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Jean-Pierre Droz

The first of Soho Mint’s foreign engravers

Jean-Pierre Droz 1746-1823

Jean-Pierre Droz was born in 1746 in La Chaux de Fonds, in the Canton of Neuchâtel in Switzerland. His family were renowned mechanicians, known for their automata - highly popular at the time, and the town itself was a centre of the highly skilled manufacture of watches.

La Chaux de Fonds is only a few miles from the French border and, for a young man of skill and ambition, the opportunities in that much larger country were probably very appealing. Droz moved to France in 1764, and eventually became known to Pierre-Simon-Benjamin Duvivier, Engraver General of Coins at the Mint in Paris. It is thought that his first interests there were in the mechanics of minting with work being done on the main screw of the balancier presses then in use; the performance of the mills used to roll the metal sheets for the production of coin blanks; and the use of collars to contain the spread of metal as the coins were struck.

Droz is known to us, however, as an engraver as well as a mechanic, and his range of skills was demonstrated in what has become his most famous work from this period, the ‘Ecu de Calonne’ dating from 1786, seen at the left. This was a pattern for a six-livre silver piece, prepared in response to a proposal by Charles Alexandre de Calonne, Controller General of Finances to King Louis XVI, for a wide-ranging reform of tax and currency in France. Significantly, the coin was struck within a six-part collar which, in addition to ensuring the absolute roundness of the piece, also enabled an edge inscription to be added at the point of striking. The pieces are, today, rare and highly desirable. In the event, Droz’s excellent pattern was not adopted, and the experience left Droz rather dissatisfied with his position in Paris.

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In his disappointment, Droz compared himself to Nicolas Briot for the little attention which was paid, in France, to the improvements he had made to the mechanics of coining.

However, it is not my fault; I have given knowledge of all my means of manufacture. The test has been made, not without success. No doubt the day has not yet arrived when someone will protect the perfected invention which marks coins on the edge at the same time as the head and the reverse, and it is to my great regret that I saw myself forced to go to England with the means of coinage which were appreciated and welcomed by two of the most distinguished scholars of this country so rich in industry, Messrs Watt and Boulton. The dismissal of M de Calonne having left me with no hope, I determined to accept the offers that were made to me to pass to England, where I carried out the greater part of the means of perfection.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the English Channel, events were following a somewhat different course. The rapidly increasing pace of industrialisation was putting demands on the coinage which it could not meet. Silver was old, scarce and much below weight - the result of the Government refusing to align the Mint price for silver, set in 1603, with the actual price of silver in the market. Copper had last been struck in 1775, but was available only at the Royal Mint - so for much of the country, poor, underweight forgeries were all that was available.

Matthew Boulton had first become involved with potential solutions to the problem in December 1783, when he received a letter from John Moon, superintendent of Halsall Mill in Lancashire, who wrote to him asking for the preparation of dies for penny and  two penny tokens. At this point, Boulton had no minting facilties, and it is believed that his contribution was limited to the production of the dies for the Halsall Penny.

By 1787, it appears that Boulton was convinced of two things. Firstly that the economic distress caused by the lack of decent coin could be overcome by producing large quantities of good quality pieces - enough to drive out all the bad ones in a reversal of Gresham’s law, and secondly that his and Watt’s steam engines would be the best way of producing these coins cheaply and effectively.

Boulton’s first foray into coining was a series of one, two and three keping pieces for the East India Company factory at Bencoolen in Sumatra, struck in 1786 and 1787. Boulton had no mint, but he did have a rolling mill. The blanks were produced at Soho and shipped off to London for striking. This was obviously inefficient, and was seen to be so at the time, and the resulting coins were hardly an improvement over anything else then available.

Overcoming these problems were undoubtedly the motivation for the development of plans for a steam powered mint to be located at Soho.

But before anything came of this, Boulton and Watt travelled to France, as consultant engineers to the Machine de Marly, a large water pumping system built in 1684 by Louis XIV to provide water to the Palace of Versailles and its fountains. The two Britons arrived in November 1786, and remained in Paris until January 1787.

It is uncertain how Droz, Boulton and Watt first met, or were introduced. One suggestion has it that Droz, unhappy with his treatment by the Paris Mint over the Ecu de Calonne, introduced himself, having heard of Boulton’s interest in striking coins, and offered his skills and his machinery for Boulton’s use.

Whatever, Boulton and Watt, together with the American Minister Thomas Jefferson, visited Droz at the Monnaie de Paris, and were shown the six-part collar which Droz had invented. Droz also claimed to have invented an improved press to use his collar mechanism, and to have invented a method of multiplying dies, thus reducing the costs of die production for large issues of coins.

Boulton and Watt came away from Paris impressed with Droz and his developments.

