Most of us don’t acquire collectible coins for the design. We all know it’s all about the historical or investment factors. But the truth is that many of the coins in the collector’s arsenal are as fascinating in design as they are rich in historical significance. And you wouldn’t think that something that’s less than an inch or two in diameter could pack such a punch in the design department, but coins do an amazing job of capturing our imagination and telling a story–even if they do fit neatly in the palms of our hands.
There are several components that determine a coin’s value, including the rarity, historic value, grade and mint year. But does design matter? In fact, it does! The aesthetic value of a coin—that is, its unique beauty, design and condition—is also extremely important to identifying a coin’s true worth. The fact of the matter is that both casual or serious coin collectors want items in their collection that they can show off to the world, and the prettier coins get more love, plain and simple.
Who Designs American Coins?
In the world of numismatics (that’s the study of coins, for all you coin newbies out there), the designers, engravers and sculptors of the United States Mint are something like rockstars. Though there hasn’t been a Chief Engraver of the U.S. Mint since the 2010 retirement of legendary sculptor John Mercanti, the department employs a team of dedicated artists, specifically called sculptor-engravers, who design and perfect many of the best-selling collectible coins of our era. The U.S. Mint also works with artists as part of their Artistic Infusion Program to create special coins. As you’ll learn from the design explanations below, many of the most recognizable images of American coinage were designed by famous artists throughout history.
The Basics of Coin Designs
When you’re studying coin designs, it’s vital that you know some basics about coin anatomy. The United States Mint uses specific language to designate the different parts of each coin. Knowing the basics of coin design helps us look at each item in our collection with the discerning eye of a numismatic expert. Here are the most important words to know:
- Obverse—The obverse refers to the front, or the “heads” side of the coin. It’s generally the side of the coin bearing the principal stamp or design.
- Reverse—The reverse is the back, or the “tails” side of the coin.
- Edge—Sometimes referred to as the third side of the coin, the edge is the outer border of a coin, which may be plain or textured with a special edge, such as:
- Reeded—Evenly placed vertical grooves.
- Lettered—Stamped with lettering.
- Decorated—Impressed with a decorative design.
- Rim—The rim, not to be confused with the edge, is the raised edge created by the upsetting mill that surrounds the coin. It helps to protect the coin design from wear and tear.
- Legend—This is the primary coin inscription, which usually indicates the country of minting, face value and other important information. On commemorative coins, the legend will describe who or what the coin commemorates.
- Relief and Field—When you rub your fingers across a coin, the relief is the part of the design that raises off the surface. The field is the flat, negative space that has no design or inscription.
- Mint Mark—A mint mark is a small letter or symbol on the coin identifying specifically where the coin was made. For example, in the U.S., you will see P for Philadelphia, D for Denver, S for San Francisco or W for West Point, to signify which United States Mint produced the coin.
The Most Popular Coins and Their Designs
Okay, now for the fun part. Let’s take a deep dive into the unique designs of some of the most popular collectible coins to see what sets these special currencies apart from the rest. Of course, every coin has a unique design with a rich and fascinating backstory, but these are the stories of our top-selling coins.
The American Gold Eagle is marked by the iconic full-length figure of Lady Liberty, designed by Renaissance artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens, on the obverse. The design is actually a descendent of the 1907 Double Eagle coin, which was designed by Saint-Gaudens. Lady Liberty bears a torch in her right hand and an olive branch in her left, symbolizing freedom and peace respectively. The front bears the word LIBERTY and the year.
The reverse of the American Gold Eagle, designed by sculptor Miley Busiek, features a high-flying male bald eagle carrying an olive branch flying above a nest with a female eagle and her hatchlings. The inscriptions on the back of the American Gold Eagle say “1 Oz. FINE GOLD – 50 DOLLARS,” “E. PLURIBUS UNUM,” and “IN GOD WE TRUST.”
The iconic silver version of the American Eagle features another famous image of Lady Liberty on the obverse, this time from the sculptor Adolph Alexander Weinman, who designed it for the Walking Liberty Half Dollar, a silver 50-cent piece that was issued from 1916 through 1947. Because the design of the Walking Liberty was so popular, the Mint decided to reissue it for the Silver Eagle. The obverse also features an inscription with the words LIBERTY and IN GOD WE TRUST.
The reverse of the American Silver Eagle was designed by the former Chief Engraver of the United States Mint, John Mercanti. It features a heraldic eagle behind a shield, holding an olive branch in one talon and several arrows in the other. Above the eagle sits 13 stars, which represent the 13 original colonies.
