Provident Metals explains the terms used to describe the design and structure of gold and silver coins

If you’re reading this, you likely have a basic understanding as to the benefits of investing in gold, silver and other precious metal coins already. You understand that unlike paper-money, coins like the American Gold Eagle or Canadian Silver Maple> have intrinsic value.

If you’re also into collecting historic coins for both their metal and numismatic value, you most certainly understand how gold and silver coins stand the test of time – be it for a couple of generations, or a couple of centuries!

While the value of owning coins like the Gold Eagle may be understood by a substantial number of our customers, the nomenclature on describing these coins isn’t so well understood.

When discussing any type of coin, there are certain words we in the business use to describe their design, edging and overall anatomy. If you’re ever talking about your gold and silver coins with a collector, dealer, or family member, knowing these terms will most certainly help.

And having a firm grasp on the anatomy of a coin like the Gold Eagle will impress your family and friends too!!

Describing your coins beyond saying “heads” and “tails”

We recognize the terms “heads” and “tails” from sporting events and our own personal experiences. But if you’re a serious collector or investor in gold and silver coins, it’s good to have a more sophisticated understanding of your coin’s anatomy, which basically consists of a front, back and edges, as well as symbols and portraits that are inscribed in these places.

To better illustrate these terms, we’re going to use a Peace Silver Dollar coin as an example. This particular coin was minted in large numbers in the 1920s and used for everyday transactions.

  • Obverse – A term used by numismatists and investors to describe the "front" of a coin, but it's also referred to as the "head" of the coin since it often includes a portrait. The obverse side of a coin often times includes a Legend and even a Date or Mintmark too.
  • Reverse – A term used to describe the "back" or rear side of a coin. "Tail" is the more common, generic term. Like the obverse side, the reverse side of a coin can include a Portrait, Legend, Date and Mintmark.
  • Field – The "field" of a coin includes any flat areas where there are no inscriptions.
  • Relief – Any part of a coin that's raised above the surface.
  • Date – Inscription that indicates the year the coin was minted. The Peace silver coin was minted from 1921-1933.
  • Portrait – Probably the most unique feature of a coin's anatomy. The portrait for the Peace for example includes a bust of Lady Liberty designed by Anthony de Francisci. Portraits for other coins include historic figures like George Washington or Queen Elizabeth.
  • Rim – The outer perimeter of a coin on both the obverse and reverse sides. The rim was designed into many coins to make them easier to stack, and reduce wear and abrasion when handling.
  • Edge – The "edge" of a coin is the outer border, or actual side of a coin. The "3 rd side" is another term used to describe the "edge," whose texture can either be smooth, reeded, lettered, or decorated. See this illustration from the U.S. Mint for a comparison.
  • Legend – This part of a coin, in most cases, describes where the coin came from. For our example, the Legend consists of "United States of America" inscribed on the reverse side.
  • Motto – Generally consists of an inspirational or historic saying on either the obverse or reverse side of the coin. For the Peace silver coin, the motto includes "E Pluribus Unum" on the reverse side and "In God We Trust" on the obverse.
  • Mint Mark – Very tiny letters that indicate where the coin was produced. The mint mark on the Peace silver dollar can be found on the reverse side on the bottom left just above the eagle's tail. Mint marks for the Peace include a "D" for Denver and an "S" for San Francisco. Not all coins will have a mint mark. For example, Peace coins minted in Philadelphia do NOT include a mark.
  • Designer Initials – Some coins will include the initials of its designer. They're usually very small and require a magnifying glass to locate.

These are the most common terms to describe the anatomy of a gold or silver coin and can in fact apply to any type of coin. Dig around in your pocket and see if you can identify these different features on a quarter or dime.

Understanding these terms will not only help you impress friends and family members, they’ll also help you discuss coins with dealers and other collectors. Being armed with good information also helps ensure you’re not taken advantage of by an unscrupulous dealer.

To learn more about investing in gold and silver coins, we invite you to browse our knowledge center and blog today. And if you have any questions about your coin, or coins in our online store, please feel free to contact us today.