It also seems that Jefferson was on a mission, too, to recruit Droz for the fledgling United States Mint, but whatever the blandishments offered it appears that Droz preferred to remain on this side of the Atlantic.

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The Halsall Penny
Droz's Collar

The relatively poor quality of the Bencoolen pieces meant that Boulton would face real competition for coinage business from other manufacturers, so from his return to Soho in January 1787 work began on planning the first Soho steam powered mint. From the beginning, Boulton believed that he would need the assistance of Droz in the perfecting of his equipment. By June 1787 Boulton’s principal competitor was seen to be Thomas Williams who, by various legal devices, had become the proprietor of the Parys Mine in Anglesey, then the world’s richest source of copper, while he had become Wales’ richest man and the issuer of the famous Anglesey ‘Druid’ tokens. Williams visited Droz that June to determine if Droz had any agreement with Boulton, and to entice him away, come what may. However Droz decided to stay with Boulton.

Meanwhile, Boulton had become convinced that a new British copper coinage was in prospect, and work on the steam mint increased in tempo, as did the letters to Droz encouraging him to leave France and travel to England, failing which he should start work on a head of King George III, for which images and die steel were sent.

In what would become typical of Droz’s pattern of behaviour, weeks went by without a reply, which then comprised  complaints about the images. But as Droz’s prospects in France diminished with the fall of de Calonne, his dependence on Boulton increased. He reported that he had improved his six-part collar, and would leave his remuneration to Mr Boulton’s famous generosity.

Correspondence continued throughout the summer of 1787, with Boulton insisting that work should begin on pattern halfpenny dies, which would be used in propositioning the British Government, which was now interested, while at the same time agreeing extremely generous fees for the rights to use Droz’s designs for coin presses.

Thomas Williams of Llanidan

1737-1802

‘The Copper King’

The exchange of correspondence between Boulton and Droz continued through the summer of 1787 and eventually, in September, Droz came to Soho to visit Boulton to discuss the way forward. Boulton managed to enthuse Droz, and he was apparently suitably inspired on his return to Paris on 11th October 1787 - leaving only a few trifling debts in London for Boulton to settle.

Boulton moved into top gear with the construction of his mint. Orders for the presses were placed with Hodgells, Harrison and Greenbaugh, and the building to house them was completed on 19th November. He wrote to Droz asking for an update on the pattern halfpence. Droz was evasive; the patterns were only required in April next, weren’t they?

By December 1787, Droz’s house at Soho was ready, but unoccupied. Boulton was having to use delaying tactics with the Government over the missing patterns which he had promised, and Droz was not delivering - he had lost Boulton’s instructions on the size and weight of the halfpenny patterns.

Then, in the spring of 1788, it turned out that Droz’s designs for the coining presses would not work properly. Boulton told Droz that his own engineers would solve those problems; what was needed urgently were the pattern halfpence - which still did not appear.

Notwithstanding all these deficiencies, on 15th March 1788, Boulton offered Droz a formal contract. He would pay £500 for the six presses he proposed to build to Droz’s modified design, in addition to £200 already paid. Droz would come to Soho to work for two years at a salary of £500 a year, housing provided. Droz promised to appear by the beginning of May 1788 - provided Boulton paid a further two or three hundred pounds to settle his affairs in France.

Droz did not appear on time, but he sent a consignment of fifty four pattern halfpence, struck in Paris on gilt flans supplied by Boulton, with an apology that as there had been problems with the presses, they had been struck by hand. Boulton took his patterns to London, and lobbied everyone who might have influence from the Prime Minister down. All to no avail - the official word was that issues relating to the gold coinage would have to be addressed first.

Droz’s first pattern halfpence of 1788 are extremely fine, greatly superior to anything produced previously, but at this moment in time neither Droz nor Boulton could produce them in any quantity; they were delightful presentation pieces.

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What Boulton, and Droz, did not know was that the real difficulty with the pattern halfpennies was almost certainly caused by the Royal Mint, which did not like them; they were painfully aware that the standards of engraving and striking were far superior to anything that their in-house engraver Lewis Pingo, and his hand operated screw presses could produce. But whether or not this was the main issue, the entire project for a new copper coinage was put on hold by the fact that by the summer of 1788 King George III had become seriously ill - the nature of his illness is still in doubt - but no-one was willing to commit to a new coinage when there was uncertainty about whose portrait any new coins should show.

By this time, too, Boulton had spent over £2,000 on his Mint, and with no contract in prospect he felt the need to economise. Unfortunately, Droz chose this particular moment to move to England, along with his perruquier and his workman, Duret, and his mistress Mlle Labonne who would share Droz’s house. At the beginning of October 1788 the people passed through Immigration with no problem but Customs impounded Droz’s baggage until the purposes of the various pieces of equipment were explained. The Royal Mint officials, who may have been behind this activity, did not examine  essential parts of the equipment, much to Droz’s and Boulton’s relief.

