How Are Coins Designed? (Process Explained)

How are coins designed? Coins are designed through a long process that involves input from hundreds, maybe thousands of people. Each country has a slightly different process, but for that, some similarities remain. If no clarification is given, the United States process is assumed.

From legislature making a law to designs at the Mint to endless committees, testing, and finally approval, minting, and circulation, it takes a long time for a coin to go from an idea to your pocket, possibly years.

This is actually a good thing. The time can be necessary to work out any problems or issues that might arise, decide on the design, find the right artist, perfect the design, and promote it to collectors. Below is a brief introduction to what it takes to get a coin from an idea to your pocket.

Laws About Designing Coins

The making of money is usually strictly regulated by the government. Most countries have one or more Mints which are the facilities where money is physically made. But while the Mint has a lot of leeway based on making and producing money, they have to follow the laws made by the legislature. They may make suggestions, but the authority belongs to the legislature.

Some rules have been set in stone for a long time. For example, coins in Great Britain are required to have the reigning monarch on the obverse, making Queen Elizabeth II the person who holds the record of being on coins of the most countries. In the United States, it is illegal to make currency showing a living person, though exceptions have been made for commemorative coins.

Many countries also have rules requiring coins to be easily discernable at a glance, or sometimes even without, for the benefit of the visually impaired. This is why coins that may be similar in size will have other distinguishing characteristics, such as color or a difference in edges. For example, a cent piece and a dime are similar in size, but the dime has ridges and is made of other metals.

It is important to be careful and deliberate when designing a coin, as those coins may be around for a long time. In the United States, a design, once decided upon, will be used for at least 25 years, unless an act of Congress specifies otherwise, such as the use of limited series commemoratives. Even for those, coins can last a long time, especially if taken care of properly.

Why Are New Coins Designed?

New coins get designed primarily if a country decides a paper currency would be better replaced with a coin. It’s rare to see a new coin created, with most changes being commemorative of different people on the coins as opposed to an entirely new coin being created.

In a stable currency, it is unusual for completely new coins to be created, leading to most new coins being commemorative versions of pre-existing coins. That said, it does happen. Sometimes a gap is considered to exist that could be filled with a coin. Or perhaps a country changes its currency, such as Great Britain changing to decimalization.

Other times, thanks to inflation or other changes, it is decided that a paper currency could be more efficiently replaced with a coin that has a longer life expectancy. This was part of the impetus for the creation of the 50 pence coin when Great Britain moved from schillings and florins to pence in 1967. In the late ‘90s, Russia reduced the inflated ruble and brought back the kopek.

In the United States, while many types of coins have passed from minting and distribution, with the most recent being the Eagle and the Double Eagle, a $10 and $20 coin, respectively. They were no longer minted after 1933, and while many coins have changed who is shown, no truly new coins have been made since the short lived 20 cent coin, produced from 1875 to 1878.

Of current currency, all United States coins have existed in some form or other since at least 1796, with quarters and dimes being the most recent. Cent pieces were decided upon in 1793, with other coins being decided upon in between.

How Are New Coins Designed?

It starts with a proposal in Congress, with a committee being formed around its design. Assuming it gets approved, the design gets passed on to the Mint, which decides the specifics of enacting the design into physical practice.

Whether it’s a new design for a common coin, such as a specialty quarter, or a new coin designed altogether, like a proposal for a new five dollar coin, the process starts the same. Someone in Congress proposes it and a committee is formed. While an entire article, possibly a book, could be written on how laws pass through congress, let’s assume this one gets approved smoothly.

Once approved, this gets passed on to the Mint. The Mint sets perimeters for the design. Some will be preset, such as a quarter remaining the same, with only the back being different to fit whatever theme desired. Creating a new coin would require a lot more decisions. A design is chosen. The design is perfected and tested with samples struck. If all goes well, this coin is now mass produced.

How Are Coin Designs Chosen?

The design is chosen once a specific artist or coin designer gets hired, potentially through a contest that could be open to the public. The Mint then reviews the ideas and makes sure that there are no issues related to legalities or accessibility that could appear with it.

Once the requirements are determined, the Mint looks for designs. Sometimes a particular artist, often a sculptor or coin designer is hired. Other times contests are issued. These contests may be limited to professional artists, but may also be open to the public. The youngest person to design a U. S. coin was 22-year-old art student Dennis R. Williams, who designed the bicentennial quarter of 1976.

These ideas are reviewed by the Mint, which checks for things such as compatibility with requirements, legal and copyright compliance, and issues that could crop up with legibility on an engraving that may not be obvious on a flat design. Artists are able to make revisions until the designs are considered good enough to pass on to the committees.

Who Decides The Design Of New Coins?

Two committees, the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee (CCAC) and the United States Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) go through these portfolios of designs, sometimes with the input of shareholders and other experts.

Eventually, each committee picks a design that goes to the Secretary of the Treasury who makes the final decision. The CCAC was created by Congress in 2003 and is made up of appointed positions.

The CFA is an independent federal agency that, in addition to coins and medals, also has a voice in the design of federal buildings, landscape architecture, and urban design. This design is then passed on to the Mint for the next stage.

What Happens After A Design is Chosen?

After a design gets chosen, it has to be tested as an engraving. Medallic artists turn this line drawing into a sculpture, from which dies are made containing a reversed image of the coin design. These dies then strike these images into blank metal discs.

Even when the final design is chosen, there is still a lot of work to do. The design has so far been flat, probably a line drawing. Now it has to be tested as an engraving. The Mint has employees known as medallic artists that turn this line drawing into a sculpture. This sculpture may be clay or digital.

Based on this sculpture, these giant metal pieces called dies are made containing an inverse image of the coin design, one for each side. These dies will press the images into blank metal discs, a process known as striking. The terminology comes from the time when the dies were powered by a hammer, rather than a machine.

Before the coin is mass produced, a test strike is done, to make absolutely sure that no issues exist. Are there any parts of the coin that don’t strike well? Is anything illegible? If this test strike goes well, everyone at the Mint can have a party, probably, and mass production goes into effect. Very mass production, as modern dies can make about 120 coins a minute.

Final Thoughts

Coins get designed through a long and laborious process that starts in Congress, progresses through the Mint, and goes through many different governing committees before finally being experimented on with a test strike to make sure that everything is going smoothly.

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