Discover the Beauty of Authentic Beach Combed Sea Glass
Have you ever looked for sea glass on the beach?
At one time or another, most of us have "looked for stuff" while strolling on a beach. And it's not surprising, as regardless of whether you live by the ocean or just enjoy visiting seaside resorts, beach combing is perhaps one of the most universal pastimes on the planet.
Chances are pretty good that you might have picked up a small gleaming treasure in the sand: A little piece of glass, no longer sharp and dangerous; instead rounded to a soft shape by years of being tumbled by surf and sand, with a satiny surface that looks almost "sugary." This... is Sea Glass.
I started to collect sea glass when I was just five years old. We traveled a lot when I was little, and I'd stroll along water's edge with my dad, looking for interesting things. On one particular stretch of Mediterranean beach, I started picking up little items I soon started calling "the small blue stones." These were actually little pieces of cobalt blue sea glass-- most likely from discarded pharmaceutical bottles, many decades old.
The original "little blue stones" are long gone, but I still love to walk on the beach and look for those small pieces of colorful sea glass, found in so many different colors.
But what exactly IS sea glass? Where did it come from? How did it get to look the way it does? Why are we so often fascinated by it? Why do so many people collect it? How do we find it? And where? What can we DO with it?
This article will endeavor to answer some of these questions, and hopefully introduce you to the beauty of natural sea glass-- a vanishing treasure.
From Trash to Treasure: How sea glass comes into being
In the simplest possible explanation, sea glass is the result of glass objects being discarded and falling into the sea.
Over a period of many years, the glass-- a bottle, for example-- breaks against rocks and the broken pieces are scattered by waves and currents. As time passes, the sharp shards of glass are slowly abraded by rocks, gravel, sand and waves till they eventually lose all the rough sharp edges. At the same time, the once shiny glass slowly gains an almost "sugary" looking surface, known to sea glass collectors as "frosting." You can almost think of the ocean as a giant rock tumbler.
It's a somewhat popular myth that sea glass is the result of garbage thrown from passing ships. Whereas a small amount of sea glass may have been discarded from a boat, the vast majority comes from sources on land, typically in the form of beach littering. In some areas, sea glass may be found close to old abandoned seaside trash dumps... back in a time when environmental controls were nowhere near as strict as they are today.
It takes a long time for broken glass to become the smoothly rounded "gems" shown in the photos on this page. 10-25 years from the time the glass first falls in the water is typically the minimum required, although there is much sea glass that is 50-100 years old-- or even older.
The time needed for the process varies depending on the roughness of the surf, and the type of coastal material that serves as the tumbling mechanism for the glass. Larger rocks and beach pebbles found in areas with rough surf generally works the fastest... protected sandy or silty bays may take 100+ years to smooth a piece of glass.
Sea Glass: A very popular thing to look for
I am always surprised by just how many people I encounter on the beach who are picking up sea glass. For some, sea glass is "something found" to bring home as a remembrance from a seaside vacation; for others it's "something to do" while they walk their dog on the beach.
Romancing the Sea Glass: Legends and Myths that make sea glass fascinating
Even though sea glass-- strictly speaking-- is "garbage," many people are fascinated by it and often attribute romantic and even mystical qualities to it.
Sometimes sea glass is referred to as "ocean moonstones," a term that has come about because damp sea glass-- especially in white (colorless or clear) and pale blue shades-- has a very similar luminous sheen to real moonstones.
A popular piece of romantic lore from the US Pacific Northwest calls sea glass "mermaid's tears," based on an old legend: It was said that mermaids had the ability to change the forces of nature, but were forbidden to do so by Neptune, God of the ocean. On one dark stormy night, a schooner fought the elements hoping to reach safety at Nootka Island. The ship was accompanied by a mermaid who had made the perilous crossing alongside this same captain many times; she had grown quite fond of him. At one point, a violent gust of wind and a massive wave struck at the same time-- causing the captain to lose his grip on the wheel, slide across the deck and perilously cling to the ship's railing, fighting to stay on ship.
Fearing he would be lost, the mermaid instantly calmed the wind and sea, changing the natural course of the elements and saving the man she'd secretly grown to love. As punishment, Neptune banished the weeping mermaid to the depths of the ocean, condemning her to never approach the surface and its ships, ever again. Even today-- centuries later-- we continue to find her tears, washed up on the beach as sea glass.
