VATICAN CITY — Members of the Vatican's Swiss Guard, the world's smallest army, received their first new helmets in 500 years this week.
In a break from tradition, heavy metal has been replaced by 3D-printed plastic, which is much lighter and also resistant to UV rays.
The Swiss Guard headquarters at the Vatican on Tuesday was abuzz unpacking the first wave of 120 new helmets just arrived from Switzerland, as they prepared to wear them for the first time.
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The distinctive headgear, called a Morion, has gone through various changes in the 500 years since the founding of the Swiss Guards, the elite army that protects the pope.
The previous 19th century version was made of metal which Swiss Guard Nicolas Albert says was uncomfortable, especially when the hot Roman sun beat down for hours, scorching guards' skin.
The new model is UV ray-resistant and made of PVC, with hidden air vents to keep the guards cool. "A lot of them are looking forward to wearing them because they didn't really like the old helmets. But yeah, you wear what you get, no?" said Albert.
The 21st century design was created by Swiss engineer Peter Portmann and a 3D printing company which scanned the 16th century original to create a prototype which is then molded in PVC and painted with a water-based, UV resistant paint. It takes just 24 hours to make one helmet, whereas the metal model took days.
The helmets cost about $1,000 each, paid for by private funds from donors like American businessman Jack Boyd Smith and his wife Laura, who say they were happy to be part of such an historic change. "I paid for the helmets. I think it's exciting. Change is always good. It's gonna be new and modern but it will still conform with the old guard, so to speak," said Smith.
The Swiss Guards told CNN that it's actually a myth that Michelangelo designed their uniforms. They are from the Renaissance, but it was actually the popes at that time who decided on the vibrant red, blues and yellows that make these uniforms such a stand-out today.
Pope Francis, the guards say, has not weighed in yet on their change of helmet, a small tweak in a centuries-old tradition as the Vatican steps, slowly but surely, into the 21st century.
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