When’s the last time you picked up a coin and really looked at it? You probably first noticed its condition, then its design. If you didn’t give it any more thought than that, you missed out! There’s a treasure trove of information on a coin, from its inscription to its motto. When you understand the various parts of a coin and the terminology to use, you can better communicate with other coin holders, as well as appreciate your own pocket change and portfolio of gold coins. Follow along as we explain the main parts of a coin, using a Proof American Eagle Gold Coin as an example.
Parts of a Coin: Terminology to Know
Let's start with basic coin terminology.
What is a coin?
Not everything that's round and made of precious metal is a coin. Coins are minted by a sovereign government, are legal tender, and have a minimum face value in addition to a melt value. In most countries, a coin's design must be approved by a legislative body and advisory committee.
What is numismatics?
Numismatics is the study or collection of coins, paper currency, medals, tokens, and other money-related objects. While you may not realize it, you likely share many interests with numismatists: people who study coins and other forms of currency.
The Proof American Eagle Gold Coin – Obverse
We'll first look at the obverse, or front, of the Proof American Eagle Gold Coin—one of the most popular gold coins in U.S. history. This side of the coin is also referred to as the “heads” side. It features Lady Liberty in all of her glory, standing tall and strong with an olive branch in one hand and a flaming torch in the other.
The legend is the main inscription or lettering on a coin. On the Gold American Eagle Coin, the legend on the front reads, “LIBERTY” and on the back, “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.” Typically, an inscription tells us important information about the coin, like its country of origin, who minted the coin, or who's featured in the portrait, if applicable.
The field is the flat portion of a coin's surface. It is unmarked, without design or inscription. The field is essentially the background on to which designs and inscriptions are added. A proof coin has a mirror-like (reflective) field, while a bullion coin exhibits a matte field.
To achieve their beautiful “proof” finish, American Eagle Coins must undergo a special minting process.
“The U.S. Mint goes to extraordinary lengths to produce a stunningly beautiful coin, including multiple strikes and polishing of coin blanks to obtain the design detail and shining field characteristic of the coin,” says Philip N. Diehl, President of U.S. Money Reserve and former Director of the U.S. Mint.
The field is often subdivided into left and right, notes Numismatics.org. When writing about elements in the field, you would write “to l.” or “to r.” to refer to the left and right as the viewer sees them. If you were describing the left or right arms or hands of a figure on the coin, however, you would not use “to l.” or “to r.” You would simply write that they are the left or right arms or hands of the figure or portrayed.
The relief is the part of the coin's design that is raised above the surface/field. On the front of the Gold American Eagle, the relief is Lady Liberty holding a torch and an olive branch, striding toward the viewer with sunbeams and the Capitol building in the background. The reverse relief features a family of eagles clutching olive branches. The raised areas of a proof coin are frosted in appearance, while a bullion coin's relief has a shiny appearance.
4. MINT MARK
A mint mark is a small letter identifying the location of the mint where the coin was produced. Current United States mint marks are P (Philadelphia), D (Denver), S (San Francisco), and W (West Point). Depending on the coin and its year, a mint mark may or may not be present. Proof and Burnished Gold American Eagles include a mint mark, while bullion American Eagles do not include a mint mark.
The date is an inscription that indicates the year the coin was minted. Gold American Eagles were first minted in 1986, after the signing of the Gold Bullion Act of 1985. From 1986 to 1992, Gold American Eagles were produced with Roman-numeral dating. Since 1992, the U.S. Mint has produced this series with Arabic (standard) numbers.
The Proof American Eagle Gold Coin – Reverse
Now let's look at the reverse, or back, of the Proof American Eagle Gold Coin! It features a family of bald eagles clutching olive branches. This side is also referred to as the “tails” side.
This is the face value of a legal tender coin. The Gold American Eagle pictured here carries a symbolic legal tender value of $50. The actual price of a bullion Gold American Eagle Coin is based on the spot price of gold plus a small premium to cover the costs of manufacturing and distribution. The actual price of a Certified Proof Gold American Eagle Coin includes these factors, but also takes into account the coin's availability and condition.
7. ENGRAVER'S INITIALS
Some coins will also include the engraver's initials. According to the U.S. Mint, the engraver is the artist who sculpts a clay model of a coin’s design in bas (low) relief. Sheryl (or Sherl) J. Winter engraved the Gold American Eagle.
8. DESIGNER'S INITIALS
Some coins will include the initials of its designer. The designer is the artist who creates a coin’s design but doesn’t necessarily engrave the design into a coinage die. Their initials are usually small and require a magnifying glass to locate. On the obverse of the Gold American Eagle, you can see AG for Augustus Saint-Gaudens. On the reverse, MB stands for Miley Busiek (now known as Miley Tucker-Frost). Learn more about the men and women who designed the Gold American Eagle!
The rim is the raised part along the edge of both sides of the coin. A coin's rim makes it easier to stack and reduces wear when handling. A Gold American Eagle has a raised or “upset” rim.
The edge is the outer border of a coin and is also called the “third side.” There are four types of edges: plain, reeded, lettered, or decorated. The Gold American Eagle has a reeded edge.
The motto is an inspirational or historic saying on either the obverse or reverse side of the coin. A motto is different than an inscription, as it's typically made up of words that are inspirational or emotionally stirring. On the Gold American Eagle, the motto includes “E Pluribus Unum” and “In God We Trust” on the reverse side.
The stated amount of gold (or other precious metal) content guaranteed by the issuing government in each coin. The 1-oz. Gold American Eagle shown here is produced with exactly one ounce of gold and guaranteed by the U.S. government. Fractional coins in the series contain 1/2, 1/4, or 1/10 of an ounce of gold.
Ready to put your newfound numismatic knowledge to use? Now that you understand the American Eagle Gold Coin from front to back, inspect one for yourself! Order an American Eagle Gold Bullion Coin or Certified Proof Coin online or by calling 1-844-307-1589 today!