Meet the Maker - 100 Years of the Discovery of Insulin UK 50p Coin

Category: Collect

Insulin – Meet the Maker

History in the Making with Iris De La Torre

Since its discovery in 1921, the impact that insulin treatment has had on the world of medicine has been quite simply immeasurable. A true innovation in the world of science, the work of John Macleod, Sir Frederick Banting, Charles Best and James Collip has saved the lives of countless people with diabetes the world over and changed the way the world perceives this once deadly condition.

As one of the most significant medical breakthroughs of the twentieth century, the discovery of insulin unquestionably made for a deserving addition to our on-going Innovation in Science series. Consequently, it was all the more important that the coin design commemorating such a feat did justice to this pivotal moment in scientific history.

Enter renowned designer Iris De La Torre. Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, Iris moved to London in 2003 to study Jewellery at London Metropolitan University, bringing her love of Mexican folk art with her. Developing her own unique style that also incorporated 1960s graphic design, Iris went on to attain a Jewellery MA at the world-renowned arts and design college Central Saint Martins.

Iris has since gone on to carve out a successful career in jewellery design and has even had a number of pieces commissioned by the Victoria & Albert Museum, including a collection of brooches to celebrate Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s love story in conjunction with the royal couple’s bicentenary in 2019.

Whilst she has been extremely successful in the field of jewellery design, her notable work also made her a natural candidate for coin design. How did the skills of jewellery design translate to the world of coin? Find out now as we meet the maker with a special one-to-one interview with Iris De La Torre.

Discovery of Insulin – Meet the Maker

On the surface, coin design and jewellery design seem to be worlds apart in terms of artistic expression. What was it that attracted you to this project in particular?

“My work has always had a strong illustrative quality and I was confident that my graphic style would successfully transfer to coin design. I had previously done a small collection of brooch designs for the V&A Museum celebrating the love between Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and it was during that process that I began to think about how my designs could be expressed on metal. The discovery of insulin was a very important scientific event, and I was pleased to hear it was finally going to be commemorated on a coin.”

The discovery of insulin changed the way the world views diabetes. Do you have any personal experience with diabetes?

“I am very fortunate to personally not suffer from diabetes, nor do any of my immediate family have it. However, on my dad’s side, a few of my relatives have diabetes and I know that this is something that has adversely affected their quality of life.”

As a renowned designer of jewellery, what would you say is the biggest difference between coin design and jewellery design?

“Depending on what type of jewellery you are working with, jewellery can be made out of almost any material found on Earth: from recycled paper, plastics and wood to precious metals, gemstones and diamonds. To me, a piece of jewellery is a personal object in the form of wearable art.

“A piece of jewellery can be of sentimental or symbolic value, such as an engagement ring, a wedding ring, or even an heirloom. For example, I was given my grandmother’s floral gold hoop earrings; when I wear them, I feel as if she is with me and they give me confidence.

“Jewellery can make a fashion statement – depending on the quality of the design, the size, the type – and can make the wearer feel great. In my jewellery design practice, I make earrings, brooches and necklaces, and although the materials I have used are mainly silicone and Perspex, not metal or precious materials, I believe that the message of my work carries a strong sentiment through my illustrative narrative which makes it distinctive and unique.

“Meanwhile, a coin is primarily used as currency and is made of metal. The essential objective of circulating coin is that its main function is to be spent. It seems cold, uniform and impersonal – the opposite of jewellery. However, I think there are similarities between the two. To my designer’s eye, coins are round pieces of art, and maintainers of history and tradition, while they can also be educational.

“If you look closely at a coin, not only does it carry a historical, symbolic meaning but the designs themselves were also created by an artist, manufactured with a lot of care and attention. A coin can encapsulate a very important moment, just like the centenary year of the Discovery of Insulin achievement by Sir Frederick Banting and others.

“And guess what? You can also make jewellery with coins!”

How did you approach the initial coin design concept?

“The way I approached the Discovery of Insulin design was very similar to my normal process of design but probably even more exciting as medical subjects are something that I have never approached before. It was a really great challenge to do.

“With my jewellery design so far, I have been very lucky to have had a lot of creative freedom to tackle a particular subject, to fall in love with my ideas and imagine them as acrylic jewellery infused with colour.

“My process of design starts with the gathering of information and visual references. For the Discovery of Insulin coin, after reading a lot of information on the subject, I started looking at the chemical composition of insulin and, in particular, 2D and 3D visuals of the insulin formula.

“There were many avenues to go down for the design, but the path I took was specifically to focus on insulin itself. I wanted to create a design that included the chemical composition of the formula; however, chemical formulas are quite complex and too long to fit in the coin’s diameter.

“I started looking at the packaging designs of medical boxes and found them very simple and beautiful. This gave me the idea to create a pattern repeat inspired by images of an accurate segmentation of single-isolated human insulin crystals for in-situ microscopy that I found in a medical document online.

“The image shows segments of human insulin crystals in the form of hexagons. I found the image beautiful and with a lot of potential to develop further. This allowed me to develop a pattern repeat which I used to create design proposals for the coin.”

What were the main challenges you found during the design process?

“The main challenge that I had was the same challenge that I have experienced with many art design projects: there were hours/days of frustration when I couldn’t find any visuals that inspired me. Although I was well-briefed and I read a lot on the subject matter, I spent many days trying to find visuals that could spark a good idea.

“Once that hurdle was overcome, the overall experience was very enjoyable. I was very well supported by The Royal Mint team and they communicated with me constantly at every stage of the process. As I normally complete these processes largely by myself, it was very good to have expert support to turn to and to rely upon. The transition from design to finished product was well-managed and very smooth.”

What are your thoughts on the finished product?

“The finished product is a dream come true – I think it is beautiful. I would have never imagined that one of my designs would appear on a Royal Mint coin! I hope that it brings a smile and some joy to the holders of the coin, especially if they suffer from diabetes. After reading all the information about diabetes, I am much more aware now of this condition and I have so much respect for the people that have to live with it.

“Making people look twice at something and wanting to give the object a moment of their focused attention is a great joy and I just feel very grateful. If the finished product’s design helps to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the Discovery of Insulin and brings greater awareness and attention to the subject of diabetes and insulin, that would be wonderful.”


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