Banknotes aren’t Switzerland’s only form of cash to pique the interest of criminals.
While Swiss National Bank officials field accusations that their 1,000-franc bills facilitate illegal activity, their coinage colleagues at Swissmint have a headache of a different sort. Forgeries of the highest-denomination 5-franc ($5) coin have surged in the past two years, with criminals seeking to profit from one of the world’s most valuable pieces of metal money circulated for daily use.
In 2014, 14,000 forged 5-franc pieces were removed from circulation. Last year the toll was 7,600, official statistics show. That compares with less than 1,000 annually in previous years.
“Of course the crooks look where they can make the most money,” said Swissmint Managing Director Marius Haldimann, speaking from his office in a belle epoque building in Bern. “Most fakes come from Italy. Given the material costs, you really need organized crime to produce them.”
In one instance, a group of Italians was stopped at the border, their small Smart car weighed down with 5,000 fake 5-franc pieces.
While some fakes are of high quality, others are easily detected.
“Even the man on the street can tell something is amiss,” Haldimann said, dropping a forged piece onto a table. It made an odd, tinny clunk.
Despite the appeal of faking Swiss coins, the incidence of forgeries is relatively low.
Just 1 in a thousand 5-franc coins turn out not to be legitimate, Swissmint says. That compares to 2.6 percent of 1-pound pieces, according to Britain's Royal Mint. The low Swiss ratio is due in part to the alloy used, the high-quality workmanship, and the design, which includes security features.
Swissmint's Haldimann said demand for coins has been growing, resulting in annual production rising by a third in the past two decades. Population growth and an increase in tourism were two reasons for the increase. Special events can also play a role, with demand for 1, 2 and 5 franc pieces rising at the time of the Euro 2008 soccer championship.
“For a beer and a bratwurst in pricey Switzerland, you need high denomination coins,” Haldimann said.
In Pictures: Inside the Swiss Mint
Swissmint makes all of Switzerland's coins, and with 5.3 billion in circulation the total weighs 17,000 metric tons.