The Sea Glass Enthusiast's Bible - A beautiful color photo book all sea glass lovers should own!
If sea glass fascinates you as much as it does me, this is the MUST have book!
I got this as a gift when it first came out, and it's a lovely coffee table book filled with hundreds of gorgeous color photographs of all the possible sea glass colors-- as well as some of the glass objects the sea glass originally came from, along with descriptive texts about what each color was originally used for.
Even if you are not a sea glass enthusiast, I highly recommend this fascinating book, simply as a conversation piece.
Sea Glass Collecting
People have been collecting sea glass for decades, although collecting has become much more popular in the course of the past 7-8 years.
Most "collections" are very simple-- you pick up pieces of sea glass and perhaps keep them in a bowl or a clear glass jar. Depending on where you live-- and how much glass can be found on the beach-- it may take an entire lifetime to fill a jar.
Some collections are kept in glass jars on a windowsill, often sorted by color.
In recent years, there are been a tremendous upsurge in the popularity of sea glass collecting, and more and more people have started using sea glass in art and jewelry. Stories about sea glass and its history have appeared in major newspapers and magazines, as a result of which "serious" collectors have arrived on the scene.
What is a "serious" sea glass collector? Well it's usually someone who has spent many years building a collection of the greatest possible number of different colors, gathered from beaches around the country-- and even around the world-- and in a variety of different shapes and sizes.
Good Places to Beachcomb for Sea Glass
Once "introduced" to sea glass, people often want to know where to go to find some.
There are no hard and fast rules for where to find sea glass. In general, your best chances for finding some is going to be on beaches near seaside population centers that have been busy for 100 years or more. It helps your chances if there has been a fair amount of industry and commerce, because old commercial waste is a good source of the broken glass that eventually becomes sea glass. Popular camping and picnic areas can be good, too.
Beaches with some tidal action and a fair amount of surf are recommended, because these environments help "polish" the sea glass smooth. However, you can also find sea glass in sheltered bays-- it just takes longer for the glass to become smooth and rounded.
In addition to ocean beaches, you can also find this type of glass on the shores of lakes and rivers... although this is a little different. Here in the US Lake Erie, in particular, is known for having a nice variety of "lake glass" or simply "beach glass."
Beach Combing Etiquette-- Or: It's "BEACH combing," not a "strip mining operation"
With the growing popularity of sea glass, and the fact that high quality pieces in rare colors have gained a "commercial value," some people have unfortunately become a little overzealous in their collecting efforts.
On a number of occasions, I've observed groups of 8-10 people (or more) come to our local beaches, all outfitted with coolers, rakes, shovels and sifters, and then go about systematically trying to dig their way through every square inch of beach, attempting to literally "harvest" every single piece of sea glass on the beach. Whereas this kind of exploit might be "inevitable," it seems not very courteous to other beach combers, and not very respectful of the general beach environment.
Most long-term sea glass collectors and enthusiasts observe a few common courtesy rules-- a sort of unwritten "beach combing etiquette."
1. Only pick up nice pieces that are fully "frosted." If a piece of glass is still sharp, or has recently been broken or chipped, throw it back to finish "cooking" so someone can enjoy picking it up, sometime in the future.
2. Allow other beach combers some personal space. There's not going to be "more glass" on a particular patch of beach, just because someone else is looking, there.
3. Don't use rakes, shovels and other tools. If it's on the surface of the beach, pick it up. Otherwise, it'll be there for a future beach combing trip. Besides, metal tools will damage and chip the glass, defeating the entire purpose.
Genuine sea glass is a vanishing resource... please don't "over pick" beaches!
Books about Sea Glass
Although it has enjoyed a surge in popularity, sea glass remains a fairly specialized "niche collectible." Although new books have been published since "Pure Sea Glass," only relatively few books on the topic are available at this time.
The books listed below are all part of my wife's and my personal personal library. More may be available, and I'll add those here as I learn about them-- but not until I have had a good look!
Why is Sea Glass a "Vanishing" Treasure?
Until about the 1950s and 60's, the vast majority of products and foods we purchased came in glass bottles and containers. However, as plastics were developed, fewer and fewer things were packages in glass. Since the 1970s, the vast majority of containers have been made of plastic.
