Jubilee Special: Royal Arms Reproduction
This week as the UK celebrates the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, ‘royal’ imagery can be seen adorning all sorts of souvenirs: from cardboard cake-stands to cashmere slippers.
In contrast, items bearing the official Royal coat of arms, with the legend “By Appointment to…”, that you may find on items such as Heinz baked beans cans through to exclusive Asprey jewellery boxes, are much more strictly controlled.
These Royal Warrants are granted to individuals or companies that have been approved by HM Queen Elizabeth II, HRH Duke of Edinburgh, or HRH Prince of Wales, after providing them with goods or service for five years. About 850 elite companies currently have permission to use the Royal arms, which are regarded as demonstrating excellence and quality. Once this highly-prized mark has been granted you’d naturally want to show it off to full effect.
I have previously seen Royal arms beautifully embossed onto letterheads and was curious to discover, from a design and typography perspective, how the techniques use to reproduce these emblems might be used in other work to achieve a luxurious result.
On stationery and packaging the only way to perfectly reproduce a coat of arms is by engraving and die stamping it. This is relatively common for practice for blue-chip US companies; however a count-up finds less than ten printers practicing these traditional craft skills in the UK. Out of these, maybe only three or four could reproduce a coat of arms with only one able to hand engrave their own copper die stamping plates in-house.
Downey, a family-run company is acknowledged as one of the finest printers of stationery in the UK and have specialised in heraldic work since Alfred Downey founded the business over 100 years ago. In 1929 William Turner, originally an apprentice engraver producing stamps and bank cheques, took over the business. Leo Turner, the third generation to join the company, and his Uncle Barry Turner, a master hand engraver (and apprentice to Leo’s grandfather), took me through the production process.
For each colour in the coat of arms an individually engraved plate or ‘die’ is created. The arms must be shown in ‘full heraldic colour’ (five plus black) or one colour only. These dies are now made from copper and plated with nickel replacing the use of steel. The minimum size of the mark is determined by the size of the ‘legend’ (the five lines of text beneath the arms) which must be legible.
What about the type?
I’ve seen both sans and serif fonts used, in all caps and mixed case, so I called The Royal Warrant Holders Association to enquire about standards. They confirmed that there are no specific guidelines for use of typeface: these choices are to be “governed by good taste”. So no comic sans then. New technology means that the text can be etched onto the plate from a digital file, to be finished by hand.
It’s very detailed work. Even at a minuscule size, special attention is given to achieving a 3D effect on the golden lion and silver unicorn supporters by engraving their muscle shapes. As each colour is printed individually the metal dies all have registration marks so that they can be affixed accurately to the printing press. The press manoeuvres the die through four actions; across inking rollers (much like letterpress), then past a ‘doctor’ blade or ‘knife’ to scrape off excess ink, then the die is wiped to leave ink only in the engraved recesses. Finally the die is then pressed on to the paper with about three tonnes of pressure. All of the inks used are matt, including the gold and silver. The final plate is then punched, dry, over the combined print which burnishes the gold and silver producing a luxurious gleam only achieved with this technique. This process also embosses the whole piece ensuring that all of the sculptural details are enhanced. The final result is truly magnificent. The combination of the colour density from the individual inks and the final burnish and emboss transforms the image into a solid badge emerging from the paper. The shapes are incredibly sharp and crisp, even down at size.
Although these hand-made results are easily distinguished from every-day digital printing, designers are slowly becoming increasingly aware of this nearly lost fine art. As letterpress and screen-printing are enjoying a renaissance then maybe engraving and die stamping presents another opportunity for designers to get their hands dirty to achieve results fit for a king (or Queen, in this case).