American Buffalos are the highest quality gold bullion available from the U.S. Mint and are the purest American gold coins on the market today. They are beloved for their unique, simplistic design featuring a Native American portrait on the obverse and a standing buffalo on the reverse. The front portrait is actually a blend of portraits of three Native American Chiefs (Big Tree, Iron Tail and Two Moons) that was designed by James Earle Fraser for the Type 1 Indian Head Nickel issued in 1913. The obverse also has three inscriptions—LIBERTY, the mint year and the letter F for Fraser.
The reverse of the American Gold Buffalo is what lends the coin its nickname. The iconic buffalo relief also came from Fraser’s original Indian Head Nickel, which originally showed the buffalo on a higher mound. The buffalo, symbolizing sacred life and abundance to the Native Americans, is said to be modeled after a Central Park Zoo buffalo named Black Diamond. Of course, Black Diamond also appears on the five-cent nickel, which shares two reverse inscriptions with the Gold Buffalo: the phrase E. PLURIBUS UNUM above the buffalo’s back and UNITED STATES OF AMERICA along the top.
However, instead of the FIVE CENTS on the nickel, Buffalos are inscribed with the phrase $50 1 OZ. .9999 FINE GOLD.
Considered by numismatic experts to be one of the most historical gold coins in the U.S., the $20 Liberty Gold Double Eagle tells a fascinating tale of coinage in the U.S. during the Gold Rush, as it was made to double the largest denomination of U.S. coin (the $10 eagle) authorized by the Mint Act of 1792. This is why the coin bears the name Double Eagle. The coin was one of the most popular in circulation until it was discontinued in 1933, when President Roosevelt recalled gold coins.
On the front, it features an adaptation of the Crouching Venus sculpture, designed by the Mint’s Chief Engraver James Barton Longacre (the designer of the Indian Head penny). It also has the country mark and denomination inscribed on the front. The reverse side of the Liberty Gold Double Eagle was also designed by Longacre to feature the Great Seal of the United States alongside a portrait of Lady Liberty wearing a crown that says “Liberty.” The year of mintage completes the reverse design of the Liberty Gold Double Eagle.
Though they aren’t the oldest, rarest or most valuable collectible coins on the market, America the Beautiful quarters are beloved primarily for their unique designs, which commemorate national parks and other national sites. Each year, five new quarters are released, showcasing beautiful designs honoring places in all 50 states plus Washington, D.C. and American territories. The obverse side features the standard quarter design with the profile of George Washington, while the reverse side features a commemorative legend.
Gold Canadian Maple Leafs from the Royal Canadian Mint are some of the most popular foreign coins among collectors, in part because they are some of the purest gold bullion coins available in the world. Similarly, Silver Canadian Maple Leafs are extremely popular due to their purity and because they are Canada’s official silver bullion coin.
The design of the Gold and Silver Maple Leaf coins are very similar. On the obverse, the Maple Leaf features the profile of Queen Elizabeth II of Canada with the inscription ELIZABETH II and the denomination and mint year.
On the backside, of course, is a relief celebrating the famous Canadian Maple Leaf with wording that reads CANADA and the denomination. The famous portrait of ELIZABETH II appearing on Leafs released between 1988 and 1989 was designed by Arnold Machin, between 1990 and 2003 by Dora de Padery-Hunt and 2004 to present by Canadian artist Susanna Blunt.
Krugerrands, South Africa’s coveted gold coins, are named after former South African President Paul Kruger plus the word “rand,” which is the country’s official currency. These gold bullion coins are beloved for their purity as well as their unique design, which features the portrait of Paul Kruger on one side and the national symbol of South Africa, the springbok, on the other.
The obverse side of the Krugerrand bears the portrait of Kruger with the name SOUTH AFRICA appearing over Kruger’s head in both English and Afrikaans. The reverse side of the coin, which was designed by world-renowned South African sculptor Coert Steynberg, features a galloping springbok with the word KRUGERRAND, as well as the year and the gold weight.
Love Coin Design? Check Out Provident Exclusives
At Provident Metals, we’re obsessed with coin design. So much so that we’ve designed an array of Provident Originals that take coin design to whole new levels. Our M.O. is simple when it comes to design—take classic coin fundamentals and mix them with contemporary themes. To see what we mean, check out our Zombucks, World of Dragons, Egyptian Gods, Four Horsemen and Provident Prospector coins.
We all have our own special reasons for collecting coins, whether design has anything to do with it or not. At Provident Metals, we’re here to provide you with the best experience buying investment bullion anywhere, with an incredible selection, secure online purchasing and reliable shipping of your investment.