In addition, much stricter laws have been enacted, with respect to environmental protection and waste. Back between the 1800's and up to as late as the 1960s, it was not unusual for towns and cities to heave "seaside dumps" where all the area's garbage was-- quite literally-- pushed into the sea for tides and currents to carry away. Beach goers having picnics would often just leave their trash-- often glass-- behind when they went home for the day.
Last-- but not least-- sea glass is "eroding away." Because the amount of sea glass IN the coastal environment is no longer being added to and the tumbling action of waves, sand and pebbles literally eats away at the glass, the existing volume of sea glass declines a little every year. And, of course, collectors pick up quite a bit of it, too.
The Beauty of Sea Glass Jewelry
One of the most popular things people make with sea glass is jewelry.
In recent years, hundreds of talented jewelers have turned to incorporating sea glass into their work, with some exceptionally beautiful results, all as part of the growing movement to re-use, recycle and "upcycle" old items.
This bracelet with cobalt blue sea glass and sterling silver was made by a client and friend, Danielle Renee, who has lots amazing things in her online sea glass jewelry shop: Jewelry by Danielle Renee. I encourage you to have a look!
[Photograph is the property of Danielle Renee Mullen]
Sea Glass Art
Creative artists and crafts people have found many different ways-- aside from jewelry-- to incorporate the beauty of sea glass into their work.
Sea glass can be used to embellish picture frames or mirror frames. It can also be glued to other pieces of glass like clear vases and candle holders. The two items in the photo above were made for us by beach combing friend who likes to work with sea glass.
The especially artistic create window-sized glass mosaics with elaborate patterns, motifs and landscapes in different colors.
Books about Sea Glass Art
A lot of people enjoy collecting sea glass... but once they have accumulated some pieces, they want to know what to DO with them. If you are a creative soul, there are lots of ways to use sea glass, from jewelry making (artists typically use sea glass the same way as semi-precious stones) to a variety of arts & crafts projects. The possibilities are really only limited by your imagination!
We have both of these books in our personal library... they are a source of creative inspiration, especially for my wife, who's the more artistic of us.
How Many Colors of Sea Glass are There?
If you look long enough and have a discerning eye for color, you can probably find and identify hundreds of different distinct shades of sea glass. The picture above just shows about 50 of them. I probably have somewhat over 120 distinct shades in my own collection.
Some colors are very common, some can be quite rare. Most commonly, you will clear, brown and kelly green sea glass-- these three probably account for about 90% of all the sea glass in the world. If you think about it, it's not surprising... most of what we have gotten in glass containers were made from those colors.
The rarest colors for sea glass include red, orange, bright yellow, turquoise, pink and bright teal. These only saw very limited use in commercially produced glassware, and thus are rare as sea glass. Most of these colors also come from OLD glass, adding to the scarcity factor.
Sea Glass Photo Gallery: A Rainbow of Colors!
Special Pieces: Heart shaped sea glass
Red Sea Glass: Rare and Beautiful
Although not as rare as orange, red is possibly the most sought after color among sea glass collectors and artists.
Red sea glass is among the rarest colors for a beach comber to find-- because red glass has very limited origins-- very little of it was made commercially since red typically had to be made with GOLD (in metal oxide form) which was not only very expensive, but it also made the glass unstable and "temperamental." Few glassmakers were willing to take the chance of adding gold with a high value, only to see their glass batch turn "muddy brown" rather than the desired bright red.
Red has been commercially used for a small number of "specialty" beer bottles in the 1950s, for automotive tail lights and warning lamp lenses, and for certain types of art glass. Finding a piece of red sea glass in good condition means you have found a true treasure!
Orange: the Rarest Sea Glass - For most sea glass collectors, the "Holy Grail."
Some colors of sea glass are extremely rare.
This only makes sense, since some colors of glass are extremely rare.
Orange is generally regarded as the single rarest color, among sea glass collectors. Not only are there very few sources of orange glass (old caution lamp lenses and certain art glass), but what few sources there are were unlikely to end up in the garbage, so unlikely to become sea glass.
Orange sea glass is only found in a few locations, and even then, only an estimated 1-in-15,000 pieces are in this color.
Genuine Beach Combed Sea Glass for Sale
If you don't live near the sea, or you are interested in rare colors, or you just want to get some sea glass right NOW, there's an extensive and actively traded market for it on sites like eBay and Etsy. Just search for "beach sea glass" and you'll get hundreds of results.
