The undated Charles and Johanna silver coinage was minted in Mexico city in two series. The first series was produced from the opening of the Mexican mint in 1536 until about 1542, when a new set of die punches arrived from Spain. The first denominations to be minted were the one quarter, one half, one, two and three reales coins. The quarter reales silver was soon dropped because it was too small while the three reales, frequently confused with a two reales, was replaced with a larger four reales coin. Assayers whose initials are found on these coins are R, G, F and P (Francisco del Rincón, Juan Gutiérrez, Estebán Franco and possibly Pedro de Espina, although the initial would represent his given name rather than his surname, as was the practice in later times).
The obverse of the earlier series of Mexican silver displays the crowned heraldic shield of Leon and Castile. The shield is divided into four quadrants with a castle in the upper left and lower right quadrants and a lion in the lower left and upper right; at the base of the shield is a pomegranate. On either side of the shield is the mintmark (M for Mexico). The obverse legend has a variation of, CAROLVS ET IOHANA REGES (Charles and Johanna rulers). The full legend is on the largest denomination coin while it is more sharply abbreviated as the size and denomination of the coins in the series decrease. On the small one quarter real obverse the shield was replaced with a crowned initial K without mintmark, while the half real contained the initials KI, for Karlos and Iohana and the mintmark M below.
The reverse of the coins in this series show two crowned columns representing the Pillars of Hercules. This signified the end of the world according to the ancient classical writers. Between the columns is a banner with the word PLVS (or an abbreviated form on smaller denominations) for the motto PLUS ULTRA, which translates as "More Beyond," alluding to the Spanish discovery and conquest of the New World. Either the use of dots or a number designate the denomination of the coin. Below is the initial of the assayer. Of the four assayers for this series, the first two, R and G, included their initial between the bases of the columns, while the other two, P and F, added their initial to the obverse replacing one of the two mintmarks to the sides of the shield. The legend on the reverse of these first coins continued the obverse legend with some form of, HISPANIARVM ET INDIARVM (of the Spains and the Indies), again abbreviated depending on available room based on the size of the denomination. The use of the plural for Spain refers to the various kingdoms within what we now call Spain. The reverse of the small quarter real has a single crowned column with the mintmark to the left and the assayer initial to the right. Early series coins are quite rare with possibly about 300-400 surviving examples, while there are at least 2,500 coins surviving from the later series.
Around the year 1542 new die punches were sent to Mexico from Spain. Punches are handcrafted hardened steel tools used to individually impress small elements of the coin design into a die. Sort of like small "branding irons" each punch would be used to hammer a specific image or letter into a block of metal that would become a die. For example, there was a punch for the pomegranate, another for the lion, one for the castle and others for each of the letters. Major elements of the design as the columns and the outline of the shield were cut into the die by the diemakers without the aid of punches. The punches that arrived around 1542 were the third group of punches sent to Mexico to be used in making the dies. Generally there were no major changes in the style of the punches, so this event in itself would not be a major dividing line between one series and another. However, along with the new punches the design of the coins was modified, creating what is known as the later series. The basic design remained the same but the assayer's initial is always on the obverse of the coin so that his initial was to one side of the shield and the mintmark to the other side. Assayers initials on the later series coins are G, A, R, S, L, O. Gutiérrez (G) and Rincón (R) were discussed above, the only other identifiable initial is Luis Rodríguez (L). It is thought the L and O coins were the final products in this series.
The reverse of the coin was modified so that the two crowned pillars of Hercules were placed in water, representing their actual location at the Straits of Gibraltar. This image symbolized the ocean passage from the Old World to the New. The modification was adopted on later cob varieties and has become know to collectors as the pillars and waves design. Also, the motto PLUS ULTRA was modified. Rather than simply using PLVS in a banner between the columns, the full motto was included, broken into three sections by the two columns with the banner removed. This modification actually represented a change in the punches, for the two earlier punch sets had the motto PLVS on a banner as one punch, while the new set of punches simply had the individual letters without a banner, and included punches for each letter in the motto not just "PLVS." Of course, on smaller denomination coins in the series, as much of the legend as would fit was added, divided by the columns.
This series continued to be minted after the ascendancy of Philip II in 1556. At the Mexico City mint they even continued to use the Charles and Johanna legend. However, at Lima, when the mint opened in 1568, they used the same design as at Mexico City but with a PHILIPVS II legend. It was not until March 8, 1570 the Philip decreed a new design would be created for coins produced in the New World (which at that time included the mints in Mexico City and Lima, Peru). Dies for the new designs were produced in Spain and arrived at the American mints in 1572. Presumably as the old dies broke they were replaced with the newly designed dies.
There are numerous varieties of Charles and Johanna coins. Nesmith has categorized the series based on the denomination, assayer initial, style of the initial (i.e. with annulets or plain) and position of the initial in relation to the mintmark (either to the right or left of the shield). Based on these distinctions he has listed 26 types for the early series (Nesmith 1-26), found in 65 different combinations. For the late series Nesmith lists 80 types (Nesmith 31-110) found in 220 combinations. His combinations are not true die combinations for they are only based on distinctions in the punches used for the central designs of the obverse and reverse. Obverse varieties are based on the different punches used in the crown and the shield while reverse varieties are based on the punch used for the crown above the column. The various known combinations of these design varieties have been assigned letters. For example, Nesmith 45 refers to a two reales coin with the assayer initial G to the left of the shield and the mintmark M to the right, however this coin is found in various design combinations. In fact, for this item Nesmith lists five combination variations, the first is Nesmith 45 (combining his obverse design 15 with reverse design A), the next combination is 45a (obverse design 16 with reverse A), with others listed as 45b (obverse 17 with reverse A), 45c (obverse 18a with reverse A) and 45d (obverse 19 with reverse A).
In the late series, in addition to the 220 combinations, Nesmith also lists several variations in the legend. He records over 50 variations of the obverse legend and about 60 variations of the reverse legend. These distinctions are noted in his catalogue but are not assigned different numbers, hence a Nesmith number (which represents a particular assayer and mintmark combination found with a specific obverse and reverse design combination) may be found in several varieties. For instance Nesmith 48d is found with three different obverse legend varieties and four different reverse legend varieties. If these variations and their observed combinations are considered, the number of varieties would considerably increase. It should be remembered, these legend varieties are limited to differences in wording and punctuation, they do not include letter punch varieties. If punch variations are considered the number of varieties would increase even further! Also, as the coins were hammer struck there are numerous doublings and overstrikes that are not die varieties but unique items created by movement of the dies between strikes. In summary, the diversity and variation found in these coins is substantial.
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