One skill that every aspiring coin collector and dealer should develop is the ability to assess a coin and accurately identify its composition. Being able to do so can help the collector or dealer save money and avoid being scammed. One key skill is being able to tell if a coin is silver or clad.
To tell if a coin is silver or clad, you can look at the mint date and evaluate the edges. Most coins minted after 1964 are clad, with a few exceptions, and clad coins also have a copper ring around the edge which is absent on silver coins. You can also check the coin’s weight or do a ping test.
In many cases, identifying whether a coin is silver or clad is easy. In some cases, however, it takes running through the process of testing and doing research to verify if an identification is accurate. Below, we talk more about this process so you can tell whether your coins are silver or clad.
Words On The Process And What You Need To Know
With just about every type of coin, there are usually multiple ways to identify its composition. In most cases, tell-tale signs are obvious and only one or two steps are needed before you can make a successful identification. With some, however, multiple steps of the process must be completed to get to the proper identification.
To get the most out of the process, though, understanding all you can about the coin in question is the best way to successfully identify a coin’s makeup every time. The reason that is so important is because money is involved, and when money is involved, scammers perfect their craft to take advantage of the uneducated!
Almost every coin used to be close to 100% of the metal it was advertised as being. They were all backed by precious metals and their value was assured by the issuing government. Thus, a $25 gold coin was worth $25 and had an equivalent amount of gold bullion in storage to back its worth. That system caused a few problems.
Debasement Of The Coin
Debasement is when the precious metal value of a coin exceeds its denominational value. This could happen in a variety of ways.
Shaving was one way, involving chipping off a part of a coin made of a precious metal and melting it to combine with other chips to create an ingot. When this happened, the value of the coin was reduced, but the face value of the denomination stayed the same. Done in mass, this could be very profitable to unscrupulous merchants.
To combat this, the government began putting milled edges on coins. The milled edge would be marred when the coin was shaved.
Gresham’s law comes in to play when dealing with debasement. This monetary policy principle maintains that if two coins, one made of precious metal and one of debased value, hold the same face value, two things will happen:
- The lesser value coins will be used to pay off debt
- The coins made of more expensive metal will be hoarded
This principle always results in less currency being circulated as the more valuable coins are hoarded.
Examples Of Governmental Debasement
Debasement did not always happen because of shaving. In many cases, including the United States, debasement was used as part of an overreaching monetary policy, as mentioned above.
The first recorded, major debasement project was created by Cardinal Wolsey, advisor to Henry VIII. Coinage debasement became common as the English waged wars against Scotland and France and ran up debt. Debasement allowed for more coins to be minted to pay off that debt.
Production Costs Were High
Making some coins almost entirely of precious metals was prohibitive. It was not economically sound to mint coins of precious metal mainly because the value of the metal often exceeded the face value of the coin.
This did not really impact the average citizen of a country so much as it was an unnecessary expenditure on the part of the government. If a government was swimming in debt, reducing the amount of precious metal in a coin yielded money that could be far more useful to pay off that debt.
Debasement Saved Money For The Government
Debasing coins allowed governments to print more money and it removed much of the incentive to shave a coin or melt it entirely for its precious metal value. Mixing gold with common metals to make a coin, for instance, set the face value of a coin because the government backed the denomination and removed the possibility of the precious metal value of the coin rising above the face value.
This approach worked, provided the initial coins made of precious metal were taken out of circulation by the government and replaced with a debased coin. If not, there was a metal value comparison that led people to hoard coins made predominately of precious metal. When that happened, inflation became an issue.
To address the inflation, though, the government that did the debasement had few options. What was worse was that none of them were very good. Each relied on a cooperative public and economic strategies that frequently flew in the face of human nature.
For the average person, the choice was between turning in coins made of precious metal to the government as requested or hoarding coins and letting them build value.
How that progressed is no mystery. Citizens, coin collectors and dealers hoarded silver coins. The hope was that over time the value of the coin would increase either because of the scarcity of the coin or if the price of silver increased.
The options a government had were:
- Let it go and hope things stabilized over time
- Attempt to pull all coins made of precious metal out of circulation without alerting the public, which would take years and was very unlikely to succeed
- Ignore the hoarding and try and fight the inflation risk in other ways
The sum of each of those approaches, combined with the large number of citizens hoarding silver coins, created a scarcity that helped drive coin value up. The coins that were being collected or hoarded took on a value of their own, separate from regular currency and became collectibles.
