Philadelphia — Elizabeth Jones, the first woman ever appointed chief engraver of the US Mint Bureau, says wryly that she has been ''learning on the job'' ever since she took over her duties at this largest mint in the world in midsummer, 1981.
She arrived as a highly qualified sculptor and internationally known medalist , but, never having worked in a mint before, she had to gain knowledge of the machines and of the mechanical processes of coinmaking.
''It's been a challenging time,'' she admits, ''but everyone has been so helpful that, after a year, I am at last feeling familiar with everything.''
In her spacious office-cum-studio here in the mammoth gray-granite mint on Independence Mall, Miss Jones does her own designing of new issues. She also supervises engraving of coins and medals made in all US mints, the main mint here in Philadelphia and those in Denver, San Francisco, and West Point. Six other engravers work with Miss Jones, and the mint here employs 600 people to help turn out millions of coins each year in all denominations.
President Reagan shattered precedent when he appointed Miss Jones. Only 11 other chief engravers had preceded her since the founding of the mint in 1792, and they were all men.
Miss Jones was nominated on the strength of her qualifications, not because she was a woman, Treasury Department officials insist. According to US Treasurer Angela M. Buchanan, during their search for the best engraver-sculptor, she asked each of the editors of the leading numismatic publications to list five people they felt were most qualified to fill the position. The name of Elizabeth Jones, she said, appeared on every list.
Miss Jones, who grew up in Montclair, N.J., applied for the post after learning of the retirement of former chief engraver Frank Gasparro. She was visiting Washington with an exhibition of her photographs (she is a photographer and jewelry designer as well as a sculptor and medalist) after living in Italy for 20 years.
She graduated from Vassar college in 1957, studied at the Art Students League in New York until 1960, and in '6l went to Rome to study drawing and painting. She was later drawn to the three-dimensional art of sculpture, and then to two-dimensional medallic art.
She studied the art of making coins and medals at the unique Scuola dell'Arte della Medaglia, a school located inside the Italian Mint, from 1962 to 1964; and then remained in Rome to pursue her career.
Today she is considered a leading medalist, and she received the Sculptor of the Year Award in 1972 from the American Numismatic Association and the Louis Bennett Award in 1978 from the National Sculpture Society.
Since many chief engravers have worked for years at the mint without designing a single new coin, Miss Jones has been fortunate. Her first assignment was to design the new commemorative half dollar honoring the 250th anniversary of George Washington's birth. She chose to portray Washington on horseback, a pose she thought was typical of the first President and one also reflected in previous Washington portraits by artists Rembrandt Peale and Thomas Sully. The reverse side of the coin depicts Mount Vernon, Washington's home, as seen from the Potomac River.
The artist says she prefers designs that are mildly abstract to photographic realism. But she also admits that restrictions of material, size, and subject matter don't exactly allow worlds of artistic leeway.
The artist is now designing three commemorative coins to mark the XXI Olympiad in Los Angeles in the summer of 1984. They are expected to be ready early in 1983. Next year she will capture on coin the image of American poet Robert Frost. This coin will be issued as part of the American Arts Commemorative Series that began three years ago. The series now includes Marian Anderson, Grant Wood, Willa Cather, Mark Twain, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Louis Armstrong. Next year Alexander Calder will be added, as well as Frost.
The engraving department also designs all the congressional medals and those given to visiting heads of state. The constant work of all the engravers, Miss Jones explains, includes repairing the dies used in casting the coins, changing the dates each year, and a multitude of other necessary chores that keep the coins accurate in every detail.
What makes a new coin successful? ''Good design and a harmony of design on both sides of the coin,'' she says. She cites the Susan B. Anthony dollar as a coin ''born wrong.'' She considers the Kennedy half dollar a successfully designed new coin.