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.
As a way to invigorate U.S. coin and medal designs, in 2003, the Mint established the Artistic Infusion Program (AIP). This program allows a body of American artists to submit designs for consideration for various medals, circulating coins, and commemorative coins. Like the artists themselves, these designs celebrate differing points of view and perspective and bring vibrancy to contemporary U.S. coinage. These people are the visionaries and designers of the images that are celebrated on our coins.
The AIP currently has twenty-six artists participating. Some of the most recognizable names include Don Everhart, Barbara Fox, Justin Kunz, Richard Masters, Donna Weaver. Jennie Norris and Emily Damstra, the designers responsible for the new 2021 reverse designs used on the American Gold Eagle and the American Silver Eagle coins, are also members of the AIP.
These skilled professionals are employees of the Mint. These are the people who sculpt and engrave the plasters, hubs, and dies used to strike coins. This specialized skill set is used on every item struck by the U.S. Mint. More than occasionally, a U.S. Mint sculptor–engraver also serves as a designer. These people are the artisans who bring the artist-designer’s vision to life on a coin or medal using their decades of skill and their own highly developed artistic sensibilities.
The U.S. Mint’s roster of Sculptor-Engravers is a short one, filled with the elite. Joseph Menna is currently serving as the 14th Chief Engraver of the U.S. Mint. Phebe Hemphill, Donna Weaver, John McGraw, and Craig Campbell round out the Mint’s Medallic Artists (a.k.a. sculptor-engravers).
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.
At this stage, the sculptor-engravers at the Mint put their collective decades of experience to work on producing the most beautiful coinage in the world. At this point in the process Chief Engraver Menna, Ms. Hemphill, and the rest of the Medallic Artist staff at the Mint would use their skills in transferring the final vision of the AIP artist-designer into a workable image that can be struck onto a planchet.
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.