Paper Was More User Friendly
Paper currency was easier to carry, particularly in large volume, and coins of precious metals became less and less in demand. This applied to everyday use as well as use by organizations that transported large sums of money. It was always easier to cart around a pocket full of paper bills than a pocket full of coins and, because of that, coins among regular users of currency became less popular.
Scarcity Of Resources
Some precious metals are truly rare and getting rarer. Using them to create coins that are mostly made of the precious metal uses up that resource. A good example of this is the verbiage in the 1965 Coinage Act. US President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) signed the Act, which altered the makeup of US coins predominately made of silver.
The reason for the switch was that silver supplies were diminishing as the price of silver was rapidly escalating. For three years, the presidential administration and congress debated what they should do. At the same time, the perceived scarcity of silver prompted a market jump of 10% and then by 30% by 1962.
The 1965 Coinage Act
Increased price and demand combined with dwindling supplies led to congress and LBJ’s administration negotiating a migration from predominately silver coins to clad coins. When LBJ signed the 1965 Coinage Act, the official statement on the issue, legislation and action included the following:
“The new dimes and the new quarters will contain no silver. They will be composites, with faces of the same alloy used in our 5-cent piece that is bonded to a core of pure copper. They will show a copper edge…
Now, all of you know these changes are necessary for a very simple reason — silver is a scarce material. Our uses of silver are growing as our population and our economy grows. The fact is that silver consumption is now more than double new silver production each year.
So, in the face of this worldwide shortage of silver, and our rapidly growing need for coins, the only really prudent course was to reduce our dependence upon silver for making our coins.”
Upon signing the Act, the USA began minting clad coins comprised of common metals with zero silver in them.
The Difference Between Silver And Clad Coins
With coins that are predominately silver and coins that are clad, the key factor that distinguishes one from the other is the metal composition of both. Technically, any coin that has silver in it is a silver coin. The line of demarcation is how much silver makes up the overall composition of the coin.
The role of silver in coins in terms of United States monetary policy, both in coins that were predominately silver and in silver-clad coins, illustrates clearly how this works.
Silver Coins In The USA
Throughout the history of the USA, silver has played a major roles in both mostly silver coins and silver clad coins. Initially, after the American revolution, the Articles of Confederation that governed the new country permitted each state to mint their own coins. Additionally, foreign coins were legal tender.
That created confusion because the same coin could be worth different amounts in each state. Add to that the foreign coin influence, which could be yet another coinage value, and the entire currency situation was best described as confusion bordering on chaos.
To combat the confusion, Congress authorized copper cents in 1787, called Fugio cents. The image on the front was a sundial and on the back was a chain of 13 links. While this added some stability to coinage in the fledgling country, it was not enough.
One year later, the US Constitution was ratified and that led to the Coinage Act of 1792. This act established a national mint, located in Philadelphia. Congress established currency based on 100, which meant the US dollar represented 1/100 and coin denominations followed that with half, quarter, eighth and sixteenth.
Of all the coins, silver was the principal ingredient of the half dime, dime, quarter, half dollar and dollar. The very first USA circulated coins came out on March 1, 1793, and these were copper cent coins.
Silver And Gold
Silver and gold coins were introduced in 1794 and 1795, but not for general circulation. The newly minted coins were used in international trade, stored as bullion, or used by banks. Banks often supplied the gold and silver for coins and could then choose the denominations each bank wanted back.
Smaller denominations that would be used in everyday commerce, including half dimes, dimes and quarters, were rarely minted. Congress spent decades modifying coinage policy and, with the aid of new technology and branch mints being authorized, coins for everyday use were minted.
In 1857, Congress banned foreign coins as legal tender. Over time, the silver to common metal composition was established as 9:1, with coins being made of around 90% silver. It stayed at that ratio for select coins through 1964 with a few exceptions.
