In France, Jean Paul Gaultier Styles the Euro
Designs for the limited-edition coins included a corset-wrapped Eiffel Tower and a Gallic rooster in a Breton top.
PARIS — Over his 40-year career, the fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier has had his share of odd requests but until last year, he had never been asked to dress a coin.
His imagination has produced outrageous concepts like fitting Madonna into a pointy conical bra, slipping the bearded transgender Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst into a couture dress and sending models down a runway lined with menorahs for his fall 1993 Chic Rabbis collection.
Still, when the Monnaie de Paris called, Mr. Gaultier was taken aback. The oldest institution in France, which produces the country’s coinage, wanted the veteran bad boy of fashion to design a limited-edition set of coins.
“It was such a surprising proposition that I had no choice but to accept,” Mr. Gaultier said.
The Monnaie de Paris, or Paris Mint, dates back 12 centuries — to the year 864 — when Charles the Bald, grandson of Charlemagne, ordered the creation of a coining workshop in Paris to serve as the country’s foremost mint.
In 2010, intending to spotlight its heritage and exceptional savoir-faire, the mint began asking the best craftsmen in France to produce limited-edition coins.
Some, like Mr. Gaultier’s, would have wide circulation. Others, produced with the label Excellence à la Française, would appeal primarily to collectors and connoisseurs of craftsmanship; its participants have included Cartier, Baccarat, Van Cleef & Arpels, and the porcelain company Manufacture Nationale de Sèvres.
“The idea was to marry two different know-hows to produce new objects,” Christophe Beaux, then the chief executive of the mint, said in an interview last year. (Aurélien Rousseau now holds the post.)
La France par Jean Paul Gaultier, as the new collection was called, was introduced to the public in March, with some additional pieces released in September. The designs reflected the designer’s signature mix of irreverence and humor: the Eiffel Tower wrapped in a corset, a leggy model dressed in Napoleon’s First Consul uniform, a pair of musclebound sailors in Gallic striped sweaters arm wrestling, a corset-wearing hen dancing with a Gallic rooster in a Breton top, and a corseted punk Marianne (the female figure that is a symbol of the French Republic) kicking up her cancan skirt before the Moulin Rouge.
The collection included 25,000 200-euro gold coins, 25,000 €50 colorized silver coins, 50,000 €50 plain silver coins and 1.34 million €10 coins.
“Creative freedom is very important to me,” Mr. Gaultier said. “To my surprise, I discovered at La Monnaie a place that was both creative and free. It is a fascinating place that promotes tradition yet functions with cutting-edge technology.”
Showcasing its traditions and technology for the public was part of the reason that, in 2011, the mint began extensive renovations of its site on the Quai de Conti along the Seine, in the Sixth Arrondissement. (Louis XV ordered the construction, and the mint moved into the completed building in 1775.)
The work was finished last fall, allowing the institution to offer tours of its museum and craftsmanship demonstrations. “We have completed the renovations and made our workshops visible to the public,” said Claude Giffin, the mint’s marketing and development director. “The Monnaie has been a secret place until now. We are opening our doors and making this a living place.”
The on-site workshops include engraving and striking ateliers as well as jewelry and enameling workshops that employ about 300 people and annually produce 100,000 medals, 120,000 gold coins and 130,000 official decorations.
(Ordinary coins are produced in the mint’s factory in Pessac, a town in southwestern France; paper currency is produced by national central banks in the eurozone.)
The renovations added a shop and cafe, and created space for art exhibitions. The mint also gained a notable anchor tenant, the French chef Guy Savoy, whose on-site restaurant opened in 2015 and now has three Michelin stars.
Last fall, when Mr. Savoy was invited to participate in the Excellence program, he chose the egg as the central motif for his coins.
His pièce de résistance was an amusing €5,000 coin designed as a fried egg decorated with a slice of truffle, with only 11 copies made.
“The egg, banal as it may seem, is a cooking ingredient with infinite possibilities,“ Mr. Savoy said. “It takes extreme precision to cook an egg. The same precision went into producing these coins. You can almost feel the gold yolk wobble when you pick one up.”
Joaquin Jimenez, the mint’s creative director and its principal engraver, said, “Collaborations are a chance for us to confront métiers we rarely come across.
“The challenge for us is to take a flat coin and give it a different volume,” he said. “Each collaboration calls for its own special techniques.”
That observation was echoed last year by Nicolas Bos, the chief executive of Van Cleef & Arpels, when he introduced the jewelry house’s coin collection observing its 110th anniversary, produced in collaboration with the mint.
“As jewelers, we are used to three-dimensionality, volume and color,” he said. “Here, we faced the challenge of adapting our drawings to a coin’s flat surface while preserving an element of jewelry.”
The collection was highlighted by an 11-piece edition of €5,000 coins of pure gold, each weighing one kilogram (2.2 pounds) and set with a diamond-studded butterfly. There also was a set of €500 gold coins with butterfly inserts in mother-of-pearl, and €10 silver coins in the quatrefoil shape of the jeweler’s Alhambra line.
“The collaboration was eye-opening for us,” Mr. Bos said. “It was love at first sight between the engravers and our jewelers because we realized we come from the same world and speak the same language.”
The collectible coins, available only in the mint’s shop and on its website, are stamped with a face value, making them legal tender in Europe, though their retail price is much higher.
The €5,000 coin by Van Cleef, for instance, cost €130,000, or $153,920.
“You could theoretically use that coin to pay for things in a store,” Mr. Beaux said last year. “But I would not recommend it given the price a kilo of gold.”
But Mr. Gaultier’s €10 coins, sold at face value in post offices and tobacco shops around France, are perfectly good legal tender for a bagful of croissants at the local boulangerie.