Some people only believe that numismatics consists of the study of currency. However, a broader definition includes tokens and medals (both considered “exonumia,” a term created by collectors in the early 1960s) in addition to coins and paper money. As defined numismatically, a token is an object that gets issued as a substitute for money. On the other hand, medals commemorate achievements, people and events, or may be issued for artistic reasons. In general, collectible medals might be made from precious or semi-precious metals like gold, silver, bronze and copper. Commonly, tokens are produced from cheaper materials like wood, brass, zinc or plastic. While either medals or tokens might be valued for their bullion value, if any, they are usually studied for their historical significance and collectible, or numismatic, value.
Most tokens were made in the form of metal disks. They may have had their value and the issuer's name inscribed upon them. In this way, they may appear similar to coins. In theory, only issuers could redeem tokens. For example, one would purchase a subway token to ride on the subway. In practice, some valuable tokens have become forms of substitute currency because of their value or economic conditions at the time. Historically, tokens took the place of currency during currency shortages. However, they have also been convenient and effective even when there was plenty of currency. Common examples of tokens that are still in use today include casino chips, advertising tokens and public transportation tokens.
Medals might commemorate service in the military, a sport achievement or a historical event. Different cultures have produced medals for thousands of years. Alexander the Great sent one of the first documented medals to the Hebrews in the fourth century B.C.E. as a reward for service. Roman emperors used medals as both political presents and as rewards for military service, and in those days, they were often worn as jewelry. Of course, governments still issue medals today.
People who are interested in collecting medals and tokens can find several associations that focus on one or both of these branches of numismatics. Coin shops also usually have some tokens and medals in their inventories, and some dealers deal exclusively in medals and tokens. Collecting either of these categories instead of coins can be challenging and exciting.
While there are many collectors who focus on this niche, documentation for facts like total production, market prices and specifications might be harder to find than it is for actual currency. This means that medal and token collectors also have to become detectives sometimes.