BOSTON (MainStreet) -- If you want to encourage people to save more, perhaps making money that is too pretty to spend will do the trick.U.S. currency may be the lifeblood of a global economy, but it lags far behind other nations in aesthetics. Our green bills -- adorned with headshots of notable presidents and a smattering of Freemason imagery -- is rather dull and bland compared with the artistry on display in wallets and purses across the planet. It is not just the artwork setting other countries' currency apart. Australia, for example, has tweaked its bills in unique ways. While the U.S. stocks with mainly paper, Australians have chosen plastic, and its polymer-based bills have proven to be more durable, longer-lasting and harder to counterfeit. Raised print not only adds another deterrent for counterfeiters, but enables the blind to feel the differences between denominations. The following are some of the world's most unique currencies:
Star Wars fanatics may want to learn more about Niue, a small island nation in the South Pacific. The island, often referred to as the "Rock of Polynesia," is a mere 100 square miles with a population of about 1,400, mostly of Polynesian descent. Though it has its own local government, it is not a sovereign nation. Instead, it has a political relationship with neighboring New Zealand (about 1,500 miles away) and its residents are citizens of that country. Which brings us back to Darth Vader. Niue has its own currency and, given its tiny population, that has given it some creativity and leeway in the form it takes. It was announced recently that Niue officials had entered into an agreement with the privately owned New Zealand Mint to issue legal tender coins bearing the images of various Star Wars characters. The first such coins were launched last month at the American Numismatics Association Show in Chicago. There will be eight, 1-ounce silver coins and 10 silver-plated base metal coins depicting Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, C-3PO, Chewbacca and others. The coins will be available through various distributors and are being marketed as a collectible, with a set of 18 selling for about $470. Residents of Niue can use the coins as legal tender (its head of state, Queen Elizabeth II, is on the reverse side) with each piece carrying a legal tender of two New Zealand dollars. Government coffers will also benefit by collecting a royalty on each coin sold. A bonus: Jar Jar Binks does not appear on any of the coins.
The Zimbabwean economy was so bad, and so inflationary, that its government was forced to issue a 100-trillion-dollar bill. It might very well be a perfect solution for U.S. officials. One of these babies and they could pay off the national debt and still get back more than $85 trillion in change. Unfortunately, the devalued Zimbabwean dollar -- victim of the government recklessly printing as much currency as its presses could keep up with -- sounded like a lot more than it was really worth. In fact, the note wouldn't be enough to cover the cost of bread or bus fare. The 100 trillion note was done away with in 2009 as part of a complete currency overhaul, its many zeroes stripped away as it was exchanged for a single dollar. Only foreign currency is now used as legal tender, with U.S. dollars used for government spending. As for the mammoth bills that were once both common and worthless, they have been in demand among collectors and can typically be found for sale on eBay and other similar sites.
The colorful denominations of the Swiss franc honor a wide range of figures whose contributions go beyond the standard use of political or military leaders. One by one, the bills honor an architect, composer, sculptor, painter, writer and historian. The Swiss took a similarly unique approach to distinguishing each note. From the 10 franc note up to 1,000 francs, each bill is also increasingly larger in size. The multilingual bills also have the distinction of having each portrait positioned so the bills are intended to be viewed vertically, a departure from the horizontal approach most other currency has opted for over the years.
The standard images one conjures when thinking of the South Pacific (perhaps inspired by the musical of the same name) will give a pretty good idea of what French Polynesian franc notes look like. Each note is very nearly a postcard or travel brochure: smiling women in sarongs accessorized with flowers, straw huts and swaying palm trees. All that's missing is a "scratch-and-sniff" feature to conjure up the sweet scent of salt water carried by a warm breeze.
If your image of Kazakhstan is of the drab, barren landscape suggested by the movie Borat, one look at its currency may be all it takes to change that perception. The current currency design, released in 2006, is striking, colorful and wonderfully abstract. Each bill has common denominators -- the national flag, lyrics from its national anthem, a traditional coat of arms and the signature and handprint of President Nursultan Nazarbayev. But those elements are presented artistically in unique ways that differ with each denomination. The colorful bills also include denomination-specific elements on their backs such as illustrations of mountains, canyons maps and national landmarks.
Redesigning its post-apartheid currency in the 1990s, South Africa's officials made a decision to move away from the standard fare of political figures that might prove to be either divisive or controversial. Instead, the banknotes now feature colorful depictions of "big five" game, the term used by hunters to describe the most challenging animals -- the rhinoceros (on the 10-rand note), the elephant (20 rand), lion (50 rand), buffalo (100 rand) and leopard (200 rand). In 2005, the banknotes were updated to include several new design elements to deter counterfeits, including a holographic coat of arms.
Consider us suckers for megalomania, but there is something to be said for a nation's entire currency being a vanity project. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il is plastered all over the North Korean won, with denominations paying tribute to such aspects of his life as the house he was born in on Mount Paektu (an event, official dogma claims, accompanied by a sudden change from winter to spring and the sky being filled with rainbows and stars). Kim and his loyalists even went so far as to once set the won's exchange rate at 2.16 to the dollar, a not so hidden tribute to his Feb. 16 birthday. But even with the miraculous visage of fearless leader adorning the banknotes there was a period in 2009 when North Koreans were left without a legal tender. A decision was made to revalue the currency, a process that gave North Koreans a mere seven days to exchange their old notes for newly valued ones. The move was considered a move to control inflation as well as a stab at the lucrative underground economy. There was one little problem, however: The old banknotes stopped being legal tender Nov. 30, 2009, but the new notes weren't issued until Dec. 7. That meant, aside from foreign currency transactions, the nation's economy was essentially shut down for a week. -- Written by Joe Mont in Boston. >To contact the writer of this article, click here: Joe Mont. >To follow the writer on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/josephmont. >To submit a news tip, send an email to: email@example.com.