Soon after I joined the American Numismatic Association’s authentication service, I went on a trip to the Philadelphia Mint. It was 1973. I spent a whole working day learning how coins were made. My boss, Charles Hoskins, the director of the American Numismatic Association Certification Service, was a former Mint employee so no doors were closed to us.
The Mint was two different worlds. One was quiet the other was a noisy factory. Frank Gasparro guided us through his engraving department where I saw master dies being made from galvanos, mintmarks put onto dies and even handled some of the older dies in the vault.
At one station, a box of proof dies was being examined for quality control. With magnification, I was allowed to compare the highly polished finish to that of a normal die of a different denomination. The entire die-making process from plaster design to actual working dies was there to see.
Additionally, the staff engravers were eager to open the drawers of their workbenches to show me the neat stuff (like hobo nickels) they had squirreled away.
The actual production area of the Mint was very noisy. After lunch, I watched strip being rolled, blanks being punched and coins being struck. When the strip mill was shut down, you could feel the heat radiating from the machinery. The floor superintendent was able to explain the workings of a coin press while a worker changed out a pair of heavily clashed dies.
Needless to say, this first trip was overwhelming. I had a much better appreciation of what I had been able to see and do that day when on subsequent “floor” trips everything was more restricted.
Looking back, I wish I had read more about the minting process before seeing the actual coins being made. I also wish I had been more interested in the error coins we saw at each step of our tour.
After seeing the die-making process, I became more appreciative of the proof-like (PL) Morgan dollars we received at the certification service. After the working dies are finished (hubbed), they are polished and inspected. We can say they are smooth and flat except for the design details sunken below the polished surface. The first batch of coins struck using the fresh dies have a “nicer” surface than coins struck after the dies have become used.
Very often, the earliest strikes from a new die have a mirror-like surface that is similar to that of a proof coin. As these “prooflike” coins are less abundant, they have taken on a special value of their own. However, from my perspective in the late 1960s, it seemed that no one really cared much about these specimens. At the time, my local coin dealer was selling common date prooflike dollars for just a few dollars more than a BU example.
As with other aspects of grading, there is a progression of surface reflectivity on prooflike coins. Some editions of the Van Allen/ Mallis Encyclopedia of Morgan and Peace Dollars have a scale for measuring the depth of the mirror surface on dollars. Unfortunately, as with many published standards, it has not been formalized or adopted by the numismatic community. Thus, there are many subjective ways to judge the reflectivity of a coin’s surface.
Some try to read the fine print on a printed page while others move a finger back and forth at a certain distance from the coin’s surface. The amount of reflectivity on a coin can be affected if it is in a flip or slab. One thing I look for is any evidence of the “cartwheel” pattern seen on BU coins. This will drop the coin from the prooflike range.
Several different designations are used to describe dollars with a mirror-like surface.
In the beginning, we used prooflike and proof. Soon the market was calling for “halfway” coins to be called “semi-proolike.” At some point in time (I’ve forgotten exactly when), the semi-prooflike designation fell out of favor with the major grading services and was discontinued. As a result, some formerly semi-prooflike coins were designated as PL and many formerly PL coins came to be called Deep Mirror Prooflike. Since DMPL coins usually occurred with frosty devices, a Deep Cameo Prooflike (DCAM) designation evolved to describe coins having this attractive contrast. Finally, market forces determined that some coins approached the appearance of a proof so closely that they should be called Ultra Deep Cameos.
With practice, most readers will find it easy to tell a PL from a BU coin. Note that some coins can be found with one side either BU or semi-prooflike while the other side is fully prooflike. While these “one-sided” PL or Deep Mirror coins are pretty, they don’t rate any special designation with me. As for DCAM or UDCAM coins, it is best to purchase certified specimens graded by a major grading service.