Over the past several decades, there have been many advancements in the techniques and technologies used to create coins, especially those produced specifically for collectors. As a result, today’s coin collectors have a greater and more diverse range of coins to collect than ever before. Read the article to find out more about the evolution of coin minting.
Over the past several decades, there have been many advancements in the techniques and technologies used to create coins, especially those produced specifically for collectors. As a result, today’s collectors have a greater and more diverse range of coins to collect than ever before.
One of the most important developments has been the issuance of high relief and ultra-high relief coins, which feature designs which project upwards from their surface. Relief is a term from the field of medallic sculpture and is defined as the distance between the lowest point on a coin’s field and highest point on the design, which is raised and sculpted to include intricate details that do not appear on flatter coins.
High relief coins have a substantial distance between the depth of the lowest and highest points on the coin, while ultra-high relief pieces have the highest distance between their fields and the raised elements of the design. These coins have the appearance of being three-dimensional, which makes them miniature works not just of art but also of sculpture.
Coins struck with relief were first minted in ancient Greece and Rome, such as the famous Tetradrachm silver coins, some of which are in our inventory. Those coins, which were struck by hand, continue to be widely admired for their artistry and as an important evolution in numismatics. But as the coinage needs of modern societies emerged, much flatter coins had to be produced to make them easier to strike and to make them stackable for transportation.
President Theodore Roosevelt was not satisfied with American coins lacking relief issued before he assumed power in 1901 and wanted U.S. gold coins to be as beautiful and struck with relief like the ancient coins, which eventually led to the 1909 Ultra-High Relief Double Eagle gold coin designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Those coins are masterpieces, but they were very difficult to strike and could not be mass produced.
A hundred years later, in 2009, the U.S. Mint was able to use the technologies that have been developed since the 1909 coin was issued to recreate the original coin and avoid the production problems encountered back then, resulting in a masterpiece of modern numismatics – the 2009 Ultra-High Relief Double Eagle gold coin.
Since the start of the 21st century there has been a digital revolution in coin production, which includes especially digital die-making, digital lasers, and digital scanning – techniques in which digital technology is used to create the components required to turn a coin design into a finished, struck coin.
Modern American circulation coins have been criticized for being too flat and lacking dimensionality. For example, the Kennedy half dollar when it was first struck in 1964 had more relief to the portrait on the obverse than do more recent examples of the coin. Then in 2014 for the gold version and the special 4-coin silver set issued for the coin’s 50th anniversary, the Mint returned to the original relief of the 1964 coin.
The U.S. Mint also issued high-relief gold coins in 2015 and 2017 in the American Liberty program, but it has to date not issued any silver high-relief coins.
In the past decade several world mints, such as the Perth Mint in Australia, have made impressive strides in minting techniques used to create high and ultra-high relief silver and gold coins, which in some cases have depth of as much as 5 millimeters, the kind of depth that used to only be seen on medals.
Producing high relief and ultra-high relief coins has always involved certain technical and physical challenges and limitations – one of them being that normally to have a great amount of depth and raised elements on a coin it is necessary to reduce the size of the planchet, as is the case on all the modern HR gold coins the U.S. Mint has issued.
But a company called Coin Invest Trust based in Lichtenstein has developed a revolutionary approach to high relief minting used on coins it has issued since 2016 called Smartminting. This approach produces high relief coins with two to four times the usual relief, with greater definition in the details of the design, and with increased three-dimensionality. It also does not require that high relief coins have smaller diameters than regular relief issues. And the process makes it possible to produce coins of normal relief with much less metal than before, which is another game changer since that can reduce the cost of gold collector coins, for example.
CIT’s skull coin series issued for Palau is another example of this approach.
In addition to issuing coins with impressive relief, modern world mints have also been producing collector coins in non-traditional shapes such as concave/convex coins and others shaped like cylinders, cubes, or in the shape of a Coca-Cola bottle cap.
In addition, the Royal Canadian Mint pioneered minting technologies that result in coins that feature selective gold plating and others that are embedded with crystals and precious stones as well as coins in which the main design is in color. Other world mints have picked up on these innovations and added their own approaches.
Coins with holograms (images that move when the coin is tilted) are another innovative type of coin popular with modern coin collectors such as the 2017 Moon Panda.
The U.S. Mint has not embraced these non-traditional minting approaches nearly as much as world mints have, but in 2014 it did issue its first curved coins, the 2014 Baseball Hall of Fame coins. To produce those coins Mint officials worked with the French and Royal Australian officials who had already produced curved coins.
Next year there will be four curved coins to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing, including the first-ever 5 oz-silver proof curved coin, and there is legislation to create the first square coins in 2022 to mark the 75th anniversary of racial integration of baseball.
Modern technology and new approaches to coin production will undoubtedly continue to evolve and advance in ways that today’s collectors can only imagine.
||Louis is an award-winning numismatic journalist and writer specializing on modern coins. He has been writing a weekly column for CoinWeek since May 2011 called “The Coin Analyst,” which focuses primarily on modern U.S. and world coins and developments at major world mints. In August 2015 he received the Numismatic Literary Guild’s award for Best Website Column for “The Coin Analyst,” and in August 2021 the column received the NLG award for best column on modern U.S. coins. He has also received other awards for his writing. He is also a contributor to several magazines, including Coin World, where he writes a bimonthly feature;The Numismatist, the American Numismatic Association’s monthly publication, where he writes a monthly column on modern world coins; and and other publications. He began writing about coins in 2009. He is a founding member of the Modern Coin Forum hosted by ModernCoinMart and has written articles for MCM since 2014. He has collected classic and modern U.S. and world coins since he was about 10 and first joined the ANA in the 1970’s. He has been writing professionally since the early 1980s.|