Most coin collectors know how a coin is physically struck, but what happens before the United States Mint begins production? This article will walk you through how the United States Mint generates exciting coin series after exciting coin series from conception to production!
To begin, any United States Mint coin or medal needs to be authorized by Congress. Typically, we celebrate people, organizations, momentous events, and other worthy subjects on coinage. The idea can come from anywhere, but Congress generally needs to authorize the coin to get the ball rolling. Beyond just the concept or subject matter of the coinage, this authorization could include imagery and inscriptions to be included in the design. Under certain circumstances, the Secretary of the Treasury can authorize coins himself.
After the coin is authorized, the elements required in the design need to be defined. For example, many United States Mint issues will include the inscriptions "In God We Trust" or "E Pluribus Unum," among others. Most U.S. coinage in denominations more significant than the dime will feature an eagle on the reverse. Notably, many commemoratives do not have this requirement.
After the Mint has outlined the elements of the design, the design process begins. Designs are typically sourced through the Mint staff, through the Artistic Infusion Program (AIP) or public competition. The AIP is a program through the Mint that allows established artists to submit their work for consideration. It was developed to invigorate the design process and potentially include innovative or non-standard designs. Another way to add "fresh" design ideas is through a public design competition. The famous 2014 Baseball Hall of Fame commemorative obverse and the circulating Bicentennial quarter reverse are examples of open design competition winners.
The United States Mint's coin design process starts in earnest with drawings. These drawings are typically submitted to the Mint for review to ensure that the design elements included are all there and that they satisfy legal, copyright, and subject-matter requirements. During this review, a refinement process occurs explicitly concerned about how the design will hold-up in the striking process. Elements are adjusted and explicitly resized concerning how the coin will look after it is struck. The actual striking of design famously became an issue with the Saint-Gaudens $20 gold coin as it couldn't easily be struck in high relief as intended. Once the subject matter experts and the Mint have had some inputs on the designs, they are submitted for review.
The Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee (CCAC) and the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) are tasked with reviewing the designs. The CCAC has members with backgrounds in history as well as the coin and medallic arts. The committee also includes several public members, many of whom have a lifelong passion for coin collecting. The CFA is a committee of experts in the field of fine arts. The commission's job is to give feedback to the various U.S. Government offices and entities on all matters about the arts, aesthetics, and design, including coin and medals, memorials, architecture, and other artistic concerns.
Thirty-nine different reverse plans were submitted to the CCAC for consideration for the new American Silver Eagle and American Gold Eagle 2021 reverses. Out of these submissions, each of the committees provides feedback about the designs before making recommendations to the Secretary of the Treasury, who then chooses the final design.
Once the design selection is completed, the United States Mint begins its final preparations. The sculptors and engravers at the Mint will then prepare a larger sculpture of the coin. This sculpture is then reduced, and the image is transferred to master hubs and dies. These are then used to produce working hubs and, ultimately, the dies used to strike the coin. Early in the die preparation process, before most of the working dies are created, some test strikes do occur to ensure there are no manufacturing processes and final product problems.