Fernando Fernández, a Mexican Banknote Engraver and Printer……and his relationship with the Bank of Mexico

by Cedrian López-Bosch

Back in 2015 I was intrigued with an item auctioned in Mexico City. I have never been interested in promotional notes, but this one had something that drew my attention: it looked too similar to the American Bank Note Company printed banknotes issued by the Bank of Mexico to be a coincidence. However, in more than two years researching this bank’s issues, I did not recall coming across the name of the promotional note’s engraver and printer: Fernando Fernández.

There were not many references about him online. Most sites reproduced the same story, Frida Kahlo’s father asked his friend Fernando Fernández to take her as a drawing and engraving apprentice at his atelier in 1925. Another telling anecdote was that he imported some English presses that were used to print pound banknotes in the 19th century, and would later reproduce engravings from Francisco Toledo and José Luis Cuevas in Mexico. I also found a promotional stamp presenting Fernández as a Banknote Engraver in Mexico and New York, with an image previously used on Mexican banknotes.

As I dug further, a couple of friends told me that a few years ago a box of files belonging to Mr. Fernández was sold by the pound, and I decided to track those items. I found a few, dispersed through different buyers. There were some advertising cards, pictures and manuals of banknote printing presses, patents, stationery, greeting cards, small intaglio prints, patterns and guilloches samples, professional and private correspondence, and a few invoices. Apparently there were also letters mentioning that Fernández worked for, or tried to bring U.S. engravers to Mexico (including John Wallace), and that he was related to the engraving of the vignette used on the new 20 pesos banknote, but I have not been able to see any of those documents yet. Finally, one of the file’s owners talked about Fernández’s relationship with Mr. Alfonso Quiroz Cuarón, the head of the Department for Special Investigations at the Bank of Mexico. Below there is a summary of these findings with some illustrations of the materials I managed to see.

Born in 1886, Fernández was trained as engraver in the U.S. and established in his hometown of Puebla, where he got married in 1908. He worked for the Ministry of Finance’s Government Printing Office under Carranza’s Constitutionalist movement and became head of the engraving department. There, in 1916, he designed the one and two pesos notes that were printed in Mexico complementing the so-called infalsificable (non-counterfeitable) bills as well as postage stamps Several stamps between 1915 and 1918 are attributed to him for the Great Men and Venues and Monuments series. Nevertheless, a newspaper article also mentions others bearing archeological sites, which were issued until the mid-1920s. (El Nacional, “El arte del grabado retrospectivo aplicado a los valores mexicanos constituye una novedad y honra al obrero nacional”, 19 January 1917). He was also responsible for procuring machinery and inputs. In early 1918 he was commissioned by the Finance Ministry to arrange with the American Bank Note Company the technical details of the printing of the banknotes for the Banco de la República Mexicana, the first attempt at a single bank of i s sue after the Mexican Revolution, which was never established. He also prepared the printing of these banknotes in Mexico, which included requesting the BANBC in Canada to produce steel plates, and request the production of special watermarked paper and purchase special printing presses in the US. These notes were not printed but one of the engravings was used in the vales of the Comisión Monetaria in 1920. With this background, later on he started an import and export company of printing equipment, paper, and special inks for banknotes, while he also did some steel engraving in Mexico City and in New York. The Great Depression eventually forced him to settle in Mexico permanently.

In 1929, he founded the company Grabados Fernando Fernández with his son, Rubén Fernández, whose signature, by the way, appears on the auctioned promotional note. The company became  one of the most renowned fine printers in Mexico and still prints stationery and business cards, but apparently no relatives work there anymore and no one there seems to have kept any track of their history or archives.

As deeply involved in the security printing world as he was, he would have been able to market in different countries some American and English state of the art printing presses from Waite, W.H. Chapman & Co. and R. Hoe & Co. According to one of the promotional items by R. Hoe & Co. in these files, this company branded itself as “the largest printing machine manufacturers & engineers in the world for bank notes, postage stamps, bonds. etc.” See Fred Schwan’s section of “Uncoupled” in Paper Money #296, March-April 2015., and security printing machinery produced by himself, such as pantographs, geometrical lathes, manual and hydraulic transfer machines, etc. He held a 1939 Mexican patent for a security tab for cheques, and two US patents for an intaglio printing apparatushe invented in 1941 US 2351030 A (www.google.com/patents/US2351030) and an additional method of plate printing in 1944 US 2427556 A (www.google.com/patents/US2427556). With such an equipment in his company, he was one of the best equipped security printers in Mexico.