By the spring of 1789, King George began to recover his health, and Boulton decided that the production and sale of a commemorative medal would give Droz and the Soho Mint something to do, and would generate income and, hopefully, profit, and would demonstrate what the new combination could achieve. This medal is of excellent quality, and was issued in gold, silver, copper-gilt, copper and Barton’s metal - silver overlaid on copper somewhat in the manner of Sheffield plate. Distribution of these started by the end of April 1789, and comprised more or less the total of Droz’s useful work at Soho. Unfortunately there is no record of the number struck, but Dr Richard Doty in his work ‘Soho Mint and the Industrialisation of Money’ has estimated ‘a few thousand.’

For the rest of his time at Soho, Droz was engaged on the production of more pattern halfpennies, and patterns for silver sixpence and shilling pieces. The halfpenny patterns of 1790 were, again, of very superior workmanship, but Droz was still relying on an old press for their production. Droz had, of course, been employed as a mechanic as well as an engraver, and the lack of progress in this direction led Boulton’s own staff to the conclusion that there was no point in relying on Droz for the improvements expected to their existing mint machinery. They began to make their own advances - effectively sidelining Droz.

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Even before the end of 1789, Boulton was looking for alternatives to Droz. He wrote to a Parisian craftsman, Jean Baptiste Barthélemy Dupeyrat, for advice with regard to die sinking and copying. By March 1790, having been advised by many of his associates, including his business partner James Watt, that the relationship with Droz was going to end in grief, Boulton wrote again to Dupeyrat asking him to find a new Artist - though it seems that he already had one in mind: Rambert Dumarest.

On 18th June 1790, the matter of Boulton and Droz was referred to a panel of arbitrators for a mutually binding decision. The panel comprised, on Boulton’s part, of John Motteaux, a former director of the East India Company, and on Droz’s part Justin Vuilliamy, Clockmaker to King George III. The two principal arbitrators chose a third, Sir Joseph Banks. Vuilliamy later withdrew, and the final decision was arrived at by Motteux and Banks. The decision handed down specified the outstanding work which Droz was to complete by 30th September 1790, and the payments which Boulton was due to make for Droz’s services.

Boulton’s suspicions of Droz led him, now, to register a patent for his steam operated presses, as developed by his own staff, and it made quite clear that Droz’s principal invention, the segmented collar, formed no part of the patent.

By late summer 1790, Dumarest had arrived at Soho, and was being employed as an engraver, though he remained for less than a year. Droz, in the meantime, remained at Soho, failing to meet his obligations under the terms of the arbitration. He finally left in March 1791 to return to Paris. His own account of this departure conveys nothing of the acrimony which surrounded the event:

The competition opened at that time for the place of Engraver General of Coins (at the Paris Mint), and together with the strong urges of my friends finally determined me to leave London. As soon as I arrived in Paris, I hastened to compete, in the conviction in which I was that there were no more cabals or intrigues. I was wrong.

Indeed he was wrong, as the post went to Augustin Dupré who replaced his former mentor Duvivier as Engraver General of Coins.

Droz did not, however, remain unemployed. He completed a large number of dies for the ‘dry’ stamping of the seals on the assignat paper currency of the revolution, and is credited with the design of at least one - the 25 sols note of January 1792.

With the rise of Napoléon, Droz’s undoubted talents were utilised with a range of excellent portraits of ‘The Corsican Tyrant’ on both medals and coins.

Droz himself was depicted on a commemorative medal issued after his death in 1823. The powerful portrait was engraved by one of Droz’s juniors at the Paris Mint, Joseph Eugène Dubois, and appears at the head of this page. It seems to be the only likeness of Droz.

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Dumarest

Are there any conclusions to be drawn from this story? Droz was a man of undoubted talent - his surviving works show this very clearly. Following his return from Soho, he spent a number of years working with and for the Paris Mint, apparently with such harmony that negative accounts seem to be absent. And yet his relationship with Boulton and Soho was, from the start, no better than fractured.

Boulton, it would seem, took considerable pains to make matters as easy as possible for Droz. He was paid very well, provided with a house, and given the opportunity to be in from the start in developing world-leading technology. Yet the relationship produced very little of note. Was it merely a case of Droz’s artistic temperament disagreeing with Boulton’s essentially practical and commercial outlook? Simple incompatibility? We can probably never know for sure, but it seems likely.

For more a more detailed account of the relations between Boulton and Droz go to our page

‘The Early Years’

The Early Years

James Watt

1736-1819

Thomas Jefferson

1743-1826

American Minister in Paris

Matthew Boulton

1728-1809