The silver coin breakdown and the exceptions were:
- General circulation coins (quarters, dimes, half dollars, dollar coins) through 1964, the composition of the coin was 90% silver and 10% copper
- For half dollars minted between 1965 and 1970, the composition is 40% silver and 60% copper
- Nickels minted between 1942 and 1945 were 35% silver, 56% copper and 9% manganese
- Clad minted coins are composed of a copper core and a mixture of nickel and copper on the outer shell
What Is A Clad Coin?
A clad coin has many layers of metal in it. For US coins, most coins have an inner core of pure copper and outer layers of nickel-copper alloy. The alloy looks like silver that has been polished. Examples of clad US coins are the quarter and half dollar.
Because silver is a precious metal and copper and nickel are common metals, a coin made mostly of silver will have more value than a clad coin. That additional value, though, worked against keeping silver as the major ingredient in general circulation coins.
Because silver is expensive, and, as LBJ pointed out, rare and getting rarer, many countries have stopped using silver in their coins altogether. Halting any production of silver coins has made them increasingly rare. That fact has caused silver coins to increase in value over time.
Rarity Trumps Composition
With that said, old clad coins gained in value as well, just not as much as silver coins. Old two, three and five cent clad coins have appreciated over time because working against their metal composition is the reality that they are increasingly more difficult to find.
In terms of the silver value in a silver coin, that price is the market price for silver. During times of perceived or real national or economic crisis, or during market anomalies, when silver and gold were invested in heavily as a hedge investment, silver prices skyrocketed.
This happened in 1980 when silver hit $50 an ounce for the first time. It happened in 1998 and 1999 because of Y2K fears and in 2011, when silver approached $50 an ounce because of public fears over the economy. In each case, prices for silver returned to historical norms once the crisis was perceived to have been addressed.
What that means is that a silver coin will fetch market prices as a collectible coin, which reflects three things:
- The condition of the coin
- The mint date and silver composition of the coin
- Silver’s market price
During a silver run, the value of melting silver coins can exceed the face and collectible value of the coins. This happened in the 1980 run and less so in 2011. Preventing the wholesale melting of silver coins when the silver price escalates are 3 things:
- Sentiment of collectors
- Market volatility
- Speculative value
Sentiment Of Collectors
Most coin collectors hold a certain loyalty to coins, regardless of their precious metal composition. This is because few collectors collect coins purely for the monetary value of their collection. That sentiment makes many collectors and dealers hesitant to melt coins just because of the silver value.
Precious metal markets can skyrocket quickly and plummet back to earth just as fast. This volatility dissuades many just by virtue of the fact that the sharp increase catches them by surprise and by the time they react the prices have started to fall again.
Another motivator during a silver rush to hold off on melting coins for bullion is the speculative nature of the market. If you have $1,000 worth of silver in silver coins that is suddenly worth $5,000, do you go ahead and melt or wait to see if the price goes higher?
If they miss the peak by waiting, most people will sit on their coins in hopes the price will rise again. Additionally, since most people would only reluctantly melt coins for silver, the higher price or pricing trend for silver usually must outweigh the sentiment.
The Importance Of Silver vs Clad
Understanding the history of silver and precious metal coins, as well as why prices for silver and silver coins fluctuate, can help you determine the value of your collection. It also can help pinpoint the composition of your coins or coins you are looking to buy.
Additionally, it can help you avoid making a bad investment. If you pay silver prices for a clad coin, you have spent too much and gained a coin worth little more than face value.
The Importance Of The Date
Knowing the dates is also important because it lets you identify what you are looking at in terms of a purchase and what you have in hand. It also lets you plan your collection regarding having coins that are predominately silver versus clad coins. Knowing the date of switchover for each denomination can help you avoid a bad investment.
With the USA, that date is clear for various denominations. That is not the case with coins from other countries that migrated from precious metals to clad. Knowing the date when the migration occurred for a specific coin can help the collector correctly assess its value and avoid paying too much for a specific coin.
The Identification Steps Work In Unison
It’s important to remember that some coins are easily identified as silver or clad and some are not. Others are a little tricky. It is in the coins that are more difficult to determine composition that the steps outlined below come in handy and potentially save both dealers and collectors money.
Each of the steps work with the other steps to create a wealth of evidence that indicates if a coin is silver or clad. If a coin is easily identified as silver or clad by one step, doing the others is not necessary. It is encouraged, however, to research each coin you are interested in as some coins are surprising in terms of their assessed value.
