Cameo Grading, What's the Difference?

The PCGS Cameo Proof Franklin Grading Set

Why all Cameo’s (or DCAM/ULTRA’s) aren’t the same!



"Buy the coin, not the holder”.


Collectors new to buying superb U.S. proof coins often wonder why two cameo proof coins of the same grade, from the same service, might be priced differently. It is often because one is significantly more contrasted, i.e. has more "eye appeal”, than the other!


The next question then is, "If one is more contrasted, why do they get the same "Cameo” (or Deep Cameo) designation?


To answer that most important question, I refer you to the very important, but almost never talked about, "PCGS Cameo Grading Set”.


While PCGS only offers three proof grades on their holder for proof coins, there are actually seven cameo grades in the PCGS Grading Set. The PCGS Set is comprised of several dozen coins purchased by PCGS to help guide present and future graders at PCGS in maintaining a permanent, consistent, and constant standard that will be the same 50 years from now as it is today.


The cameo grading set, used by the graders at PCGS to help determine what designation (PR, CAM, or DCAM) should go on the holder, has the following seven comparison-categories to aid their graders:

(There is a visual guide of these designations located here.)

1. Proof + (plus)        These are coins that exhibit some cameo contrast, but not quite enough on either obverse or reverse to earn a "Cameo” designation. One side may even be DCAM! However, the other side does not meet the minimum "Cameo” standard. These coins are simply designated "PR”.


2. Cameo – (minus)   These are coins which exhibit the minimum standard for cameo contrast on both their obverse & reverse. These coins are designated "CAM”.


3. Cameo                    A "dead center” cameo, with slightly more contrast than category 2 coins.


4. Cameo + (plus)      Exceptional contrast. Approaching DCAM status, but at least one side does not meet the minimum standard. These coins also receive a "CAM” designation.


5. DCAM – (minus)   These coins display considerable cameo contrast on both their obverse and reverse. Quite striking in appearance, though not quite the "black & white” variety, with slightly more contrast than a Cam+ - just enough to earn a "DCAM” designation on the holder. On other coins, one side can even be DCAM+, but again the other has just enough contrast to earn a DCAM.


6. DCAM                    A "dead center” DCAM. This is a black & white. The devices offer the snow-white cameo effect, the mirrors the jet-black look that cameo collectors lust for. Exceptional contrast, though not a DCAM+ as there may be a frost-break or two on the devices.


7. DCAM + (plus)      Ultimate!! Very, very few pre-1972 proof coins exhibit this level of contrast. On a DCAM+ coin devices are intensely frosted, with little if any frost-break on both obverse and reverse. From this earlier era, only the very first strikes from a matching die pair that was perfectly prepared, ever display this level of contrast, and few dies of any year were prepared this perfectly. These coins also receive a "DCAM” designation on the holder.


How do I know all this? I helped David Hall and PCGS assemble their cameo grading set in 1991.


How the PCGS Cameo Grading Set came about: The year was 1991. I just released my first book, "Cameo And Brilliant Proof Coinage Of The 1950 To 1970 Era, and sent a copy to David Hall, suggesting it might be time for PCGS to begin offering "Cameo” designations for their coins. Up until then, no such designation existed. David called me a week later. We had several meetings thereafter, establishing appropriate CAMEO and DEEP CAMEO standards for every series.