“In the style of” a California gold dollar

John W. writes: For almost 50 years I have been trying without success to identify this item. Thank you.
This is one of those cases where the item is “in the style of”. This is not a coin, but a decoration, most likely part of some other piece of jewelry. It is “in the style of” a California gold dollar.

Beginning around 1852 and continuing to about 1856, privately minted gold coins were minted from local California gold in fractional amounts ($1, 50 cents and 25 cents). Many of the issuers were jewelers.

After about 1882 the United States government frowned on using these tokens as money as they had long past their use as emergency money and only the government has the authority to mint coins. Nevertheless, pieces with dates from 1852-1856 and later continued to circulate in the West until as late as 1916.

Some jewelers copied the design for use in jewelry but wary of the disapproval of the government, altered the design so they wouldn’t be accused of “making money”. The alterations consisted leaving off the denomination or altering the date to something absurd, like 1807.

California gold tokens were also sold at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915. These undated pieces do not have the stature of the original California gold. Later, in the 1950’s, copies of these tokens in brass featuring bears were created, primarily to defraud collectors not knowledgeable about California gold coins.

Note that merchant tokens were used extensively in England from 1790 – 1815 during the coinage shortage there and in the U.S. during the Bank of the United States crises during the Jacksonian era of 1832-44 and then again during the Civil War (1861-65). In almost all cases the need was for small change. Cents and half cents were non existent. Copper merchant tokens took up the slack (See “Condor” or “Hard Times” tokens for more information).

I can’t tell what metal your piece is made of from your photo, but pieces like this have no numismatic value though if gold, would be probably worth less than US$15.

Also see: California Fractional gold coins