When In Doubt, See A Dealer
The steps outlined below will help you clearly identify whether a coin is silver or clad for all but the following types of coins:
- Damaged coins
- Counterfeit coins
- Coins with a deceptive appearance
If there is still some doubt, do not chance it. Ask to have the coin evaluated by a reputable coin dealer. They will be able to tell you definitively whether the coin is silver, clad, or if it has some other problem. But how do you easily tell if a coin is silver or clad?
How To Tell If A Coin Is Silver Or Clad
Look At The Mint Date
By far the easiest way to tell if most coins are silver or clad is by checking the mint date. For most coins, the switchover from precious metal to clad is well documented. The switchover is usually marked by governments in the form of a formal announcement, legislative ratification or press events.
In the United States, the key date to focus on for most silver coins is 1964. That is the last year that the US dime, quarter, half dollar and dollar had a composition consisting of 90% silver. All coins minted in 1965 or later are clad and have no silver content at all.
Clad Versus Silver Composition
After 1964, quarters were made of copper and nickel. The exception to this was the dual-dated Bicentennial quarters sold by the US Mint as special edition sets. Bicentennial quarters were composed of 40% silver. The quarters containing this mixture have an “S” imprint on them.
The silver Bicentennial quarters were not issued to the public for regular currency circulation. Each was sold by the US Mint at a premium cost to dealers and collectors.
Half dollars minted in 1965 through 1970 comprised 40% silver. After 1970, silver half dollars were made up of the copper-nickel formula. As with quarters, an exception was made in 1976, the year of the US Bicentennial.
For that year, uncirculated mint sets of half dollars were made of 40% silver and had the “S” imprint on them. They were also made available to collectors and dealers at a special cost.
Silver Eisenhower dollars from 1971 through 1974, were made up of 40% silver. That was noted by the “S” imprint on the face of the coin. The 1976 version also had 40% silver and the “S” imprint. All other Eisenhower silver dollars are copper-nickel clad coins.
If you are looking at US coins, taking into consideration the exceptions above, anything from 1965 or later is clad. This should be reflected in the asking price of the coin.
Evaluate The Edges
The next step is to evaluate the coin’s edges. Clad coins have a copper “ring” around the edge of them. Silver coins have no ring whatsoever. Except for the date, which is a dead giveaway in most cases, the copper ring is a fail-safe. Unless you are looking at a counterfeited coin, the copper ring means it is clad.
Look At The Appearance
If you still can’t tell if a coin is silver or clad, check its overall appearance. Silver coins tarnish with age. Tarnish is a coloring silver takes on when exposed to air. A tarnished coin will show the most coloring along the edges of each flat surface, between the ridges on the side and around any imprinted imagery.
In those cases, the tarnish will look almost black. In open areas of the coin, the tarnish will look greyish. Clad coins, instead of tarnishing, develop a slightly coppery tint as they age.
One Word Of Caution
Make sure when assessing the level of tarnish on a coin that you are not just looking at a dirty coin. In some cases, a clad coin can have grime on it that resembles tarnish.
Assess The Weight Of The Coin
Paying attention to the weight of the coin can also tell you if it’s silver or clad. For example, a silver Washington quarter weighs 6.25 grams. A clad Washington quarter weighs 5.7 grams. With half and dollar coins, the weight difference is even more noticeable.
The one exception where it can be difficult to tell the difference is with dimes. It is best when dealing with dimes to digitally weigh each one versus one that you know is clad (anything from 1965 through present day). If the dime that is supposed to be silver is not heavier than the identified clad coin, you know the coin is not 90% silver.
The Ping Test
Finally, you can also use the ping test. Silver coins sound different when dropped compared to clad coins. Silver coins generally have a higher pitch and a definitive ring to them. Clad coins fall heavier, and the sound is lower pitched. Clad coins also won’t have much of a ring, if any ring at all.
If possible, dropping the coin should not be done unless questions remain after the other tests. Obviously, dropping a coin could damage it, so this is a last resort.
You can tell if a coin is silver or clad by looking first at the mint date. If it is from 1964 or later, it’s most likely clad. You can also tell that it’s clad if it has a copper ring around its edge. Weight and ping tests are other methods you can use to tell if a coin is silver or clad.