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Secret Ink Used in New $100 Bills Will Help To Fight

By Marylou Tousignant
Washington Post
WASHINGTON

Security is almost a religion at the firm's low-slung headquarters and manufacturing plant, tucked into the recesses of an industrial park. Armored trucks pull in and out at regular intervals, and a list of expected visitors is kept at the locked front gate.

"You're two minutes late," notes a uniformed guard as he hands over a company security badge and directs the tardy guest to park close by, where he can keep an eye on the stranger's car. Once inside, the visitor signs a logbook and is escorted to the second-floor offices of Eduardo Beruff, president of SICPA Industries of America Inc.

The Cuban-born Beruff is all smiles, his manner at once graciously welcoming yet resolutely withholding. Clearly, he is not about to spill any secrets on how his company is helping the United States - and more than 40 other countries - keep what he calls "the bad guys" at bay.

This much, though, is known: For more than 10 years, SICPA, the American subsidiary of a 70-year-old Swiss ink-making company, has been the world's sole producer of a hot commodity called Optically Variable Ink.

When viewed from different angles, the ink appears to change colors, and when applied to paper currency, it makes counterfeiting impossible, SICPA maintains.

Some have tried but none has succeeded, according to Beruff.

This makes "the good guys" over at the U.S. Treasury - and in government currency circles from Albania to Zaire - very happy indeed.

In the fall, U.S. money-makers announced a monetary face lift, the first heavy-duty nip-and-tuck in 66 years, beginning with Ben Franklin on the $100 bill. The $765,000 redesign incorporates several anti-counterfeiting devices, including a splotch of SICPA's color-shifting ink in one corner that changes from green to black depending on how light hits it.

The first of the new $100 bills will be shipped to banks Monday, putting the U.S. greenback on a par, technology-wise, with the French franc, the Italian lira and the German mark, to name just a few of the currencies that use color-changing ink.

SICPA, which has a $10 million U.S. contract to provide 20,000 pounds of the special ink - enough to print more than 2 billion bills - assiduously guards the proprietary technology behind it.

"It's like Coca-Cola," Beruff said. "Few people know all the pieces." Does he? "I know a little bit about it." Only a little? Well, maybe more, maybe a lot more, "after having it explained to me several times," he said.

Like the ink itself, the pigment that goes into it is made in only one place, by a company in Santa Rosa, Calif.