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A Numismatists Glossary

Newbie coin collectors often find they’ve entered into a unique new world that has its own language, history and customs. To really dive in and start to learn how it all works, one of the first things you’ll need to learn is the lingo. Our glossary for coin collectors and numismatics provides a convenient introduction to the language of coin collecting and a resource you can return to anytime you come across a term in your coin collecting you don’t know. Here are the main terms it’s good to be aware of in numismatics.

Adjustment marks – In the early years of the United States, coin adjusters were employed to check the weight of a coin to see if the materials in it exceeded its face value. For coins that did, they would file them with marks to reduce their weight. Many early U.S. coins therefore have these adjustment marks.

Alloy – The result of mixing multiple metals together. Many coins are made of such mixes.

Alterations – Any change that someone makes to a coin, usually done by fraudulent coin sellers to convince buyers a coin is worth more than it is.

ANA - The American Numismatic Association, a large collection of coin collectors and dealers.

ANACS – A grading service that offers certificates of authentication for coins.

Annealing - The process of heating then cooling a metal to soften it, which is frequently done right before striking a coin.

Assay – Test to determine a coin’s weight and purity to confirm its value.

Attributes – The parts of a coin that determine its value, such as year, grade, mint and denomination.

Bag marks – The marks occurring on coins that were stored or shipped in mint bags, caused by the contact they made with other coins in the bag.

Barber coinage – Term that refers to coins designed by the U.S. Mint engraver Charles Barber, which includes dimes, quarters, and half dollars minted between 1892 and 1916.

Base metal – Word used to describe non-precious metals. This category includes copper, zinc and nickel. Coins are sometimes made entirely out of base metals; other times they’re mixed with gold or silver to create coins.

Beading – The border of raised dots and indentations found around the edge of some coins.

Bi-metallic – Term used to describe a coin with one type of material in the center and another on the outside.

Blank – The prepared metal disc yet to be stamped with a design.

Brass – Alloy made of copper and zinc.

Bronze – Alloy made of copper and tin.

Bourse – Term commonly used to describe a coin show.

Breen Book - A popular way of describing Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins. It includes the Breen Numbers that many still use to identify different coin varieties.

Bullion – Precious metals in various forms, including coins and bars, which sell for their intrinsic metal value and are thus popular with investors. Bullion coins are valued for their metal content rather than as collector’s items.

Business Strike – Coins created with the intention of being used in circulation, rather than as collector’s items.

Cameo – Adjective that describes a coin that has a lot of contrast between the devices and field and an especially reflective surface. These attributes make it more attractive and sought after than other coins of its type.

Certified Coins – Coins that have been graded and authenticated by a reputable third party such as the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC) or the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS).

Choice – A way of describing the grade of a coin, a “choice” coin is considered to be in good condition.

Circulated – Coins with the wear and tear of being used by consumers in transactions.

Clad – Coins that have a different metal at the center than on the outside.

Classic Era – The period from 1792-1964 when the U.S. minted coins for circulation using gold and silver, before the price of the metals became too high.

Coinage – The metal money minted by a particular country.

Commemorative – Special printings of coins to commemorate a particular person, event or place.

Contact marks – Synonym for bag marks. The marks on a coin made by contact with other coins.

Condition census – A list of the finest or most valuable coins of a particular coin issue.

Condition rarity – Describes a coin that’s common in general, but rare to find in good condition.

Contact marks – Synonym for bag marks. The marks on a coin made by contact with other coins.

Counterfeit – Any coin sold as something other than what it is, whether due to alterations or faking the metals it supposedly contains.

Deep Cameo – Describes cameo coins that have an even more deeply frosted device and contrasted appearance than other cameo coins.

Denomination – The value the Mint assigns to a coin at the time it’s released, such as one cent, 25 cents, one dollar, etc. The value of a collectible coin differs from its original denomination.

Device – The specific design elements included on a coin, such as an eagle, person or lettering.

Die – A piece of metal with a design engraved into it that’s used to stamp a coin. Flaws in a die influence how the coin turns out and how valuable it is.

Dipped – Adjective describing a coin cleaned with a chemical solution that changes the coin’s appearance. Typically this ends up making the coin less valuable to collectors.

Edge – Rim or third side of a coin that can be smooth, ridged or include a device like stars or lettering.

Elements – Synonym for devices. The specific images included in a design.

Elongated coin – Coin that’s been stretched with a roller die to create a new oval shape.