But when and how did he become involved with the Bank of Mexico? Apparently that happened after several attempts, in different moments and capacities over a 40-year period. As part of a research project I am currently undertaking, I was able to find at the Bank’s historical archives a translation of a reference letter sent in 1926 by the Reichsdrückerei (German National Printing Office) to the Mexican chargé d’affaires in Berlin, stating that he was proficient in steel engraving, and that he had trained their employees in the use of geometrical lathes and transfer machines AHBanxico, Box #3892, File #12. I managed to find some records from his trip to Germany earlier that year, and among his correspondence there were some letters from one of his trainees, describing in detail the kind of work he taught. Nevertheless, there is no sign of any specific job resulting from this letter.

Almost a decade later, when Mexico changed from large to small-size banknotes, the Bank of Mexico approached (and/or was approached by) different security printers, including Mr. Fernández. In a letter addressed to Mr. Gonzalo Robles, General Director of the Bank, dated 12 December 1935, he sent a promotional note suggesting that Mexican paper money could be engraved and printed locallyidem.. The description seems to point out that this might be from the same printing or even the one auctioned, as the letter has a second signature of Fernández, with a handwritten legend saying that the promotional note was returned to him. Interestingly, the portrait of the boy in the promotional note is similiar to one used on Canadian banknotes made by the British American Bank Note Company (“BABNC”), the same company he asked to produce the plates for the Banco de la República Mexicana. The American Bank Note Company remained as the sole printer of the Bank of Mexico’s banknotes and to my knowledge all the engravings were made by this company’s employees, not by Fernández: thus this second approach was also fruitless.

A third attempt occurred in the late fifties. Since the creation of the Bank of Mexico, in order for a banknote to be issued this institution had to comply with a set of requirements. This was certified by a Government comptroller or inspector and then the banknotes were sent to the Ministry of Finance to be stamped with two seals, one from this Ministry and another one from the Bank, alongside other features (series letters, dates, signatures, etc.). This work was done at the Ministry’s security printing office where Fernández worked around 1915, an office currently known as Talleres de Impresión de Estampillas y Valores (“TIEV”). During the 1950s, with a growing GDP in Mexico, the capacity of the TIEV was rapidly overloaded, putting pressure on the Bank of Mexico to fulfill the demand for banknotes. Thus, the Bank considered purchasing its own printing presses to print those seals, of course with strong opposition from TIEV´s union. At the end of that decade, Mr. Fernández presented a memo recommending that the Bank purchase the up-to-date machines, and offering his services to create the original plates, training and overseeing the personnel that could do the printing AHBanxico, Box #3916, File #10. This would increase this process’ efficiency, productivity and security. Again, it is not clear whether he succeeded, as these seals continued to be printed at the TIEV until the bank established its printing factory, except for the lower denomination notes which were requested to be fully finished by the American Bank Note Company. Nevertheless, it might be possible that the Bank could have purchased some printing machines to print the other features such as dates and countersigns, which were initially printed by the TIEV.

While I have not been able to determine whether Fernández was directly involved with the Bank of Mexico in the fight against counterfeiting, he was certainly close to Mr. Quiroz Cuarón, in charge of this task at the Bank. Through the intermediation of the latter, he gave expert advice authenticating notes and identifying forgeries for some Central American banks, and did some steel engravings for other clients in the region.

Finally, in the early sixties when the Bank of Mexico decided to establish its own printing factory, one of the challenges was not only to build the facilities and equip them, where he might have been involved, but to design the banknotes, engrave the plates for them, and train Mexican personnel. The design of the first notes was made by Reyes Santana, a Mexican designer who was trained a few years before at the Giori Engraving Institute in Milan, but the engravings were made by different engravers in Europe, including Mr. Mario Baiardi. The first note to be printed at the Bank of Mexico’s Banknote Printing Factory was the 10 pesos note bearing the image of national hero Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla and other symbols of the independence. The person in charge of bringing the design to the Organization Giori in 1965 was precisely Mr. Fernando Fernández, who was requested to “watch the techniques used to make the original plates both intaglio and offset” AHBanxico, Box #3897, File #7. I assume the invoices in his files dated between February and August 1965 correspond precisely for these professional services rendered to the Bank of Mexico. The mention to the “new 20 pesos note” on his files may also be related to the design of such denomination after his experience in Europe.

Thus, it seems that after several attempts, Mr. Fernández (who was convinced his true calling was as a banknote engraver and printer) managed to work for the Bank of Mexico. I do not know whether he performed any other activity, although his company printed the 50-anniversary commemorative book about the headquarters of the Bank of Mexico in 1975.