In 2016 authorities confiscated over 8,000 counterfeit bills and coins with a total value—or non-value—of almost 400,000 francs. 12 people were convicted of counterfeiting, and 95 of circulating false money.
The problem with all of these counterfeits, though, is that they weren’t any good. Over 1,000 of the false notes were color photocopies, and the rest were made with ink-jet printers. And a photocopier and an ink-jet printer just aren’t up to this job.
Swiss notes are equipped with a vast array of security features, from holograms to embossings to perforations—yes, tiny holes in the paper, in the shape of a number or a cross. Some features are visible only in ultraviolet or infrared light. The newest bills are designed to transfer traces of color onto white paper when rubbed.
A glossy strip runs across the bottom of the new 50-franc note. It contains, in shiny silver, a map of Switzerland, a drawing of the Alps, the names of the main four-thousand-meter peaks in Switzerland, and the number 50. Tilt the note backwards, and the outlines of Switzerland and the Alps appear in rainbow colors, while little shining Swiss crosses become visible inside the number 50. Tilt the note from left to right: red and green numbers appear on four different lines. As you tilt further, the numbers move across the note in opposite directions.
Another security feature is the use of micro-lettering. Texts in tiny, tiny writing—visible only with a powerful magnifying glass—are hidden at various points on the note in four different languages. Two of those texts on the 8th series 200-franc note are buried in the hair of the man looking out at us with weary eyes from the brownish-yellow background. That man is C.F. Ramuz, and the texts read:
Charles Ferdinand Ramuz, one of the greatest storytellers of our time, is considered the founder of modern literature in French Switzerland. His work depicts people in tragic conflict with the powers of nature. His finely wrought language employs modes of expression borrowed from both painting and film.
This microtext fails to mention that one of Ramuz’s best-loved works—as we have already seen (Question X)—is a semi-historical novel about a very successful counterfeiter.
So assuming we want to counterfeit Swiss money well—how hard is it? I asked Mark Turnage, the CEO of Dark Owl Security Services. Here’s what he said:
Any object made by one man can within reason be “remade” by another. With enough resources and technology anything can be recreated—counterfeited. However, the reality is that there aren’t unlimited resources, and some things are much, much harder to counterfeit than others. The Swiss currency would be in that category. The range and number of security features found in the notes, as well as the overall design, certainly puts the Swiss currency at the very top of the list of the world’s most secure and difficult-to-counterfeit notes. Like many other things Swiss, they are immaculately designed, extremely well produced, and beautiful to the eye. Counterfeiters beware.
On the other side of the fence stands Hans-Jürgen Kuhl—a graphic designer turned counterfeiter who was undone in 2006 when a forklift at a dump in Cologne poked through a garbage bag and revealed shredded misprints of 100-dollar bills—and, unhappily for Kuhl, an invoice with his name and address on it. Kuhl’s 16.5 million false dollars were, according to the German Federal Criminal Police Office, “terrifyingly perfect.” The judge who condemned him to six years imprisonment simultaneously praised him as an “extraordinary graphic artist.”
Asked by the Swiss online news service Watson if the new Swiss notes are secure, Kuhl replied
Certainly not. All of the safety features can be counterfeited nowadays. It’s just a question of effort. The silver hologram on the new notes is only about 1.5 centimeters wide—that’s ridiculous. It makes it easy for counterfeiters.
But Kuhl doesn’t think false francs are worth the bother.
The market is simply too small—no one worth his salt would want to do it. Why should they? With the same expenditure of effort you can make dollars or euros, which you can circulate in many more countries.
So he advises taking the middle way:
First you need a good photocopier, and they aren’t cheap—at least 10,000 francs. You can easily get a suitable natural paper, one that won’t glow blue under a UV lamp. If you want to get rid of a banknote in a bar at night, that’s all you need.
Yet another middle way doesn’t involve printing anything at all, but rather goes directly to the source. Swiss banknotes are printed by the company Orell-Füssli in Zurich. In the summer of 2012, 1,800 almost finished 1,000-franc notes (see Question 20) disappeared from the press. Two men were later arrested at a currency exchange in London trying to cash in 37 of the incomplete notes—which were noticed because they had no serial numbers. Orell Füssli promised to “painstakingly review its security measures in detail.”
As well they might. For, according to Edwin Schmidheiny of Accent Brand Consultants, Swiss bills are more than a store of value. “As a well-known financial center, our banknotes are an excellent opportunity to demonstrate our global presence, and are an expression of our pride.” As the publication MK Marketing & Kommunikation puts it, banknotes are a country’s calling card.
Are all the expensive Swiss security features worth it? Perhaps not to prevent counterfeits: a Kuhl can outwit them, and an amateur would be outwitted by much less. But they sure do make a splash for the Swiss brand on the international stage—and that, perhaps, is their ultimate purpose.
 Hold one up to a light and you’ll see.