Pirates of the Caribbean Cortés Gold

When people find out what we did for a living, we usually get asked – ‘What is your favourite film prop?’



It is a difficult question to answer since we made such a wide variety of things over a forty-one year period. It is not always easy to pick one, but what always comes to mind are the Holy Grail and the Grail diary made for ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ in 1989. A close second is the Aztec Medallion from the first ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ in 2002.

Along with Jack Sparrow’s compass for the same film, it was one of the most iconic props we made. At the beginning, however, we were not aware the film was a Disney production, let alone that it was to be the start of a very successful franchise.

The Aztec finial to be the basis of the coin.

The Aztec finial to be the basis of the coin.

It wasn’t all ‘plain sailing’ working with such a talented team of Production Designer, Brian Morris and Art Director, Richard Earl. Brian, who we had worked with many times before, came to our workshop late one afternoon with a pile of books annotated with countless illustrations that he wanted copying – ships, pirates, compasses, and among other things a picture of a golden Aztec finial

which was to form the basis of an Aztec gold coin – part of the Treasure of Cortés – one of the most important props in the first film.

The first drawing of the coin.

The first drawing of the coin.

Later, we received a drawing of the proposed coin.

It was to be made in two sizes, 1½” (38mm)  and 2⅛” (54mm) diameter, the larger coin  to be used for close up.   As there was no instruction as to how to make it. Louise decided that the best way to approach constructing the coin was to draw out the various elements separately.

Artwork for the etcher.

Artwork for the etcher. Notice that the symbols around the central circle have been changed to a second version.

The artwork was done by Thea in our Graphics department and then sent to Mercury Engraving in London to be acid etched in copper.   The  front and back were etched separately. When assembled these would form a good base for the coin.

The raised ‘wire’ and ball details were made of silver and applied to the front of the coin by Andrew at jewellers Gordon Marks in Cobham. It was then returned to our workshop for further work to be done by Nick.

In the original version the skull was contained within the central circle.

The second version with the skull still contained within the circle.

The third version with the skull still contained within the circle.

Brian and others in the production decided that in this version the skull was too small, and we were sent another drawing of an enlarged skull, still within the central circle.

Front and back of the .monkey' version

Pattern for the front and back of the monkey’ version.

After remaking the coin, the comment from the production was  that it now looked more like a ‘monkey’s’ skull.  So that design was abandoned and a fourth version was then made with a larger skull that broke through the central circle at the bottom.

Enlarge skull drawn by Brian at our workshop.

Fourth version with enlarged skull drawn by Brian at our workshop.

Thea's artwork from Brian's drawing.

Thea’s artwork from Brian’s drawing.


Finally, a fifth drawing arrived that required the look of the jawbone to be altered and ‘bones’ added under the skull.

Final artwork for the medallion

Final artwork for the medallion showing both sizes.

Thea's details for the new nose, teeth and bones to be engraved in brass.

Thea’s details for the new nose, teeth and bones to be engraved in brass.

This time Nick used resin putty to shape it to the new design.  He also removed the original copper symbols and replace them with the new brass symbols, as well as new nostrils and teeth all engraved by Adams Engraving in Woking.

The final pattern showing the new brass inserts and jaw alteration in resin putty.

The final pattern showing the new brass inserts and jaw alteration in resin putty.

This final version of the coin was approved by Brian and went to Starcast Alloys in Devon to be cast in wax in silicone moulds, then in gilding brass using the ‘lost wax’ method.


The back of the coin, which isn’t seen in the film, also went through two versions.

For those interested here are the patterns for the back of both sizes of coins.

For those interested here are the patterns for the back of both sizes of coins.

On their return the coins were polished with jewellers rouge on a rag polishing wheel and then sent to Manny Gold at City Plating to be plated in a beautiful mellow gold, the tone matching a sample supplied by Charles Stewart the prop master.

All these alterations took a long time to achieve and Charles Stuart was beginning to get worried that he would not have his props on time for a ‘show and tell’ that had been arranged with the Director Gore Verbinski.

They did get completed on time and we made about a hundred  medallions in all  – some with chains – and five in the large size.

Large and small finished medallions with rings for chain.

Large and small finished medallions with rings for chain.

