The USVI Ingot Co. was the brainchild of Howard Eichen. He was a very inventive person whose mind was always busy thinking of new ways to make things, new designs for the world, another business to start up.
For me, the USVI Ingot Co. started in a tiny beachside cottage in Del Mar, CA, where I met Howard when I knocked on his door as part of my duties as a US Census Bureau enumerator. For him, the story began much further back, when he left his career in architecture, and began a new life as a jewelry designer.
He had moved to Antigua, Guatemala to remodel an historical hotel, but that project was canceled by a huge earthquake. Howard and his ladyfriend survived the tumbling adobe walls of their casa by crawling under the bed, but the hotel, the renovation just beginning, was completely destroyed. He then turned his creative talents to designing gold jewelry, with a special emphasis on inclusion of 24k gold elements into the designs. He loved the special gleam of soft pure gold, and used alloy gold only in areas that needed strength. He set up a workshop in Oaxaca, Mexico where he hired artisans to execute his designs. He often made trips to the US Virgin Islands, and planned to set up a business there one day. Our company's name came from that dream. He would have continued in the jewelery career indefinitely had it not been for the sudden, and disastrous, rise in gold prices in the late 1970s.
Feeling it time to start a new career, Howard returned to the US with ideas of using his knowledge of precious metals fabrication to create bullion pieces for collectors and investors. He had five cylindrical pieces of steel engraved with images, one of a bearded man with a wreath in his hair, as might be found on ancient coins, one of a sun with a face, a prancing bull, a ram's head, and two horses pulling a man in a chariot. These had originally been carved for stamping gold, but now his intention was to use these dies for prototype 999 silver ingots. His plan was to stay away from buying silver himself, and to find customers who wanted to convert their own bulk silver into coin and bar form for a fee.
My census duties were winding down, and Howard hired me to work with him on the silver project. The earliest ingots were produced in Howard's kitchen using techniques that were ancient, except for the modern tool we had for melting the metal. The molten silver was poured into a bucket of water to create ‘shot'. The shot was thoroughly dried, then weighed into 1 oz. troy portions to be melted into blank coins. The rear die was a flat piece of engraved steel, and the top die was a cylinder. The planchet was set atop the flat die, the top die lined up, and the strike was made. The edges were uncontained in any way, so each piece bulged out around the edges in an unpredictable fashion. Each one of these original round ingots is unique in that respect.
We had an unusual device that looked like an electric coffee pot, but was actually a kiln, and we could put silver into it and heat it until it was molten. The molten metal was poured into graphite molds to create a planchet, a blank that is later stamped into a coin. The coffeepot kiln was problematic, since we could make only one pre-weighed planchet at a time, or multiple planchets with undetermined weight. Another problem was that the electric elements would often fail, and it was expensive to repair the temperamental appliance that was intended to melt gold. Silver melts at approx. 1800 degrees, much hoter than gold, and those temperatures are damaging to equipment.
There were a couple of ingots that were struck using a hand held die, and a guy with a sledgehammer... dangerous and inaccurate at the same time. Some other coins were squeezed between two dies with a hydraulic automobile jack imbedded in a steel frame. These methods were too slow and ineffective, so Howard found a shop with a stamping press where they were willing to help with our coining experiments.
I felt comfortable using ancient techniques and turning out ingots in small batches. I became involved in this enterprise because I thought I might learn something about jewelry making. But Howard had grander plans than just a small cottage industry. He had hired a sales representative, and we began receiving small orders for the crude round ingots. We needed to go into production in a serious way. The days of working in the beachfront kitchen were ending, and we began the search for partners, customers, and a place to do our manufacturing.