Encapsulated coin – Authenticated coin contained within a plastic folder to keep it in good condition.

Engraver – Person responsible for cutting the design into the die to create new coins.

Environmental Damage – Sometimes shortened as ED. Describes any changes to a coin caused by exposure to the elements.

Essai – Can also be spelled “essay.” A test strike of a new design.

Face value – Synonym for denomination. The amount a coin is worth when first minted.

Fantasy piece – Rare coins struck due to an interest by Mint officials.

Field – The background parts of a coin that don’t contain any of the design.

Fineness – The measure of how pure the metal in a coin is.

First Strike – The first batches of coin struck by a particular die. These usually have good detail and a better appearance than those struck later.

Flip – Type of packaging for coins that contains a plastic envelope for the coin and a place for its label.

Gem – Term used to describe coin in particularly good condition.

Grade – Measure of a coin’s condition.

Hairlines – Thin scratches found on the surface of a coin. These are common, but depending on how many and how serious they are plays a big role in how a coin is graded.

High relief – When a coin’s devices are especially upraised from its surface.

Hub – The tool used to press an image into a die.

Incuse – A method of impressing a coin’s design below the surface.

Intrinsic value – The amount that the metal in a coin alone is worth, also referred to as melt value.

Key coin – Coin considered one of the most valuable in its series.

Legal tender – Coins and other types of currency that must legally be accepted in payment of debt.

Legend – Any inscription on a coin.

Luster – Also sometimes spelled lustre. How bright a coin is and how well it reflects light. This is one of the key considerations in determining a coin’s grade.

Matte – Proofs made in a style that causes them to have less luster.

Mint – An institution that creates coins.

Mint Mark – A small letter included on a coin that tells you what mint it was made at.

Mint Set – A collection of uncirculated coins you can buy from a mint.

Mint State – A coin that’s never been in circulation and is in great condition (as though it just came from the mint).

Non-circulating legal tender – Shortened as NCLT, this describes specialty coins that are released by a mint with collectors rather than consumers in mind. The intrinsic value of the coin is typically more than its face value from the time it’s first released with these.

Numismatics – The field of studying and collecting coins.

Numismatic Guaranty Corporation - One of the main two coin certification services that provides authentication for certified coins. Often shortened to NGC.

Numismatist – Anyone involved with numismatics.

Obverse – The front or “heads” side of a coin.

Overdate – Coins that have one date stamped over another.

Pattern – A test strike of a new coin that may or may not become standard issue. Sometimes these are struck in a different metal than the one ultimately used.

Planchet – Synonym for blank. Metal in the shape of a coin that has yet to be stamped with a design.

Professional Coin Grading Service - One of the main two coin certification services that provides authentication for certified coins. Often shortened to PCGS.

Proof – High-quality coins made specifically for collectors. Often abbreviated as PF.

Raw – A coin that hasn’t been encapsulated by a grading service.

Relief – A method in which the coin’s design is raised above the surface of the coin (the opposite of incuse).

Restrike – A coin made from old dies years after its initial release, thus with an earlier date printed on it than when it was actually created.

Reverse – The back or “tails” side of a coin

Series - A run of coins of the same type, with a consistent denomination and design.

Sheldon Coin Grading Scale – A numerical grading system for coins that goes from 1 to 70, or Poor to Mint State.

Slab – Plastic container used by grading services to encapsulate a coin.

Split Grade – A coin that earns different grades on its obverse and reverse sides.

Strike – The act of creating a coin, also used to refer to the level of detail the resulting coin has.

Technical Grading – Grading that only pays attention to the circulation or environmental wear of a coin, disregarding factors like cameo and brightness.

Trade dollar – Coins made specifically for trade with another country.

Type – A grouping designation for coins that describes those with a certain design or from a certain date.

Type set – A collection of all the different coin options within a type.

Uncirculated – A coin that’s either just been released or has been in the hands of collectors since its release, rather than being used for transactions. Uncirculated coins are usually in very good condition.

Variety – Any particular detail of a coin that sets it apart from most of the coins in its type.

That’s a lot of words, but they won’t be hard to pick up on once you start to get into the world of numismatics. Learning the language is a big step forward, but to become a skilled coin collector, there’s always more to learn. Keep an eye on our blog for more information on collectible coins and other investment opportunities in precious metals. The more you learn, the more skilled you’ll become at identifying the best coins to add to your collection.