Understanding the Various Types of Coin Finishes

Coin finishes are achieved through various striking methods and produce different visual effects on the coin design itself. Some collectors prefer a finish while others enjoy variety.

In 2019, collectors were treated to special issues from the US Mint. Each of the three annual sets included a penny with the “W” mint mark of the West Point Mint. Although pennies had previously been struck at the facility, never before had they borne its mint mark. In keeping with the theme of the set, the W-Lincoln cent released with the 2019 US Mint Uncirculated Coin Set was also an uncirculated piece.

A coin’s finish refers to the appearance of a coin as achieved through its minting. Different methods of striking a coin produce a different “look” or a different finish. This article covers the most frequently used coin finishes including Brilliant Uncirculated (BU), Proof (PF), and Reverse Proof (RF).

Whether you’re new to collecting coins or you’ve been doing it for decades, you must have noticed that coins come in a variety of finishes. On that note, there are even more types of finishes today than in the past. However, one of the most common finishes that you will see on a coin is Brilliant Uncirculated. This finish is often abbreviated as BU. What is a brilliant uncirculated coin exactly? How do they differ from coins with other finishes such as proof or burnished? Keep reading to find out.

While other types of finishes may be easier to spot initially, it’s largely a matter of perspective. Proof, burnished, and reverse proof coins are all quite easy to pick out once you know what they are. The trick with brilliant uncirculated coins is that they make up the majority of coins that are struck, so they don’t stand out like coins with finishes that never see circulation.

Take a look at your pocket change. The degree to which each one has been circulated will have a large effect on its appearance, but all of these are coins that started with a brilliant uncirculated finish. They are not considered to be BU once they display signs of wear.

To illustrate this point, let’s say you have two Lincoln cents. One of them still looks fresh from the Mint. The other has spent the past 20 years or so in circulation and displays significant wear. When the new BU cent is submitted to a grading service it comes back with a grade between 60 and 70 because it’s still in uncirculated condition. However, the other Lincoln cent would likely come back with a grade below 60 and thus no longer be appropriate to call BU.

Brilliant uncirculated is a type of finish, but the condition of the coin plays a role as well.

In contrast to other types of finishes, a coin with a brilliant uncirculated finish has a relatively uniform appearance. This is easiest to illustrate by comparing a BU coin to a proof coin. The proof coin has very distinct differences between the field and devices. The brilliant uncirculated coin will look about the same across the entire surface. The visual appeal of a BU coin is created by its luster and the quality of the design instead of qualities like strong contrast.

To wrap things up, when you see a coin offered that is BU, that specimen has a relatively uniform finish when compared to other types of coins. In order to be a true BU specimen, it also needs to be in uncirculated condition.

Major mints around the world offer coins with a number of finishes. Typically, only coins with a classic brilliant uncirculated finish are released into circulation. That’s not to say that coins with other types of finishes don’t enter circulation sometimes by accident, they certainly do from time to time.

While the standard coins that are struck by Mints for circulation are usually the brilliant uncirculated variety, proof coins are frequently offered for collectors and are quite a popular choice. That being said, what exactly is a proof coin?

Whether a coin is a proof or not is simply a matter of its finish. Proof coins are still proofs even if they make their way into circulation or are damaged.

One of the main differences between proof coins and brilliant uncirculated coins is that the dies used for proof coins are polished. This allows the coins to have a distinct visual difference. The background portion of the design has a mirror finish and the raised portion is frosted. This creates a high level of visual contrast, which is one of the factors that is graded when a proof coin is submitted for certification. The visual contrast and resulting cameo is also how you can tell if a coin is a proof.

There is one other factor involved with striking proof coins. It is quite common for proof coins to be struck multiple times. This helps to enhance their finished appearance.

Proof coinage appeals to collectors for a number of reasons. One of the most obvious reasons is the unique appearance. When placed next to a brilliant uncirculated coin, a proof coin tends to be more eye-catching because of its visual contrast. This can also draw your attention to more or different details in the design as well.

Another reason that proof coins appeal to so many of us is their mintage figures. Even if a mintage limit isn’t set before production begins, they’re only made for collectors. This often results in a significantly lower mintage than the brilliant uncirculated version. This trend is most easily observed with major annual bullion coins, such as the American Silver Eagle.

