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By Ed Reiter

 The George Washington half dollar was a breakthrough – the first U.S. commemorative coin in nearly 30 years and the start of the “modern era” for American commemoratives.

 But the issuance of this coin in 1982 was a groundbreaking event for still another very important reason: It was the first coin designed by Elizabeth Jones after she became the first woman to serve as the U.S. Mint’s chief sculptor-engraver.

 Jones arrived at the Mint in October 1981, and the Washington coin was issued the following year.

 The gifted sculptor – then 46 – was only the 11th person to hold the prestigious post of chief engraver – one that dates back very nearly to the founding of the Mint in 1792. She was appointed by Ronald Reagan during the first year of his presidency, succeeding Frank Gasparro, who retired after a long and distinguished Mint career.

 She brought to the job an impressive list of credentials and a worldwide reputation as one of the finest artists in her field.

 Jones was born and raised in Montclair, N.J., the youngest of four children of Dr. W. Rhys Jones, a prominent obstetrician and gynecologist, and his wife, Ruth. Creative genius runs in the family; an older brother, Bradley, showed great artistic promise before his untimely death in 1937. It took a while, though, for young Elizabeth’s talent to be channeled into the field of medallic art

 She first attended Vassar College, where she earned a bachelor of arts degree in fine arts in 1957. Then, for the next two years, she studied at the Art Students League in New York. But it wasn’t until after finishing all these studies that she finally found her proper creative niche.

 The discovery came in Rome, Italy, where she had gone to broaden her artistic horizons.

 “In Rome,” she said, “you’re constantly surrounded by sculpture – and after being there for a year or so, I found myself being drawn in that direction as an artist.”

 She was drawn in particular to sculpture in the round, and in 1962 she gained admission to the Scuolo dell’Arte della Medaglia, a school located inside the Italian Mint. There, for the next two years, she studied the art of coin and medal making, laying a solid foundation for her career.

 Rome became not just the source of her inspiration, but also her home. After completing school, she established a studio there – and for nearly two decades, it served as her base of operations. In time, as her reputation grew, she came to be known to admirers worldwide as the American sculptor in Rome.

 While in Rome, she gained a substantial following in other fields, as well. She became known, in particular, as an innovative jewelry designer and still-life photographer.

 It didn’t take long for word of her talent to spread. Within a few years, she was getting commissions from some of the world’s most prestigious medallic firms, among them The Franklin Mint, Medallic Art Co. and the Judaic Heritage
Society. She also was winning some coveted awards. In 1972, she became the first woman ever to be named Sculptor of the Year by the American Numismatic Association, and in 1978 the National Sculpture Society named her as recipient of its Louis Bennett Award.

 By 1981, the attractive, dark-haired sculptor was widely regarded as one of the world’s outstanding medallic artists. Officials at the U.S. Treasury soon became aware of this when they started checking her background, and she quickly emerged as the front-runner for the chief engraver’s job following Gasparro’s retirement.

 By her own account, the chain of events that led her to the Mint was a series of “amazing coincidences.” She happened to be visiting in Washington, D.C., early in 1981 and happened to meet an acquaintance who told her about Gasparro and urged her to apply for the job.

 “I never had given a thought to such a thing,” she said. “It seemed, I suppose, like an unattainable goal. But after thinking it over, I figured I might as well try.”

 She tried and, of course, she succeeded. Reagan nominated her in July 1981, the U.S. Senate confirmed her in September – and, on Oct. 27, she took the oath of office at the Philadelphia Mint.

 The swearing-in ceremonies were made doubly joyous by the presence of her parents, both of them then in their 80s. Also among the guests were her sister, Mrs. Margaret Steuart, and her brother, Griffith, a lawyer who once ran for
Congress. Griffith Jones ran unsuccessfully as a Republican against New Jersey Democrat Peter Rodino in 1970, just a few years before the Watergate hearings catapulted Rodino into prominence.

 After assuming office, Jones spent her early months learning all the ropes at the Mint – for, as she acknowledges, she had done far more sculpting than engraving in the past and therefore needed to strengthen her technical skills. Her schedule was filled with more than just the commonplace, though; she also had some exceptional artistic opportunities.

 The Washington coin was surely a highlight of her Mint career. Chances to design new coins had been few and far between for 20th-century chief engravers, so this was a highly unusual assignment. Her reaction: “I was delighted.”

 “I was hoping that I would be able to do this,” she exclaimed. “Washington is one of my favorite topics; I just love history, and he, in particular, lends himself well to a nice medallic or coinage portrait.”

 The coin marked the beginning of the “modern” era of U.S. commemoratives, which has now produced more different coins in three decades than the “traditional” era did in six.

 While at the Mint, Jones also designed all or part of three other commemorative coins: the 1983 Los Angeles Olympics silver dollar, the 1986 Statue of Liberty half eagle (or $5 gold piece) and the 1988 Olympic half eagle. She left the Mint in 1990 and since then has fashioned numerous medals, as well as larger sculptures.

 She also designed one more U.S. commemorative coin: the 2001 Capitol Visitor Center half eagle. All five of her coins carry the initials “EJ.” Three of her commemoratives won awards as international Coin of the Year.

 After Jones left the Mint, the post of chief sculptor-engraver was left empty for several years and then abolished. Mint Director Edmund Moy designated John Mercanti as chief engraver in 2009, but that was a largely ceremonial title, since Mercanti was never appointed by the President or confirmed by the U.S. Senate – formal requirements met by Jones and all 10 of her predecessors. 
 Much of Jones’s medallic work has had what she describes as a “mildly abstract” character. In doing the Washington half dollar, though, she carefully avoided anything that might be considered radical, determined to make it “very traditional.”

 “It has to be, I think – especially with a figure like Washington,” she said at the time.

 The Washington half dollar was the first coin Jones ever designed. Prior to joining the Mint, however, she had turned out dozens of medals, including issues honoring such famous individuals as Pablo Picasso, Pablo Casals, Mother Teresa,
Albert Schweitzer and Charles Dickens.

 Of all her medallic works, her personal favorite is a solid gold medal, 120 millimeters in diameter, depicting Pope John Paul II. The Italian government commissioned the piece in 1979 for presentation to the Pontiff as a gift.

 Jones considers herself a collector of coins and medals, but not a serious one.

 “I do not have a valuable collection,” she said. “I collect for the beauty; I have some old Greek coins, for example. I’m kind of like a rock hound, I suppose, in that I collect things but not really things of great value.”

 Even so, her interest in the numismatic hobby was far from superficial or casual in the years leading up to her Mint appointment. She joined the ANA in 1966, and she also has been a member of several numismatic organizations based in Europe.

 Feminist groups were elated when they learned of Jones’s nomination as chief engraver. It was, without question, a breakthrough of major proportions. The sculptor herself, though, downplays this aspect of her appointment. She thinks of herself not as a crusader for women’s rights, but simply as an artist – an artist who also happens to be a woman.

 “The fact that I’m a woman is incidental,” she said. “It all comes down to one word: qualification. If I weren’t qualified, I wouldn’t have gotten the job.”