Planchets and Aristotle

Coin's essence part of charm
Published : 08/18/12
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Aristotle suggested in his Metaphysics that the substance of something was the same as its essence, which he defined as something like the “what-it-is-ness.”

Early American coin collectors can probably identify with this concept of what-it-is-ness. A Vermont Landscape copper, with its prominent planchet voids and noncircular shapes, just has a different essence than a Nova Constellatio copper or a Washington, Large Eagle cent.

The designs are dissimilar, but the essential differences among these issues are even more basic.

The essence of an early American copper coin is its planchet. If you can understand the typical planchet quality of an issue, the rest is easy.

American-made coppers of the 18th century tend to suffer from somewhat substandard technology compared to their European counterparts. The copper stock started as mined copper or copper scrap, which was then melted and formed into ingots. The ingots were then laboriously rolled into sheets.

In a factory setting — someplace like Obediah Westwood’s mint in Birmingham, England — the ingots were produced with excellent consistency, free of noncopper inclusions or gas bubbles. The resulting sheets were rolled with exacting sameness, meaning every Washington, Large Eagle cent was about the same weight, about the same thickness, and consistently devoid of flaws.

On the other hand, in the tiny mint in Rupert, Vt., where Landscape coppers were produced, ingots were produced with charcoal or gas inclusions that manifested as striations or rough texture when the sheets were rolled out into planchet stock. The striking pressure of the coining equipment was not great enough to obliterate those flaws, and thus Vermont coppers look like they look.

The Aristotelian what-it-is-ness of a Vermont Landscape is imperfection. That is part of their charm.

Connecticut coppers and Fugio coppers were, for the most part, struck in the same place from the same copper stock. Is it any wonder they suffer from the same problem of flaws?

Understanding planchets is key to grading as well. This is true, not just because it is important to differentiate issues that tend to accompany problematic copper stock from those that more often are on nice quality copper, but also because consistency of planchet thickness has a huge impact on the amount of detail that manifests from the dies.

All of these difference make collecting early American copper coins fascinating. Learning about things like typical planchet quality is as easy as looking as at many coins as possible. And isn’t looking at coins the fun part of collecting anyway?

John Kraljevich Jr. is an independent professional numismatist and researcher specializing in early American coinage.

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