May 2024


May 2024

How to Read a Coin – Components of a Coin: Obverse, Reverse, Edge and Inscriptions

By StoneX Bullion

If you’re diving into the world of coin investing and numismatics, it’s important to learn how to read the different components of a coin. This not only helps you identify a coin and assess its condition, but also makes coin collecting a much more fascinating activity. The more you learn, the more you’ll start to notice the differences between all the coins out there.

In this article, we help you learn how to read different parts of a coin, including its obverse, reverse, edge, and inscriptions.

Anatomy of a coin

First, let’s look at all the different parts of a coin. We’ll then explain each of these in more detail below. The different components of a coin include:

  • Obverse (Heads): Front side of a coin that usually depicts a prominent design, such as a national emblem or the profile of a notable person.
  • Reverse (Tails): Back side of a coin that usually features a different design or inscription than the obverse.
  • Device/Bust: Feature pressed onto the coin, usually an image or portrait of a person.
  • Edge: Outer border of a coin, which can be smooth, reeded (grooved lines), lettered, or decorative.
  • Rim: Raised part of a coin’s perimeter on both obverse and reverse sides of a coin.
  • Inscription/Legend: Main wording on the coin that usually includes the country’s name and denomination.
  • Field: Flat area on a coin’s surface that provides a background for the design or inscription.
  • Relief: Raised designs and inscriptions on a coin’s surface.
  • Mint mark: Small letter or symbol that indicates where the coin was minted.
  • Mottos: Inspirational lettering, such as 'In God We Trust'.
  • Date: Year the coin was minted, usually found on the obverse but sometimes on the reverse.
  • Designer initials: Initials of the coin's designer.

Keep reading: How to Spot Fake Gold Coins and Avoid Fraud

What is a coin’s obverse?

Coin collectors can easily tell between a coin’s obverse and reverse, but to the untrained eye it can be difficult to discern between the two, especially when looking at coins from different countries.

The obverse of a coin, also known as the heads side, is the front of the coin. This side of the coin usually features a prominent design or image, such as:

  • The profile or bust of a notable figure, usually a historical or current leader, monarch, or influential person.
  • A national emblem or symbol that represents the issuing country.
  • Inscriptions, which might include the country’s name, year of minting, mint mark, precious metal purity and weight, and denomination.

As the ‘face’ of a coin, the obverse is designed to be easily recognizable. The exact design elements and inscriptions featured can vary depending on the country and the coin’s purpose (e.g. commemorative and circulation coins). There’s no definitive rule about what the obverse side of a coin is, it’s simply a matter of convention.

For example, the obverse side of the gold Krugerrand simply features a portrait of ex-South African president Paul Kruger with the words South Africa inscribed in English and Afrikaans. On the other hand, the silver American Eagle features the design of Lady Liberty with the coin’s year of issue and the mottos, ‘LIBERTY’ and ‘IN GOD WE TRUST’.

What is a coin’s reverse?

A coin's reverse, often referred to as the 'tails' side or lapel, usually features a design or inscription that complements the obverse. This could be:

  • A national symbol, monument, animal, or other motif significant to the issuing country
  • Themes or events being celebrated, usually for commemorative coins
  • Inscriptions of the coin's denomination, country's name, motto, and mint mark.

Like a coin's obverse, the reverse varies widely depending on the coin and there are no concrete rules as to which side of a coin is obverse or reverse. In some cases, you may even find a person’s portrait on the reverse of a coin.

For example, the reverse of a gold Britannia coin features a depiction of Britannia, the feminine personification of the United Kingdom, along with inscriptions of the year of issue, weight, and purity. The reverse of silver Vienna Philharmonic coins bear various musical instruments used by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, along with the coin’s name and material (silver).

What are devices on a coin?

The 'device' on a coin refers to the primary design elements raised above the coin's field. These might include portraits, symbols, animals, or any other imagery or writing that's part of a coin's design. The term ‘device’ is essentially another way to describe a feature of a coin’s design.

Devices are found on both the obverse and reverse sides of a coin and are usually surrounded by the field, the flat area of a coin's surface that isn't part of the raised design. The devices stand out against the field in relief (see below) to add a tactile aspect to a coin's surface.

Some countries require certain devices to appear on all their coins by law. For example, coins minted by the U.S. Mint must include the following devices:

  • An ‘impression emblematic of liberty’ on the coin’s obverse, as well as the year of issue and the inscription ‘LIBERTY’
  • A ‘figure or representation of an eagle’ on the reverse, as well as the mottos ‘IN GOD WE TRUST’ and ‘E PLURIBUS UNUM’ and an inscription of the ‘UNITED STATES OF AMERICA’.

See: Pros and Cons of Buying Gold Bars vs Gold Coins

What is a coin’s edge?

