Signed by George Washington, the Coinage Act of 1792 allowed for the first United States coins to be struck, and for over 227 years, U.S. coins have been in circulation and are among the most widely collected coins in the world. Each coin throughout the decades has helped tell America’s story, and with their intricate designs, each denomination represents a moment in time in U.S. history and economics, from early commerce to today’s complex financial systems. Every coin is a tangible piece of monetary art, proudly displaying its legacy and beauty, forever sealed in precious metals.
Before any coin meets the press and is struck into existence there are a few processes that must first take place. From legislation in Congress and the initial design to input from the Department of the Treasury before the artists begin sculpting the coin.
Legislation Within Congress
The United States Mint gets its authority to make U.S. coins from Congress and the Act of September 26, 1890. This Act authorizes every coin and most medals that the U.S. Mint manufactures, overseeing operations under its Public Enterprise Fund (PEF).
Under this legislation, engravers prepare original dies that have already been authorized, giving the Director of the Mint the power (with the approval of the Secretary of the Treasury) to design any new coins to be prepared, with the caveat that coins can be redesigned once every twenty-five years.
Art takes its first step in the process through the initial design, making the artists an essential part of a coin’s inception. These artists help ensure that their designs illustrate the essence and story of America. In 2003, the United States Mint established the Artistic Infusion Program (AIP) to help contract talented American artists from a variety of diverse backgrounds and interests who then create and submit new designs for future coins and medals. AIP artists’ designs are found on many coins and medals, and in most cases, the artist’s initials appear on the final coins or medals, along with the initials of the Mint medallic artist who sculpted the selected design.
In the instance of the World War I Centennial Silver Dollar Coin, sometimes legislation calls for a public design competition, though this is a rare occurrence. Typically, after researching the subject of the coin, U.S. Mint artists submit their design ideas to be put under review by the Mint. After a legal analysis as to whether the design meets specified requirements, follows copyright laws, and uses correct symbols, the Mint’s chief engraver provides feedback for artistic improvements. A “coinability” check then looks for anything in the image that wouldn’t strike well, such as small letters or letters that are too close together, all of which goes back to the artists for revision.
After a couple of rounds of internal revisions, stakeholders then have their say and review with their own feedback on the accuracy and appropriateness of the coin’s designs. The stakeholders’ feedback is again given back to the artists to incorporate until both stakeholders and the Mint feel a portfolio is ready for committees to review.
The Selection Process
The Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee (CCAC) and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (CFA), both of which are independent federal agencies, hold meetings to review design portfolios of proposed U.S. Mint coins who then each recommend a design to the Secretary of the Treasury. After all these considerations and recommendations, the Secretary is the one who chooses the final design, which is moved from a line design to a master design that is either clay or digitally sculpted.
The Treasury Department plays such a huge role in this process because it is “the executive agency responsible for promoting economic prosperity and ensuring the financial security of the United States.” There is a wide range of responsibilities that fall under this purview, but due to the critical role coin and currency production plays in the nation's financial infrastructure, the Treasury Department is heavily involved in the coin production process.
Sculpting of a Coin
This is the final stage before a coin is actually put into production. A Mint medallic artist turns the approved line drawing into a three-dimensional sculpt. From adding layers of clay to the model in order to sculpt the overall design, the artist then makes a plaster cast of the clay model to make design refinements before a high-resolution scanner scans the model into a digital copy. Here, computer software is then used to make additional changes. While some artists prefer to use just traditional media, such as clay and plaster, others turn to digital software when sculpting the coin or medal model. Whatever approach an artist takes, the finished sculpt is then carved into a master hub which makes the dies used in coin/medal production.
Coin Production: Before and After
As you can see, there are a lot of different steps and processes a coin or medal goes through before getting to this stage, and it can take years before a coin is ready to be made into a tangible object for the public.
Once a sculpt is complete, a variety of dies are made that participate in various stages of the production process. From working dies to final dies and proof dies, all of these come from the hub that the original sculpt helped create. However, before new coins or medals are made in bulk from die stamping, the manufacturing department performs a test strike, showing if there is any part of the design that doesn’t strike well. If everything looks good, the production process begins.
Taking blank, round discs that will eventually become coins or medals in a process called “Blanking”, coins are annealed or prepared for striking. Annealing changes the physical properties of the metal, making it softer, allowing it to be shaped without risk of breaking which will better hold the design. After they are washed and dried, coins move to a process called “Upsetting” which raises the edge of a coin into a raised rim. Finally, the coin is struck. With up to 540 tons of pressure, a circulating coin press can strike 720 coins per minute. Depending on their finish, coins and medals are struck differently. While circulating, uncirculated, and bullion coins are struck once, proofs are struck at least twice.
After all of this and a rigorous quality assurance process, coins and medals are packaged and distributed all over the world. This is a fascinating process, one that is often unknown and underappreciated. GovMint.com takes great pride in knowing that we do our best to be as involved in this historical process as possible. We do this because we want to ensure that we offer the highest quality coin and medal, helping preserve our Nation’s history.