Background History

Making Money out of Nothing

How the work of a criminal startup became the inspiration for a local currency.

It’s all about cash. Joseph-Samuel Farinet already knew this back in the 19th century. He had a short life, but his adventurous biography inspired a whole region. Born in 1845 in Aosta, Italy, the man became a notorious counterfeiter on the other side of the Alps, in Valais, Switzerland. Together with Louis Luisier, Jean-Pierre Cretton and François Frachebourg, Farinet founded his criminal startup in 1869, near the small town of Martigny.

The disruptive force of the art of counterfeiting

Their «product», counterfeit twenty-cent pieces, was what today’s marketing specialists would call a «Unique Selling Proposition» (USP). Back in the day, this was a lot of money. Twenty cents was equivalent to the daily salary for a large majority of the rural working class. With what seems a small amount by today’s standards, you could buy yourself four to five kilos of potatoes, enough wine for the whole weekend, or go to the barber twice.

The small twenty-cent pieces all had the year 1850 written on them. Ironically, it represents the year of the introduction of the Swiss Franc as the monetary unit of Switzerland, replacing the different currencies of the Cantons. For the then-young Swiss Confederation, Farinet’s entrepreneurial and criminal ambitions represented a serious danger for the credibility of the institutions. The disruptive force of counterfeiting was a real problem not only for the economy, but for the functioning and legitimacy of the democratic system as a whole. No wonder the authorities put a lot of energy in the search for the mastermind and his companions.

Farinet and his partners produced more than six hundred twenty-cent pieces per night.

Catch me if you can

But, the smart Farinet was hard to capture. He was on good terms with the local population. Being an avid violin player and a bon vivant, he gained the sympathy of many fellow citizens. As a womanizer, he had no difficulties finding places to hide. Even though the police managed to capture him several times, Farinet’s skills as an escapee helped him to find his way out of prison. One time he left through the toilets, another time by throwing hot polenta in the face of a guard. Once out of captivity, he spent a lot of his counterfeit pieces in the small Valais villages and became a hero and symbol of independence from the authority. Some referred to him as the «Robin Hood of the Alps.»

For the most part, business was good. Apart from a few logistical problems, like the risky task of organizing and transporting a screw press, finding a secure place for production and hard work during night hours, the illegal startup was a success story. Farinet and his partners produced more than six hundred twenty-cent pieces per night. But in their enthusiasm, the team began to make errors. One day, Louis Luisier started to pay his tax invoices and court fees with all but twenty-cent pieces, making the authorities suspicious. But, they were so inefficient and bumbling, that even the State of Italy and the Swiss Federal Council intervened to put pressure on the Valais government to improve its efforts to catch the fugitives.

When supranational markets and currencies like the Euro are under pressure, some want to go back to all things local.

General distrust in the banking system

Complicating the task of the authorities was the general distrust of the population, due to their mismanagement of the newly founded Valais Cantonal Bank (BCVS). It was said that during the 1870’s, some citizens preferred using counterfeit money over the official currency, fearing that their investments were losing value and would be lost. They were right to be worried: the BCVS suffered huge losses and in 1872, it closed. Several high ranking politicians and officials had to resign. In the aftermath, Swiss and Valais governments fought about who had to confiscate the false Farinet money. These quarrels had a positive impact on the counterfeit money and left it with a semblance of intrigue and legality. The fraudulent twenty-cents pieces stayed in circulation for several years.

The myth lives on

Meanwhile, the popularity of Jean-Samuel Farinet continued. But, on a fateful day in 1880, the counterfeiter was trapped. What really happened on the 17th April of that year still remains unclear. Was he shot by police? Pushed over the cliffs into a canyon? The people of Valais believed in the first version. Farinet died at the age of 34 years. The uproar was substantial and it was even said that a policeman had to leave the country with his family for America, because he was receiving threats.

The myth and glorification of the «Robin Hood of the Alps» lived on. The famous Swiss writer, Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, wrote a book about him in 1932: «Farinet ou la fausse monnaie.» The world’s smallest vineyard with 3 vines is dedicated to him and owned by the Dalai Lama. And ironically, in 1998, the present-day BCVS created a series of medals in remembrance of Farinet, each one worth ten Swiss Francs.

Foster a local and sustainable economy

Imposter or Robin Hood, Joseph-Samuel Farinet was by all means an entrepreneurial spirit. Furthermore, he acted on a regional level and this was greatly appreciated by the locals. In times like today, when supranational markets and currencies like the Euro are under pressure, some want to go back to all things local.

Fostering the regional and the local is also the aim of several alternative currencies in Switzerland. It has nothing to do with counterfeiting official twenty-cent pieces, but their aim is to support the regional economy. So does the «Farinet», a currency introduced this year in Valais. It seeks to preserve the link between the producer and the consumer of goods, introducing new ways to collaborate and think about business models in a more sustainable and environmentally friendly way. And last but not least, it eliminates the need for speculation. These are all reasons that many complementary and alternative currencies in Europe and all around the world put forward:

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