Obverse and Reverse

The obverse and reverse of a coin. United States Mint image

When we were children, we called the sides of our coins “heads” and “tails.” If you want to be taken seriously as a numismatist (person who studies and collects coins), it is time to learn the proper terms to describe your coins. This way, you can talk to other collectors and coin dealers in the special language of coin collecting, and they’ll not only understand what you mean, but they’ll have a lot more respect for you as a serious numismatist.

Have you ever seen a tail on the back of a coin? Neither have I, but most coins actually do have a head. We call the head side of the coin the obverse. The other side, (the one without the tail) is the reverse.

The Legend, Inscription, Rim and Field

The location of the Legend, Rim, and Field of a coin. Adapted from a United States Mint image

Let’s take a look at the reverse side of a U.S. Lincoln Cent. The first thing to notice is theLegend, also called the Inscription. This is the part of a coin that tells us important things like who made the coin, and how much it is worth.

The field is any flat area of the coin that hasn’t been raised off of the coin during minting. The portion of the design that has been raised is called the relief.

The rim is the upraised part of the coin that runs all the way around the edge of the coin on both sides. The reason for the rim is three-fold: First, it protects the coin’s design from wearing out too quickly; second, it makes the coins easier to stack, and third, it helps bring up the devices during striking.

The Motto, Mint Mark, and Edge

The location of the Motto, Edge, and Mint Mark on a coin. Adapted from a United States Mint image

This is the obverse of the U.S. Lincoln Cent. You can see one of the mottos along the top of the coin, “In God We Trust.” A motto is a word or phrase that has a special meaning to people, perhaps stirring emotions or inspiring them. Current United States coinage has 3 mottos: “Liberty”, “In God We Trust”, and “E Pluribus Unum”. “E Pluribus Unum” is Latin for “Out of Many, One”.

Note the edge of the coin: it has a plain, unadorned surface. The edge is the actual side of the coin, and shouldn’t be confused with the rim.

The mint mark is a letter or symbol that tells us where the coin was minted. Mint marks have appeared on coins since ancient Greek and Roman times, and served as a sort of quality-control mark. If the coin was later found to be wrong somehow, such as silver that wasn’t pure enough, the King or Caesar would know who to question about this. Today, the mint marks on circulating U.S. coins tell us that the coin was minted in one of the following places:

Denver – D
San Francisco – S (producing Proof coins only)
Philadelphia – P (or sometimes no mint mark)

Certain other United States coins, such as gold bullion and proof coins, bear different mint marks than those above.

The Portrait, Date, and Designer’s Initials

The location of the Portrait, Date, and Designer’s Initials on a coin. Adapted from a United States Mint image

One of the most important parts of a coin’s design is its portrait. Most coins have one, including all currently circulating U.S. coins. Portraits on U.S. coins meant for circulation have featured Miss Liberty and former Presidents, but have never featured a living person. This is a major difference between U.S. coinage and that of many other countries, such as England, that have a hereditary monarchy (e.g. a King or Queen as symbolic or literal Head of State.) On their coins the living, reigning Monarch is depicted in the portrait.

The date on the coin tells us when the coin was minted. As we saw on the page before this, the letter right below the date is the mint mark.

The designer’s initials have appeared on most U.S. coins, although they can sometimes be hard to find. Even if you know where they are, you might need a magnifying glass to read them. On the U.S. Lincoln Cent here, the initials are hidden at the base of the portrait in tiny letters; I enlarged them a bit so you can read them. They are “VDB” for Victor David Brenner, the designer of the obverse side of the Lincoln penny which has been in use since 1909.

The Reeded Edge & Clad Layers

Well-worn clad quarters with a copper core and reeded edges. Photo courtesy of CoinPage.com

This is a side view of some fairly well-circulated quarters. U.S. dimes, quarters, and half dollars are called clad coins, because layers of different metals have been sandwiched together. When you look at the edge of a modern clad coin, you can see the copper in the middle, with the outer layers of a silver-colored alloy called cupro-nickel on either side. The U.S. began issuing copper/cupro-nickel clad coins in 1968. (Cupro-nickel is just a fancy word meaning the metal is made of copper and nickel mixed together to form an alloy.)

Earlier in this tutorial we saw a plain edge on the U.S. Cent. These coins have reeded edges. The same U.S. coins that are clad are also reeded (the dime, quarter, and half dollar).

The Proof Coin and the Cameo Portrait

This is a proof coin showing the location of the Cameo Portrait, Upset Rim, and Reeded Edge. Adapted from a United States Mint image

proof coin is made using a special minting process that results in especially high-quality coins. Proof coins aren’t meant for general circulation; they are made for collectors. The proof process has been improved through the years, and one of the features of modern proof coin technology is the cameo portrait.

The cameo portrait, (often just called the “cameo”), has a frosted, matte finish that stands out in sharp contrast to the highly-polished, shiny surface of the field. Proof coins haven’t always been made this way, so keep in mind that not all proof coins will have a cameo, but all proof coins should have pristine, shiny, mirror-like surfaces and clean, bold designs.

The same coins that have reeded edges on their normal, circulating versions will have reeded edges on their proofs. All U.S. coins, proof or circulating, also have a rim. The technical term for this rim is the upset rim because when the coins go through the minting process, the rim is created by the “upsetting” machine. This really just means that the rim is set upward from the surface of the coin, but now you know a highly technical term to impress your fellow collectors with!

Article originally posted at About.com website, http://coins.about.com/od/coinsglossary/ss/coinanatomy.htm