Medal of Merit
Date established: 25th December 1881/6th January 1882
Number of classes: gold, silver and bronze medal
Being awarded for: merits to the Bulgarian nation and the Crown
Shape and dimensions: Circular, 27mm or 28mm in diameter
Ribbon: The crimson ribbon of the Royal Order of St Alexander
Obverse: The obverse depicts the effigy of the ruling monarch with His royal title circumscribed.
Reverse: On the reverse, in the middle is inscribed the text "ЗА ЗАСЛУГА" / translation: For merit /, positioned on two lines, with a five-pointed star just beneath it. The text and star are positioned within an oak (left) and a laurel (right) twigs bound together with a ribbon at the bottom, forming a circular wreath.
Associated with: Royal Order of St Alexander
HRH Prince Alexander I
HRH Prince Alexander I officially founded the medal “For Merit” on 25 December 1881/ 11 January 1882 but well before that he has been decorating foreign nationals with the medal during receptions in the European royal courts.
There are three ‘classes’ of the medal – golden, silver and bronze medals.
The gold medal has been awarded only a handful of times. According to the regulations of the Chancellery of Bulgarian orders, the golden medal can only be given to people who have already been distinguished with a Grand cross or First class of a Bulgarian order and have reached the highest positions within the society.
It’s important to note that the term golden only applies to the grade of the medal and not to the material, which it is made of. Usually the golden classes of the decorations are produced of a silver base (or another metal alloy) and then gilded. Only in very rare cases the actual awards may be produced of solid gold – usually when these are intended for decoration of a Monarch or a person of royal status.
Unfortunately, due to the fact that the golden medals are usually only gilded, there have been some cases of forged golden medals – occasions when original silver or bronze medals have been gilded, in a trial to increase the market price of the medal by presenting it as a golden one.
During its history, the top class of the medal “For Merit” has been awarded very rarely. According to some authors, the total numbers of golden medals awarded is 69, though it’s not very clear how many of the decorated men were Bulgarians and how many - foreigners.
The silver and bronze medals were more common, compared to the golden one. The silver medal was intended for distinction of army officers and civil servants, while the bronze medal – for NCOs and enlisted men, clerks and other low-ranking civil servants.
The first emission of the medal depicts the effigy of the Bulgarian Monarch and His royal title inscribed along the edge – “АЛЕКСАНДРЪ I. КНЯЗЬ НА БЪЛГАРIЯ” / translation: Alexander I. Knyaz (Prince) of Bulgaria /. Visually, the obverse of the medal is identical to the one of the Medal for the Accession of Alexander I. The engraver of the medal was K. Schwenzer. The reverse, as in all the other cases, remains unchanged in its essence.
The so called first emission of the medal is also the rarest. It’s due to the fact that it has been minted in limited numbers and has soon been replaced with the new type, minted in 1883.
The second edition of the medal reflects the visual change in the appearance of the Prince – Alexander I is now depicted with a beard. Apart from this new feature, the medal remains unchanged.
The examples of this second issue are more widespread, compared to the first one, yet still very rare. The bronze medals of this issue vary in terms of the material used – either light or dark bronze-coloured metal alloy.
HRH Prince Ferdinand I
After the abdication of Alexander I and the election of a new Monarch, Ferdinand I, the appearance of the Merit medal had to be amended, in order to reflect the new Sovereign of the land. This is how the third issue of the medal came into place. On the obverse of the medal is depicted the new Prince (this time facing left) and His royal title - “ФЕРДИНАНДЪ I. КНЯЗЬ НА БЪЛГАРIЯ” / translation: Ferdinand I. Knyaz (Prince) of Bulgaria /. Again, the reverse of the medal remained untouched.
A specific feature for this third issue is the tubular ear on the top of the medal. This third edition of the medal was also short-lived and is thus quite rare. There are no known issues of a golden medal of this type.
Emission number four (or the second ‘Ferdinand’ emission) is probably the emission with most variations. The first major variation depicts an updated effigy of the Prince (engraved by A. Scharff) circumscribed by His royal title, which remained unchanged. The medals of this emission have a sphere-shaped ear on top of the medal.
This emission is the first one to be awarded with a crown suspension. This is the so called crown with descending lappets, similar to the one introduced for the initial variant of the Order of Civil Merit in 1891. By the introduction of this additional feature, the three grades of the medal can now be awarded with or without a crown, which informally doubled the classes of the medal.
At the end of the 19th or the beginning of the 20th century, a new modification (or sub-emission) of the current emission has been minted. It features the known medal with the effigy of Prince Ferdinand I and His royal title circumscribed, but the crown suspension used is thoroughly redesigned. This new crown design has more flat sides and dome, and the lappets are now bent upwards and outwards in a specific manner, which will be introduced to all other Bulgarian awards for the future.
This new type of crown is labelled by historians and researchers as ‘tsar crown’ in order to make distinction between this one and the previous type (inaccurately labelled 'princely crown'). In essence, both crowns bear the same features and only differ in terms of their representation.
The sub-emission of the princely merit medal with the second type of crown is fairly rare. There are known bronze (dark brown metal alloy) and silver examples. The existence of genuine golden ones is still disputable.
HM King Ferdinand I
The fifth emission (third 'Ferdinand') depicts an updated image of the Monarch (with pointy beard and twisted moustaches, engraved by Paul Telge) with circumscribed “ФЕРДИНАНДЪ I ЦАРЬ НА БЪЛГАРИТѢ“ / translation: Ferdinand I Tsar (King) of the Bulgarians /. The reverse once again was left as it was before.
The crown suspension used for this emission is a slightly amended variant of the previous type. It has the same features – straight lines, lilies and lappets embowed upwards and outwards.
In the summer of 1913, members of the Order council of the Military order "For Bravery" have agreed that the medal "For Merit" can also be awarded using the so called military ribbon, for merits and deeds, performed in the time of war and on the battlefield.
There are thousands of decorations with the bronze and silver classes of the medal. A sizeable number of these has been awarded abroad, during and after the end of the Great War, to members of the Austro-Hungarian and German armies – the former allies.
This was the last emission of the medal during the reign of King Ferdinand I.
HM King Boris III
The next (sixth) and last royal emission has been minted using the features of the previous one, the only difference being the new royal effigy, that of King Boris III, and His title - “БОРИСЪ III ЦАРЬ НА БЪЛГАРИТѢ“ / translation: Boris III Tsar (King) of the Bulgarians /.
From the current emission of the merit medal, there are numerous examples of medals with a spelling error. They are missing the letter “А” in the word “БЪЛГАРИТѢ“ on the obverse, resulting in “БЪЛГРИТѢ“. These ‘wrong’ medals have been used for decoration.
Certain authors treat these as another emission of the merit medal. However, it’s more sensible to consider this as a variation of the original emission, as there are no major differences between the two.