However, it pays to be cautious and discerning. Since sea glass has become more of a "traded commodity," there are also more and more "shady operators" who try to sell broken glass smoothed in a rock tumbler as genuine beach combed sea glass.
Always buy from a reputable seller!
Some interesting sea glass web sites
Sea glass has become quite popular, so there are many web sites and online communities dedicated exclusively to it, as well as a US-based Sea Glass Association for enthusiasts.
- North Beach Treasures
This is actually my own sea glass web site, where I feature my photography of sea glass along with lots of history and descriptions. I hope you'll go have a look-- my fellow collectors and beach combers tell me it's one of the world's best!
- North American Sea Glass Association
The NASGA web site is an excellent starting point for those who want to learn more about natural sea glass. NASGA also organizes an annual Sea Glass Festival which draws thousands of collectors from all over the world.
- Sea Glass on Facebook
This is the primary sea glass collecting page on Facebook, with more than 23,000 followers. Lots of interesting posts and pictures, as well as stories about sea glass and other things "coastal."
- Seaglasslovers - Sea Glass Lovers
Sea Glass Lovers (SGL) - Sea Glass Beach Locations, Craft & Display Ideas, Photos, Forums, Shard ID, Speciality Groups, Chat & More!
- Sea Glass Artists & Collectors Community
This is another large online community for sea glass enthusiasts, where both collectors and artists working with sea glass connect with each other to share stories, photos, art and more. Currently ONLY on Facebook.
© 2012 Peter Messerschmidt
Are YOU interested in sea glass? Do you have a memory of when you first found some sea glass? Do you still look for and save sea glass? Leave a comment!
KingRezo from Puerto Rico on August 05, 2014:
sea glass is wonderful it's so interesting how nature can turn something such as broken glass bottles into such a beautiful thing
Tracy Arizmendi from Northern Virginia on July 24, 2014:
Wonderful article!! I have learned so much from reading your article! Thank you for sharing!!!
Peter Messerschmidt (author) from Port Townsend, WA, USA on July 23, 2014:
@PaulaBurke LM: Paula, thank for your comment! Usually you can tell the "real" from the manufactured by the way it's frosted up, and sometimes by the colors... when you've looked at the real thing all your life, there's something too... "even"... about the manufactured kind... it's a look you just get to know really well.
Peter Messerschmidt (author) from Port Townsend, WA, USA on July 23, 2014:
@JoanieMRuppel54: Once the "bug" bites, it's hard not to want to beach comb all the time!
Nithya Venkat aka Vellur from Dubai on July 23, 2014:
Great lens, fascinating and interesting. Have learned so much about sea glass after reading your lens.
Paula V Stout from Midwest on July 23, 2014:
I have been in love with Sea Glass my whole life. I have very little in my possession as I grew up in Oklahoma and now am landlocked in Kansas. I am curious, is there any way to determine genuine sea glass from manufactured? Other than picking it up at the sea, yourself?
Joanie Ruppel from Keller, Texas on July 22, 2014:
The first glass I found was on Cape Cod, but the best sea glass I have ever found was in Greece. Sea glass hunting is my passion and I wish I lived next to the sea so I could look for it every day! Thanks for putting my lens on sea glass in the related articles section! Great job!
Peter Messerschmidt (author) from Port Townsend, WA, USA on July 22, 2014:
@Tricia Deed: Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment! Sea glass is definitely more prevalent in some areas than in others... even though population centers are usually a good indicator, that's not always reliable.
Tricia Deed from Orlando, Florida on July 21, 2014:
I have seen sea glass art. But, I have personally never found any on the beaches.
Peter Messerschmidt (author) from Port Townsend, WA, USA on July 20, 2014:
@DebMartin: Yeah, I know quite a few people around the Great Lakes who pick up "Lake Glass," which is basically the same idea. The styrofoam and plastic bottles really bother me.... people are so messy!
Peter Messerschmidt (author) from Port Townsend, WA, USA on July 20, 2014:
@MCB2011: Sometimes it just depends on the location... there are places that just don't have sea glass, or it's very uncommon. I happen to live where there has been a town and busy port since the 1850s, so there was a lot of beach trash... and so, more sea glass.