How to Describe Your Coins to Other Collectors

Stacks of coins with quarter and penny in front

Sarbasri Bhaumik / Unsplash

When we were children, we called the sides of our coins "heads" and "tails." If you want to be taken seriously as a numismatist (​a 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 common language of coin collecting. They'll not only understand what you mean, but they'll have a lot more respect for you as a serious coin collector and numismatist.

Have you ever seen a tail on the back of a coin? When American coins first were minted in 1792, all coins had an eagle on the back of the coin. An eagle has a tail and hence the term "tail." An allegorical figure of Lady Liberty adorned the front of the coin. This is where we get the term "heads." In numismatic terms, we call the head side of the coin the obverse. The tail side is referred to as the ​reverse.

The Legend, Inscription, Rim and Field

Let's take a look at the reverse side of a U.S. Lincoln Cent. The first thing to notice is the legend, also called the inscription. The legend is the part of a coin that tells us important things like the country of origin, 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 the striking process. The portion of the design that has been raised is called the relief. Some coins have letters or designs that are sunken into the surface of the coin. This is referred to as incuse.

The rim is the upraised part of the coin that runs all the way around the circumference of the coin. Usually, both sides of the coin have a rim. 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 and designs during striking.

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

The Motto, Mint Mark, and Edge

This photo illustrates 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 it may stir emotions or inspire people to pursue a cause. Modern United States coinage has three mottos: "Liberty," "In God We Trust," and "E Pluribus Unum."

The edge of the coin is the actually the third side of the coin, and shouldn't be confused with the rim. in this case, the edge of the Lincoln penny is smooth, also known as plain. Some coins have vertical grooves known as reeding. While other coins, like the U.S. Presidential dollars have lettered edges.

The mintmark is a letter or symbol that tells us which mint facility manufactured the coin. 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 not within minting tolerance, such as silver that wasn't pure enough, the King or Caesar would know who to question about this transgression. Today, the mint marks on circulating U.S. coins tell us which mint facility manufactured the coin. Modern mint marks include:

  • Philadelphia - P or no mint mark
  • Denver - D
  • San Francisco - S
  • West Point - W
The location of the Motto, Edge, and Mint Mark on a coin.
The location of the Motto, Edge, and Mint Mark on a coin. The United States Mint

The Portrait, Date, and Designer's Initials

One of the most important parts of a coin's design is its portrait. Most coins have a portrait, including all currently circulating U.S. coins. Portraits on U.S. coins meant for circulation have featured Lady Liberty and deceased Presidents, but a few have even featured a living person. This is a major difference between U.S. coinage and that of many other countries, such as England. These countries usually feature a hereditary monarchy (e.g. a King or Queen as symbolic or literal Head of State.) On these 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 location of the Portrait, Date, and Designer's Initials on a coin.
The location of the Portrait, Date, and Designer's Initials on a coin. The United States Mint

The Reeded Edge & Clad Layers

This is a side view of some fairly well-circulated U. S. 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).

Well-worn clad quarters with a copper core and reeded edges.

The Proof Coin and the Cameo Portrait

A 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 coin 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!

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

Do You Remember the Coin Collection Terms? Try This Quiz!

Can you name the key parts of this coin, in numismatic terms? Don't forget the proper names for the front and back sides of the coin. If you need help, look back through the tutorial to find your answers. They will be easy to find because they're all on the pictures.

Bonus Question: What is the difference between a coin inscription and a motto?

When you think you have everything correct, check your answers by scrolling down to the next section.

Can you name the key parts of this coin?
Can you name the key parts of this coin? The United States Mint

Quiz Answers: The Key Parts of a Coin

These are the main parts of the coin:

A - Obverse
B - Reverse
C - Edge
D - Rim
E - Portrait
F - Field
G - Mint Mark
H - Date
Bonus Question: A coin inscription is the wording that tells us important information, such as who minted the coin, who the portrait is of, or how much the coin is worth. A motto is made up of words that are inspirational or emotionally stirring, such as "Liberty" or "In God We Trust".