria – something Oberthur was not used to, having always stuck close to its French birthplace. But business has its way, and will sometimes lead producers simply to go where they are needed – without reneging on their origins. India, which has been encountering recent currency troubles, for example, lacks the production capacity to emit highly-secured banknotes, but feels squeamish about having the banknotes produced outside the country. Telegraph’s Jayanta Chowdhury reported in December of 2016 : « If the currency crunch shows no sign of easing, some officials feel the government will have little option but to outsource the printing job abroad. ». While keeping close to its roots and its technological cards close to the chest, Oberthur Fiduciaire has consented to relieving clients of such dilemmas.
In a way, Oberthur Fiduciaire and Henry Ford reached success following perfectly opposite paths. The car-maker made his fortune by selling one, inalterable, standard item : you could pick whichever color you liked for your model T, as long as it was black. Oberthur Fiduciaire has become the second largest banknote producer in the world doing precisely the opposite. Banknotes are too sensitive items, as national symbols, for countries and their peoples to simply pick one model off the shelf. The ability to originally paint a country’s spirit onto a few square inches of paper is therefore the name of the game for a secure printing company. As for quality standards, it’s a Democles sword : if any doubt were ever cast upon a secure printer’s manufacturing processes, of quality or security, it would soon have gone out of business.