The U.S. Mint and many other Mints around the world regularly offer proof coins for collectors. These coins display a very high level of visual contrast due to their mirror-like background and frosted devices. Special dies are used when striking proof coinage, but the process is largely the same overall. Many enjoy collecting proof coins because of the unique appearance these coins have and they often have lower mintage figures than standard versions.

A large portion of the variety that is available to us as collectors comes from the fact that Mints strike coins with different finishes. For example, if you’re looking at a new commemorative coin from the U.S. Mint, you will likely see it available with a proof finish or a brilliant uncirculated finish. Both of these finishes are quite well-known. Did you know that coins can also be struck with a reverse proof finish? They certainly can and this technique has created some very desirable collectible coins in recent years.

To explain exactly what a reverse proof coin is, let’s take a second to cover proof coins. In short, proof coins are made just for collectors. They are struck on polished dies. They have a high level of visual contrast because of the polished dies and the fact that they’re often struck multiple times before leaving the press. Proof coins have a mirrored field and the raised portions of the design are frosted.

Now that we have a solid point of reference, reverse proof coins are very similar to proof coins. The reverse part comes from the fact that instead of mirrored fields and frosted devices, they have frosted fields and mirrored devices. This gives reverse proof coins an appearance that instantly stands out while still offering plenty of visual appeal.

In terms of United States Mint releases, all of the reverse proof coins that have been issued so far have been very well-received by collectors. That being said, the reverse proof finish is still relatively new to the market compared to other finishes like proof and brilliant uncirculated.

A fair number of reverse proof U.S. coins have been included as part of a set when they were initially offered by the Mint. For example, the very first U.S. reverse proof was only available as part of a set. It was the 2006-P reverse proof American Silver Eagle in the 20th Anniversary Silver Eagle Set.

The reverse proof coins released by the U.S. Mint since then have been very popular and tend to sell out at the Mint. If you want to pick up any kind of reverse proof set, it’s best to be quick. They also have some very low mintage figures for modern U.S. coins since production of these coins is typically limited.

Other notable specimens include the 2011-P, 2012-S, and 2013-W reverse proof Silver Eagles. Reverse proof Gold Eagles have also been struck, as well as a reverse proof Gold Buffalo in 2013.

Reverse proof coins are some of the most visually appealing specimens being struck today. This finish was first used on a U.S. coin in 2006 and it was an instant hit. The unique appearance of reverse proof coins is created by their mirrored devices and frosted fields.

Burnished coins are most often described as having an almost satiny matte appearance that is generally not very shiny when compared to a proof finish. This affect is achieved through the planchet or blank coin being polished before they are struck with a design.

 It should be noted that the United States Mint does not use the term burnished finish, but refers to coins minted through this specialized process as uncirculated collectors’ pieces. Burnished United States Mint coins are distinguished from other uncirculated releases by carrying the “W” Mint mark of the West Point Mint, while traditional bullion uncirculated pieces will not have a mint mark at all. The United States Mint first introduced the Burnished finish in 2006 to commemorate the 20th Anniversary of their American Silver Eagle Series and it has become a highly anticipated annual release ever since.

As previously mentioned, the United States Mint first introduced the Burnished finish in 2006 and save for a couple of exceptions, have released a Burnished Silver Eagle ever since. The Burnished finish also debuted on the American Gold Eagle in 2006 and is still minted annually as well. That same year, Burnished Platinum Eagles were introduced but were only released until 2008 for a brief three-year run.

In 2008, the United States Mint extended this special finish to a special four-coin fractional Gold Buffalo set that had a mintage of just 6,049 coins. Alongside the 4-piece Proof set released the same year, the 2008-W Burnished Gold Buffalo set marks the first and only time the burnished finish has appeared in the series and the only time fractional coins were minted. The America the Beautiful 5 oz. series  also features this finish on the Specimen variations of each design.

If you start to seek out coins with special finishes for your collection, then you’re going to start seeing certified coins with a “Specimen” grade. The Specimen grade is most commonly used for coins with a burnished finish, although it is used for coins with some other types of finishes as well.

As you may already know, Mint State grades are used for coins with a standard or brilliant uncirculated finish. That’s why these coins have an MS prefix on their grade. Proof coins receive either a PR or PF prefix depending on the grading service. The Specimen or SP prefix is used for burnished coins, it may be used for satin coins, and it can be used for other coins that do not fall neatly into the Mint State or Proof categories.

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