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Wreath.  A circular or partly circular device composed of intertwined foliage – flowers and leaves for the most part – symbolic of honor and appearing on many numismatic and medallic items. Wreaths have been used by designers since the Roman times, when medallions bearing wreaths were bestowed for victory in wars and games. The wreath has been so widely used since then, not only for its symbolism and the fact it fits the circular form so well, but also for a very important technical reason:  it prevents congruent mass. A wreath, placed on a reverse of a medallic item where a portrait or other bold relief appears on the obverse, precludes two high relief devices directly opposite each other on the two sides of a struck item and allows for the more evenly distribution of metal flow. Also a further technical point: if the wreath is higher than the rim it often has three or four support points (for the item to rest on).

Wreath terms.   Wreaths may form a complete circle (called closed wreath or full wreath), or in heraldic describing a closed wreath is called a chaplet. Or the wreath may be designed partly open (open wreath).  When occupying only half the circumference of a round item they are termed half wreath. There are also quarter wreaths (like a branch), or more commonly, two quarter wreaths crossed at the stems (and often of different foliage).

In addition to being designed open at the top, wreaths are frequently designed with stems at the bottom (to create varieties with stems and without stems). The stems are frequently tied – with a ribbon tie – at the bottom for additional ornamentation.

A wreath of twisted strand of cloth is called a torce, a term from heraldry

where it is used to support the crown, or crest on a coat of arms. Otherwise wreaths are always intertwined foliage in arc or circular shape. If a design is not circular but more like a streamer of such foliage it is called a garland, festoon or encarpa.

Wreath symbolism.  The full wreath is symbolic of victory or success and is one of the oldest symbols of man, recognized throughout the world and across centuries. It is universally found on coins and medals as it is in art and artifacts.  Originally the wreath was placed on the head, and as such is known as a triumphal crown.

The half wreath, in contrast to the full wreath, with the center at the top and branches hanging down is symbolic of sorrow. It is typically found on memorial medals.

The area enclosed by the wreath is most used for wording, inscriptions; but it

is also an area for design, or infrequently left blank for later inscribing for award (such area is then called a  reserve). The area has also been used for an insert die; or a center emblem applied to that position.

Wreath kinds.  The flowers and leaves comprising a wreath design have been

made of many types of horticultural and agricultural products. Appearing somewhat in order of their popularity in medallic art are:  laurel, oak, wheat, corn, palm, ivy and acanthus. However, many other foliage items have been incorporated into wreath designs, plus multiple combinations, even approaching a cornucopia of horticultural items. In addition to flowers and leaves, wreaths have also included blossoms, berries, stalks, branches, vines, among animate items.

Inanimate objects appearing in wreaths have included instruments and tools of many kinds. Shooting medal wreaths, for example, have included firearms; sports medals have included sports accessories; naval medals have included marine objects, music medals have included instruments, as examples. Thus the medal's theme may often influence the design of its wreath.

Signed wreaths.  Very few wreaths are signed (as separate from the rest of the design). However, the Henry Clay Compromise of 1850 Medallion, 1851, is signed on the reverse by both delineator – William Walcutt – and by the engraver, Charles Cushing Wright, fecit. While there is extensive wording in eighteen lines on the reverse, Walcutt's major contribution to the design was the original concept of the products forming the wreath (corn and wheat sheaves on the left, tobacco leaves, rose sprigs and grain stalks on the right, all bound at the base and tied with a narrow flowing ribbon). Walcutt chose these agricultural crops as symbolic of Henry Clay's native Kentucky.

Stock wreaths.  Every medallic company has a number of stock dies or designs of wreaths available. The Paris Mint, for example, has over four dozen. In America, Medallic Art Company had a dozen available. These are for anyone to use either in creating a new design incorporating one of these wreaths, or for striking a medal with the wreath alone on one side for later inscribing custom wording.

The source for most of these stock wreath designs are previous medal designs whose medal programs have gone out of existence. The design has been adapted for anyone's use. The Paris Mint's M840 design, for example, an oak and laurel wreath by Henri Dubois, is available in 13 diameters from 27 through 90 millimeters. Medallic Art offered the Gaines wreath (not designed by Gaines) but named after a Gaines Dog Food Research Award Medal, now obsolete.

Outside wreaths.  Wreaths have also been designed to appear outside the medallic item, as a bezel, for example, or when mounted on a plaque, as a completely separate medallic item encircling the medallion in the center. A surround is a wreath which is a separate piece attached to a medallic item, sometimes in an oval shape.

Cataloging wreaths.  Wreaths are so commonplace in coins and medals that too little attention is paid to them in numismatic describing. Identity of the kinds of foliage forming the wreath is often considered adequate description. However when varieties exist, the number of berries, stems, leaves become important. The cataloger should give a precise description of the wreath to differentiate it from any other and certainly identify it if it is a stock design, or if it has been used before on other items.

In numismatic describing and cataloging wreath is abbreviated Wr, open wreath is OW, closed wreath CW or Cl Wr, inside wreath IW and under wreath is UW. Numismatic wreaths in French is cercle de feuilles or couronne; in German, blalkreis or kranx.

             Evolution of the 'Cereal' Wreath             


      A famous wreath exists in the U.S. silver series.   

 It contained leaves of corn, wheat, oak and maple with   

 an ear of corn showing and was created by U.S. mint      

 engraver James B. Longacre. He choose these because it   

 gave "the reverse a more national character," since each 

 of these plants are distinctly American.                  


      It is called "Newlin's Wreath of Cereals" by        

 numismatists, probably because it was first cataloged by 

 Harold P. Newlin. The wreath appeared on a pattern 1857  

 cent, on half dimes of 1860-73, but had its longest run  

 on dimes from 1860-1916 (including both Liberty Seated   

 and Barber series).


      According to numismatic writer Walter Breen both    

 Mint engravers William Barber in 1876, and Chares E.     

 Barber in 1892, made slight modifications to the wreath  

 to improve its "striking" characteristics.               

excerpted with permission from

An Encyclopedia of Coin and Medal Technology

For Artists, Makers, Collectors and Curators


Roger W. Burdette, Editor

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