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The Beginner's Guide: Numismatics Glossary

Updated: May 1, 2021

The study of coins is a specialised discipline, comprised of highly unique terms and phrases. So to an entry-level coin collector, it can almost seem like numismatists pretty much speak their own language. Therefore, as an amateur coin-collector, it is only natural that you learn this lingo (or atleast a part of it)! This handy glossary has all the terms a novice should know to understand the field a little better.


  • Alloy: A substance made by the combination or mixing of two or more metals. Coins are usually made of alloys to ensure that they are strong and more resistant to corrosion than singular metals.

  • Assay: The analysis of the metallic composition of a coin by performing tests that determine the weight, content and quality of the coin. Such testing assesses whether a given coin has been produced according to the specifications for purity that are designated by an issuing government.

  • Authentication: Certificates offered by coin dealers that have a good reputation that authenticate the coins they sell or trade, specifically rare or historic coins, based on expert analysis.

  • Bullion: Pure metals, usually gold and silver, that are refined to their finest form of elemental purity and stored as bars, ingots or plates. Bullion typically forms the bulk or base element used in the production of gold and silver coins.

  • Circulation coins: Coins that are currently in use by the general population for regular commercial activities.

  • Commemorative coins: Coins that are minted specially to commemorate a special event, individual, place, monument, institution or issue. Commemorative coins are generally highly sought after by collectors. Usually, the commemorative coins of higher denominations are not put into commercial circulation by the issuing government.

  • Denomination: The face-value represented by the coin.

  • Edge: The external border of a coin which can be smooth, reeded or decorated. This is the side on which you can roll the coin.

  • Face value: The denomination of a coin or the value displayed on the coin. The face value does not always reflect the actual worth of the coin or the value at which a coin is being sold. For example, commemorative coins at a small denomination may be sold at higher values since they are collectors’ items.

  • Field: The smooth, flat surface of the coin that forms the background for the features.

  • Grade: A mark given to a coin based on its physical condition. The grade of a coin is based physical characteristics such as its lustre, definition and the amount of wear and tear on a coin. Grades are commonly allotted by assessing the characteristics of a coin on a spectrum known as a scale. The most common and popular scale which is used is the Sheldon Scale.

  • Grading: The property of assigning a grade to a coin on the basis of its physical characteristics such as its lustre, definition and the amount of wear and tear it has received. Grading usually occurs on a scale, the most popular being the Sheldon Scale.

  • Intrinsic value: The real or actual value of a coin. The intrinsic value could be based on a set of factors which include the historic value of the coin, any commemorative characteristics of the coin, the rarity of the coin, any specialised mint features of the coin, and the selling price of the coin in the market, etc.

  • Lustre: The brilliance of a coin. Or in other words, the visual effect of the reflection of light off the surface of a coin which gives the coin an inherent shiny look.

  • Government Mint: An industrial establishment authorised by the government of a country to manufacture and produce coins.

  • Mint Mark or Mint: A small letter or symbol engraved on a coin that indicates exactly where the coin has been manufactured.

  • Mintage: The process of minting coins or the aggregate number of coins with a particular design that have been issued by a specific Government Mint for a particular period.

  • Minting: The process utilised by a Government Mint to manufacture and produce coins.

  • Numismatics: The study or collection of coins.

  • Numismatist: A person who studies or collects coins.

  • Obverse: The front side of a coin, also known as the ‘heads’. This side is usually engraved with the bust/figure of a prominent person or an emblem of national importance.

  • Proof coins/ Proof sets: Proof Coins are minted to commemorate special events or individuals, purely for collection purposes. They are manufactured using a high-quality finish, with overwhelming brilliance which give them an almost frosted appearance.

  • Relief: The portion of the coin which is raised and reflects a three-dimensional feature on the field of the coin.

  • Reverse: The flip side of a coin, also known as ‘tails’. This side typically depicts the denomination of the coin along with a design chosen by the issuing government or mint.

  • Rim: The raised boundary that runs around the circumference of the coin. The rim enables coins to be stacked one on top of the other.

  • Sheldon scale: One of the most popularly used coin-grading mechanisms developed in the 1949 by Dr. William Sheldon, an American numismatist. The Sheldon scale assigns marks to coins based on factors such as the lustre, brilliance, definition and wear and tear on the coin. The marks range from 1 to 70, with 1 representing a poor coin where the features can barely be identified and 70 being a coin of finest quality, with no visible flaws even under 5x magnification.

  • Uncirculated coins (‘UNC Set’): Uncirculated coins are those coins that for some reason or the other, have never been put into regular commercial use by the issuing government. They are manufactured with a field and relief that have a high brilliance, although not as high as proof coins.

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