What are Medals?

What Are Medals?

Dr. Jesse Kraft

A medal is a small, portable, artistic, coin-like object that can have many different meanings or reasons for issuance. They have a design on one or both sides, and normally made of metal. They may be intended to be worn, suspended from clothing or jewelry in some way. They come in many sizes, from a fraction of an inch to several inches in diameter. Medallions are larger medals (generally four inches or larger) that are generally too large to be comfortably worn. They may be die-struck or cast in a mold. An artist who creates medals is called a medalist.

First attested in English in 1578, the word medal is derived from the Middle French médaille, itself from Italian medaglia, and ultimately from the post-classical Latin medalia, meaning a coin worth half a denarius. The word medallion (first attested in English in 1658) has the same ultimate derivation, but this time through the Italian medaglione, meaning “large medal.” There are two theories as for the etymology of the word medalia: the first being that the Latin medalia itself is derived from the adjective medialis meaning “medial” or “middle”; the second being that medaglia comes from the Vulgar Latin metallea (moneta), meaning “metal (coin)” and that from Latin metallum, which is the latinisation of the Greek μέταλλον (metallon), “a mine.”

Medals can be divided into at least nine classes:

Art Medal

A medal that is made purely as an art object. Medallions and plaquettes are often of this type. Below is the 1964 issue for the Society of Medalists, Underwater/Seascape (1930-001-070), by Frank Eliscu.

Society Medals

Medals that are made for societies used as a badge or token of membership. Below is the Edward T. Newell President’s Medal for the New York Numismatic Club (MACO.1919-005-012).

Portrait Medal

A medal that is produced to immortalize a person with their portrait. European portrait medallions sometimes bear the Latin word Aetate to describe the depicted person’s age at the time of the portrait. The below Audrey and Noel Medal (MACO.1921-018), by Emil Fuchs, is a beautiful example of a portrait medal.

Award or Decoration

A medal that is awarded to a person or organization as a form of recognition for sporting, military, scientific, cultural, academic, or various other achievements. Military awards and decorations are more precise terms for certain types of state decoration. Military decorations are often in shapes such as crosses or stars, but are still loosely called “medals.” Service medals (or campaign medals) are awarded to all servicemen who serve in a given geographical and timespan, though not necessarily for a specific act of heroism or achievement. Below is the United States Army Good Conduct Award (MACO.1942-051)

Souvenir Medal

A medal that is focused on a place or event like state fairs, expositions, museums, historic sites, etc. Similar to a commemorative, but frequently found for sale contemporaneously within their respective souvenir shops. Perhaps the most well-known souvenir medals are those that are affiliated with the several World’s Fairs that occurred in the United States since the 1850s—most notably, the Columbian Exposition of 1892-93 in Chicago.

Religious Medal

Devotional medals that may be worn for religious reasons.


An order is a most-elaborate piece of ceremonial regalia that implies distinguished membership in a fraternal organization, whether it be military, religious, political, or social. When awarded, they often imply distinguished services to a nation or to the general betterment of humanity.

Table Medal

A medal or medallion that is too large to be worn and is often awarded in a plaque, frame, mount, or stand to be displayed, rather than worn.

Traditionally, medals are cast from a mold or struck from a set of dies. The imagery, which usually includes lettering, is typically in a higher than on coins. Die-struck medals generally need to receive several blows from the dies to allow for more metal displacement than in coins produced for mass circulation in a single impact. Otherwise, all of the intended details will not appear. Circular medals are most common, while rectangular medals are often known as plaquettes. Decorations often use other shapes, especially crosses and stars, and usually come with a suspension loop and a colored ribbon with a clip at the top to attach to clothing worn on the chest.

The obverse (front) of a medal may contain a portrait, pictorial scene, or other image along with an inscription. The reverse (back) is not always used and may be left blank or may contain a secondary design. It is not uncommon to find only an artistic rendering on the obverse, while all details and other information for the medal are inscribed on the reverse. The edge is found only occasionally employed to display an inscription such as the maker’s mark, serial numbers, the composition, or sometimes a motto.

Medals that are intended to be hung from a ribbon also include a small suspension piece at the crest with which to loop a suspension ring through. It is through the ring that a ribbon is run or folded so the medal may hang pendent. Medals pinned to the breast use only a small cut of ribbon that is attached to a top bar where the brooch pin is affixed. Top bars may be hidden under the ribbon so they are not visible, be a plain device from which the ribbon attaches, or may even be decorative to complement the design on the medal. Some top bars are elaborate and contain a whole design unto themselves.

Bronze has been the most common material employed for medals, due to its fair price range, durability, ease with which to work when casting, and the ample availability. However, a wide range of other media have also been used. Rarer metals have been employed, such as silver, platinum, and gold, when wishing to add value beyond the mere artistic depiction, as well as base metals and alloys such as copper, brass, iron, aluminum, lead, zinc, nickel, and pewter. Individual medals sometimes come in a variety of metals to denote rank, such as gold, silver, and bronze medals for first, second and third places. Medals that are made with inexpensive material might be gilded, silver- or gold-plated, chased, or finished in a variety of other ways to improve their appearance. Medals have also been made of rock, gemstone, ivory, glass, porcelain, terra cotta, coal, wood, paper, enamel, lacquerware, and plastics.