A Short Course on Sea Glass

Sea glass is a beautiful example of recycling by Nature. A bottle; or too many bottles in many cases, tossed into the water breaks in the surf, and years later its shards have transformed into beautiful gems worthy of becoming part of a coveted piece of jewelry.

Sea glass forms partially as the result of glass rolling in sandy surf, but also because of a chemical reaction of the glass with salt water. The longer the glass is in the water, and becomes hydrated, the more of a patina, or “frost” it develops as a result of the lime and soda elements leaching out. Because a unique chemical transformation takes place, beach glass may one day achieve gemstone status. The patina sparkles like tiny diamonds in the light, one of the hallmarks of genuine sea glass; a trait that has yet to be achieved by simply tumbling or acid washing of glass commercially.

Sea glass can be found in a multitude of colors. The most common colors found today are clear, brown, and kelly green, the color of many beer bottles.

Uncommon colors tend be older glass from the sixties and beyond. One look and you can recognize that it is not the color scheme used commercially today. The uncommon colors encountered most are the soft green, amber, forest green, and lime green, though these too, are becoming harder to find. The glass pieces with a soft green shade that looks so ethereal were most commonly turn of the century Coca-Cola bottles.

Some beaches; many in the Caribbean, harbor extremely old glass shards from rum bottles up to 300 years old. Most of these are the lime green, forest green and brown glass shades that have darkened in the sun to the point that they appear black.

The rare colors are the blues and aqua tones that are truly a delight to the eyes. True aqua, periwinkle, teal, and cobalt blue shades originated as medicine bottles and home glassware.

The rarest sea glass colors are the grays, yellows and lavenders. The “champagne” to purple colored sea glass is often extremely old clear glass made circa WW1. Magnesium used as an ingredient is glass making at that time caused the glass to develop a purple color after long term exposure to the UV rays of the sun.

The absolute rarest sea glass find is orange or red, the prize of a lifetime for sea glass collectors. The oldest of these specimens originated from shipwrecked stained glass panels en route to the new world from Europe, and the most recent from old automobile blinkers and lights.

Some sea glass has wavy irregular shapes as if it had been melted. The most likely cause for this formation is that it was “campfire glass”; bottles thrown into trash burning pits and bonfires by soldiers, workers, or even pirates many years ago. This glass has a very unusual look, though it is hard to set in silver due to its baroque edges. It often has grains of sand or sea plants embedded in it. Occasionally, pieces are bi-colored, from two separate glass shards fusing together. Very nice specimens similar to these can be found in areas where glass companies used to dump unused molten glass into the sea every evening. The “end of day” glass patterns are spectacular, and the edges are very smooth and unusual.

Each piece of sea glass undoubtedly has stories to it. Was the piece someone’s pop bottle in the sixties, or was it part of a sea captain’s liquor bottle hundreds of years ago? Perhaps some of that old Chesapeake sea glass came blasting out of a local cannon during the Battle of 1812. Maybe a few fragments of Caribbean sea glass carry the energy of pirates gathered around a fire, reveling into the night. Then there’s sea pottery, shards of broken china worn smooth by the sea. Who owned it? Was a teacup tossed purposely into the waves by a haughty aristocrat, or lost in a shipwreck? We can only speculate, but isn’t that fun!