Grading Cameo Contrast on U.S. Proof Coins

Various levels of cameo contrast on Kennedy half dollars.
Various levels of cameo contrast on Kennedy half dollars. Image Copyright: © 2017 James Bucki; All rights reserved.

Before 1971, the U.S. Mint produced Proof coins with dies that were chemically etched or sandblasted to impart a frosted finish on the coin's devices. To give the fields a mirrored finish, die finishers polished the flat areas of the dies to a smooth mirror consistency. Unfortunately, the set of Proof dies only produced about a hundred coins with deep cameo contrasting devices and mirror-like fields. As the dies continued to be used, the frosted devices on the coin slowly eroded due to the friction of the stamping process until the entire coin had a brilliant mirrored finish.

Collectors of early Proof coins prize coins with a high degree of cameo contrast. To obtain a cameo designation, both sides of the coin must have cameo contrast. If one side of the coin has a "deep cameo" and the other side only has a "cameo," then the coin will receive a "cameo" designation. "Deep cameo" is sometimes referred to as "ultra cameo".

Cameo Contrast on Modern United States Proof Coins

A new minting process developed in the early 1970s and perfected by 1973 allowed the United States Mint to produce Proof coins that consistently had a high level of contrast between the devices in the fields. In 2012, the mint started using a laser to impart the frosted finish on the dies before being used to manufacture Proof coins. This new process ensured that every Proof coin minted had a deep cameo contrast.

Initially, this new process was crude and irregular. Many coin collectors criticized the United States Mint because the new laser frosting technique destroyed many of the fine details on a coin. Subsequently, the mint developed a new technique that can apply different intensities of laser frosting on the coin dies.

  • 01 of 06

    Deep Cameo + or Ultra Cameo ★

    Deep Cameo + or Ultra Cameo ★
    Deep Cameo + or Ultra Cameo ★. © 2013 James Bucki

    The "Deep Cameo +" (or "Deep Cameo ★") designation is only given to coins that exhibit a strong and intense frosted finish on the devices and have excellent eye appeal. This exceptional frosted finish on the devices is only seen on the first few coins that a new set of Proof die produces. Third-party grading services may indicate this with a "+" or "★" (star) on the overall grade assigned to the coin.

  • 02 of 06

    Deep Cameo

    Deep Cameo or Ultra Cameo Contrast
    Deep Cameo or Ultra Cameo Contrast. © 2013 James Bucki

    To receive a "Deep Cameo" (or "Ultra Cameo") designation a coin must exhibit strong and unbroken frosted devices on both the obverse and the reverse. A robust contrast between the mirrored fields and frosted devices must be consistent and undiminished in all areas. The degree of frosting on the devices will not be as intense as the "+" or "★" (star) designated coin. However, the frosting must be unbroken and complete. Even the smallest amount of brilliance or fade in the recessed areas of the design will prevent a coin from obtaining this designation.

  • 03 of 06

    Cameo + or Cameo ★

    Cameo + or Cameo Star
    Cameo + or Cameo ★. © 2013 James Bucki

    For a coin to receive a "Cameo +" (or "Cameo ★") designation all the devices on the coin must exhibit a light to moderate frosting on both sides. The recessed areas of the coin will exhibit the same amount of frosting without any breaks or reflective patches of brilliance.

  • 04 of 06


    Cameo Contrast
    Cameo Contrast. © 2013 James Bucki

    Coins that exhibit a light to moderate frosting on all the devices will receive a "Cameo" designation. There may be very small areas on the devices where the frosting fades and reflects light as almost mirrorlike. The coin may still qualify for cameo designation if it does not significantly impact the eye appeal of the coin. Both sides must have adequate levels of frosting to qualify for this designation.

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  • 05 of 06

    Brilliant Proof (No Cameo)

    Brilliant Proof (No Cameo)
    Brilliant Proof (No Cameo). © 2013 James Bucki

    Coins that have large patches of brilliance on the devices or the entire surface (including the devices) have a brilliant mirrored finish that will be classified as "Brilliant Proof." Grading services usually indicate this designation by not including a suffix of "Cameo," "Deep Cameo" or "Ultra Cameo."

  • 06 of 06

    Cameo Contrast Reference Sheet

    Grading the Cameo Contrast on Proof Coins
    Grading the Cameo Contrast on Proof Coins. © 2013 James Bucki

    In order to help you compare and discern the differences between the levels of Cameo contrast, I have prepared a reference sheet that illustrates the three basic categories of cameo contrast on Proof coins.