Coin collectors often acquire pieces with little accompanying
information, and that was the case with an item in a local estate,
shown to me by a fellow collector.
The piece measures about 22 millimeters in diameter and weighs 4
grams, almost matching specifications of the Jefferson 5-cent coin
with its 21.21-millimeter diameter and 5-gram weight.
But this piece is made from zirconium. So, what is zirconium, and
why is this piece made from such an unfamiliar metal?
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Zirconium is a lustrous gray-white metal. Highly resistant to
corrosion, zirconium was one of many metals proposed as a replacement
for silver in United States coinage during the 1960s when the
copper-nickel clad and silver-copper clad “sandwich” compositions
debuted to combat the rising price of silver.
In Coin World (Feb. 3, 1965), Donald R. Spink of the
Carborundum Company, Niagara Falls, N.Y., touted the virtues of a
Whatever metal would replace silver would have to be not too
valuable, but it would also have to be safe from counterfeiting.
“This brings us to zirconium, one of the wonder metals of this
nuclear age,” wrote Spink, manager of the firm’s technical branch.
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Spink cited many unique properties of zirconium that would warrant
its usage for coins, including its ready availability. “The occurrence
of zirconium in the earth’s crust is greater than that of the sum of
copper, lead and zinc,” he wrote. “Further, there is almost three
times as much zirconium as nickel.”
This piece was made by Wah Chang Albany, a different company than
Spink represented. Located in Albany, Ore., the former subsidiary of
Teledyne is now known as ATI Specialty Alloys and Components.
The piece was handed out as a product sample, but not in relation to
the change in alloy for U.S. coinage — Coin World published
photos of the piece in the Dec. 18, 1968, issue (long after the clad
alloy had debuted), with an address for readers to obtain a sample.
The pieces are abundant today, and eBay auction records indicate
prices of a few dollars to less than $20 each.