A coin's edge is the outer border or perimeter that surrounds its circumference. The edge of a coin can have various features depending on the design and minting process used:

  • Smooth: A plain, uninterrupted border without any features.
  • Reeded: Also known as a serrated or milled edge, this is a series of evenly spaced vertical ridges or grooves that encircle the coin's circumference. Reeding is the most common edge design, originally used to make it obvious if small bits of the precious metal had been shaved off, reducing its weight. The Canadian Maple Leaf gold coin is an example of a coin with a reeded edge.
  • Lettering: Some coins have edge inscriptions or raised lettering along the edge, which might include the coin's denomination or country's name. This is known as an 'incused' or 'lettered' edge. The French Franc coin features an edge inscription with the words ‘DIEU PROTEGE LA FRANCE’.
  • Decorative: A coin’s edge might also feature decorative patterns, symbols, or designs. The Austrian Corona coin features an edge inscripted with a crown decoration.

What is a coin’s rim?

The rim is the raised part of a coin that runs along its circumference, forming a boundary between the field and the edge. This helps frame the design’s elements while also protecting the coin’s designs from wear and tear by providing a raised barrier around the perimeter. A coin’s rim can vary in thickness, width, and style depending on the design and minting process.

Continue reading: What are the Best Gold Coins to Buy and Why?

What is a coin’s legend?

The coin’s legend, also known as its inscription, is the textual part of a coin’s design. Legends might appear on the obverse and reverse side of a coin, as well as on its field. They include all important information about the coin, including:

  • Country’s name
  • Denomination or face value
  • Year of issue
  • Mottos
  • Name and title of monarch or head of state at time of minting.

For example, the legend on the Australian Kangaroo coin includes:

  • AUSTRALIAN KANGAROO (coin's name)
  • 2023 (year of issue)
  • 1 oz 999 Silver (metal weight & purity)
  • Elizabeth II 1952 - 2022 (name and years of monarch’s reign)
  • Australia (country name)
  • 1 dollar (denomination).

What is a coin’s relief?

A coin’s relief refers to all the raised elements of its design that stand out from its field, or flat surface. These might include images, inscriptions, or other decorative details. The relief is what gives a coin its three-dimensional appearance and can vary in height and depth depending on the coin.

The relief’s design can affect a coin’s value. For example, coin collectors and numismatists will often seek ‘proof’ coins that have a mirror-like polished relief that retains its original appearance for longer and makes a coin more valuable.

What is a coin’s field?

A coin's field is the flat background surface area that surrounds its raised elements (i.e. relief designs and inscriptions). It provides contrast and makes the raised elements more prominent and striking. The field of a coin is usually smooth and unadorned so that the raised designs can stand out clearly. It's essentially the backdrop of a coin that makes everything else more visible. Despite its flat and featureless nature, a coin’s field is still important for numismatists and collectors, and any scratches or damage will affect its value.

Suggested reading: What are the Best Silver Coins for Investment?

What is a coin’s mint mark?

The mint mark on a coin is a small letter or symbol that indicates where the coin was produced. These are often placed in small lettering in an inconspicuous location within a coin's design. Some coins, such as the South African Krugerrand and Chinese Panda coins, don't usually feature a mint mark.

Different coin surfaces & finishes

Besides the different parts of a coin which we’ve looked at in this article, another important element to look at when reading a coin is its surface and finishes.

When it comes to adding an image to a coin’s surface, there are two methods used: relief and incuse. We’ve already discussed relief earlier in this article, which is the most common method used for coins. This involves raising the design features above the coin’s field. The other method, incuse, is less common. This method does the opposite of relief and presses a design into the surface of the coin so it appears below the field. The American Indian Head coin is a rare example of an incuse design.

Coins can also feature special finishes which help enhance the features of a coin’s design. There are two main types of finishes:

  • Brilliant Uncirculated: Abbreviated as BU, this is the most common finish you’ll find on most coins today. These are coins in mint state, showing no signs of wear from circulation. They have a bright, original luster and shine.
  • Proof: Proof coins are the highest quality coins, specifically made for collectors. These are struck multiple times with specially polished dyes to create a mirror-like finish on the fields with frosted reliefs.

See: Why Do Silver Coins Tarnish and How to Clean Them

Summary: How to read a coin

Learning how to read a coin will not only make it easier for you to identify coins but also allow you to communicate with other collectors and dealers in the numismatics world. On top of that, it’ll enhance your appreciation for the unique differences in each and every coin.

If you’d like to enter the world of coin collecting and investing, StoneX Bullion™️ has you covered. With a wide range of gold, silver, platinum, and palladium coins from the most prestigious mints in the world, we have a coin for every budget. Whether you’re a beginner looking to invest in bullion coins or a seasoned collector after a coin to crown your collection, you’ll find it here. Browse our range of precious metals and secure a piece of history while investing in your future.