The embryonic vertebrate face is composed of similarly sized buds of neural crest-derived mesenchyme encased in epithelium. These buds or facial prominences grow and fuse together to give the postnatal morphology characteristic of each species. Here we review the role of neural crest cells and foregut endoderm in differentiating facial features. We relate the developing facial prominences to the skeletal structure of the face and review the signals and genes that have been shown to play an important role in facial morphogenesis. We also examine two experiments one at the genetic level and one at the signal level in which transformation of facial prominences and subsequent change of jaw identity was induced. We propose that signals such as retinoids and BMPs and downstream transcription factors such as Distal-less related genes specify jaw identity. BioEssays 25:554–568, 2003. © 2003 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.