My wife is a jewelry artist. Sometimes she reworks, rehabs, or repurposes other pieces. Since all the people in the family know this, she is the grateful recipient of everyone’s broken and/or discarded jewelry. A while back she was given a large plastic storage bin full of collected cast offs from various kin and friends of kin.
One oldie is a bolo tie with what looks like a silver dollar set in a horseshoe. That is cool enough, since I’ve loved old coins since I was a kid, but this one is older and more worn. The date is 1804 and the easiest lettering to read says “Carolus IIII.”
Hey, a Spanish Colonial coin!
Carolus refers to Carlos IV, (sometimes Anglicized to Charles) who reigned from 1788-1808. It’s denomination is 8 Reales. It’s also known as a “trade dollar”, which makes it interesting on many levels. There are SO many cool things to learn related to this one coin… I’ll hit the high spots.
Colonial coins were minted from the 16th century through the early 19th century. This particular denomination, the 8 reales, became the primary trade currency throughout the world, and was the forerunner of the dollar coins in the U.S., as well as other countries.
These coins, especially the earlier ones that were not milled, are also the origin of “pieces of eight.” Since the value was tied to the actual weight and fineness of the silver, coins were frequently clipped into pieces. You may still hear someone refer to a quarter as “two bits.” That’s where it comes from!
The markings on the coin are interesting, too. (to me anyway… if you’re not into coins, you may want to skip this part)
On the reverse, you can find a mint mark (the M with the little o above means this one was minted in Mexico City), the denomination (8R to signify eight reales), and letters to identify the assayer (T H on this one). I think it’s fascinating that even as far back at the mid 1500’s the records mention the names of the individual assayers, who were the fellows at the mint who verified the silver’s weight and purity. The T H on my coin simply means “joint assayers” rather than a single person.
You may have noticed little glints of gold on my coin. Apparently the coin fell out of its setting at some point, and the owner only had glitter glue available. (!!!!)
Finally, if you look closely, you’ll see little holes and marks apparently stamped into the coin. These are call “chopmarks” and were used by traders merchants, and money changers to verify that the coin was genuine. A merchant who took the coin in payment might “chop” the coin by marking it with their distinctive mark. A coin could gather a high number of chopmarks over the years, that essentially cataloged it’s journey. You can find chopmarks on my coin on both the obverse and reverse (I found 13). A least couple are Chinese characters.
And that leads us to the new word: shroff
Here’s an excerpt from an article by Michael E. Marotta for CoinWeek:
Go to any Mexican restaurant and you can order rice, which is totally un-Mexican. Rice, of course, came from China. The Spanish empire of the 17th century created a trans-oceanic trade in foods, textiles, and precious metals. The Portuguese, French, Dutch and English were no less eager for China’s tea and silk. The Chinese found the westerners to be ready with silver, their own preferred money for wholesale trade and taxes. Spanish silver 8-reales “dollars” from Mexico, Peru, and other mints, became a standard for international trade and commerce. For 250 years, merchants wanting to do business in China often bought Spanish and then Mexican coins, usually with gold. By the late 1800s, the United States (1873), France (1885), and the United Kingdom (1895) created their own “trade dollars” to facilitate trade in China.
But then, as now, enterprise in China was often on the dicey side: fake coins were a problem. The solution was the chopmark. Merchants would test coins and then stamp them with a mark of their own. The merchants were often from a special class of trained technicians called “shroffs.” The word originated in the Arabic/Islamic lands. Schools of shroffage blossomed in China. From the 1600s to the middle of the 20th century, shroffs were moneychangers and bankers in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and other centers of trade where western buyers met Chinese sellers. And so millions of silver coins, usually the big dollars, but almost any silver coin, were stamped. The marks are often Chinese characters, such as tien for heaven or li for profit.
Well, this rabbit trail is more of a web than a trail, I think, but I hope you liked getting tangled up in it. There were a ton of details that I left out, but you can make a rabbit trail of your own by using the links below. Enjoy!
- Spanish Dollar
- Pieces of Eight
- Currency of Spanish America
- History of Mexico
- Spanish Empire
- “Shroff” Etymology
- Extra: U.S. Trade Dollars