We also had made for the film 1000’s of  silver Pieces of Eight,  Gold 2 Escudos and Gold 8 Escudos, cast by Westair in Birmingham from original coins  sourced by Richard Varnham at Vale Stamps and Antiques in Blackheath.

There is a scene towards the end of the film where the last remaining coin is thrown into a chest filled with the rest of the treasure. In the same scene Barbossa raises an Aztec dagger with a knapped flint blade.

Aztec dagger handle.

Aztec dagger handle.

We were asked to make two of these with a handle to be copied from an original dagger.

Richard's drawing for the dagger.

Richard’s drawing for the dagger.

It had a very intricate mosaic finish and because we had to produce two identical daggers, we decided to sculpt the handle and use small pieces of eggshell, cut into precise shapes to make the mosaic. Emma who made the handle then fixed these to the surface and a silicone mould was taken. After being cast in resin the mosaic pattern was painted to match the reference and Len at A. E. Ward in London also supplied mother of pearl, cut to specific sizes, to be glued to the handle.

Two completed daggers.

Two completed daggers.

The dagger is seen in close up but Barbossa’s hand obscures the handle.  Luckily the blade has a more starring role. Getting a ‘napped flint’ look isn’t easy so we asked a friend, Robert Leighton, if he had such a blade in his collection of Stone Age axes, blades and arrowheads – now in the British Museum. He explained that blades were never that long, so he loaned us two, from which  Alastair took moulds and incorporated them into one longer blade. Again a mould was taken and he cast the final two blades in a translucent light brown resin.

We also made Jack Sparrows compass, a dress box, flags, parasols, fans, a sextant, glass rum bottles, bed pans, and more, but they will have to wait for another blog.

The compass used in the first film before being distressed. We made another version for the second and third films

The compass used in the first film before being distressed. We made another version for the second and third films




10 thoughts on “Pirates of the Caribbean Cortés Gold

  1. This is great I love the detail about the Aztec dagger. It looks extraordinary but how do you cut eggshell? What amazes me is all the attention to detail and then for how many seconds is it actually seen on screen? I like the patterns on the back of the coins did they come from anywhere in particular or were they made up?


  2. We are glad you enjoyed the details. It’s not always easy to remember exactly what happened but luckily in this case we have more details of what we did than we usually have. Having said that we don’t know where Brian, the Production Designer found the reference for the back of the coin. It is possible he just made it up. If you want to cut egg shells just get yourself a nice sharp scalpel or stanley blade.


  3. Dear Keir,

    Another great article! Such iconic pieces and so important to the narrative.

    I am pleased to see that the Grail diary is still at the top of your list! I am really looking forward to your article about. How did you decide to choose the text for the Grail diary? I most of it comes from the John Matthews book, quest for the eternal. Did you try to keep a narrative in mind for creating the prop? Also, I would love to know your aging techniques.

    High regards,


  4. Thank you. We are glad you enjoyed it. We are not sure where the text came from, but it was most likely given to us by the Set Decorator Peter Howitt, who suppled the references for the book. The books were aged using fine wet and dry abrasive, tea and potassium permanganate


  5. That is interesting! I was not sure if you had to invent the text/narrative. Thank you so much for revealing the aging process used. That solves a lot of mysteries I had about it. As for the illustrations and images in it were those also supplied by Peter Howitt or were you given some licence with what you could include? And were the images a combination of free-hand drawings and photocopies?

    Thank you!!


    • Dear Keir,

      I hope you are well. I am in the process of trying to replicate a Grail diary and I keep wondering what it was like to be the original maker of it. From my understanding of it, you had about 65 pages repeating for about a total of 282 pages. Were you given a lot of direction from Peter Howitt on how the pages were to look or were you allowed from artistic licence? Also, if you had the chance, do you think you would make one that was a full narrative of 282 individual pages? Thanks!!


  6. Hi there… is there any chance of purchasing one of the medallions? There are a lot of poor reproductions around, I was wondering if any of the ones made by you could be for sale anywhere…

    Many thanks and great, great work!



    • Dear Marco,

      Thank you for your kind comments. Unfortunately we do not have any coins available for purchase. I agree that there are a lot of poor reproductions around, but I guess that is always the way.


  7. Dear Keir,

    is there any chance we can expect some more blog entries from you guys? I am a huge fan of your work and I would love to read more about your amazing career.

    King regards,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s