Genuine Sea Glass -The Legend, Past and Future
~In every outthrust headland, in every curving beach, in every grain of sand there is a story of the earth. –Rachel Carson
The wooden ship rocks to and fro with the motion of the rough seas, tossing the ship like a toy. It drifts closer and closer to the rocks jetting up out of the ocean like a menacing razors edge waiting to ensnare its prey. A sailor stands at the edge of the ailing ship, waiting for the shout of the captain to abandon ship. Below he can hear the cargo of precious wine and oils clashing together having broken free from its restraints, the shatter of glass echoing in his mind. Then a thundering crash shakes the ship as it makes contact with the huge rocks and glass shards glitter and glisten as they make their way to the bottom of the sea.
Time passes and centuries creep by as a single shard of glass makes its way to the beach, again. It has seen this beach hundreds of times already. The motion of the waves and the draw of the tide washes it up on the sandy beach, only to reclaim it again when the tide recedes. Day after day, year after year.
But this time is different, a little hand reaches down and picks up the glistening glass, changed by time, instantly becoming a treasure, a collectible gift from the sea. Known as Mermaids Tears, Sea Gems, Beach Jewels, Sea pearls, Poseidon’s gems, or simply Sea Glass.
But what is Sea Glass?
Sea-glass is pieces of broken glass that have been discarded or thrown into the ocean. They drift and move with the tides, scraping against sand and pieces of rock, slowly being etched and weathered as decades, centuries and perhaps millennia pass. Trying to date at a piece of glass just by its looks might prove impossible. A piece of glass 100 years old that was discarded in freshwater lake may have little to no etching at all. On the other hand, a piece of glass tumbling in the ocean could have become wedged between coral and only released when a severe storm dislodged it, allowing it to continue its path to conformity.
Generally speaking it takes approximately 10 years to create significant etching and another 20 to 30 years to wear down hard edges. Some pieces that have become extremely worn can take up to a hundred years, like the famous sea glass found on the coastline of Seaham, England.
What is it Worth?
The interest in Sea-glass has skyrocketed since the 1970’s as people have discovered its appeal. Its use can now be seen in works of art displayed in museums, embedded in intricately designed sidewalks, adorning the edges of mirrors, made into beautiful pendants delicately draping around the neck of an aristocrat, the list goes on… One piece even made its way onto a 5.7 million dollar vintage clock, claiming the world’s most perfect heart shaped sea glass ever found.
There will always be beach glass dotting the beaches. It will never disappear… Right?
The one-of-a-kind uniqueness to every piece and its high demand has resulted in a worldwide sea-glass shortage. What was once spotted with every trip along the waves is becoming more and more seldom. With the highly restrictive laws pertaining to polluting the oceans, changes in glass production and the popularity of plastics has resulted in raw glass not being ‘seeded’.
Today, Lead oxide is commonly added to glass to make it crystal clear and strong, which in turn is resilient to the weathering process, this unfortunately; does not make it a good candidate to turn into sea glass. There will always be that rogue person who throws their glass bottles in the ocean to toss and turn. Beaches that are fiercely guarded by those communities that want to preserve the glass beaches and ensure beach glass is there for future generations to come.
However with the dwindling supply of quality beach glass, the chances of those pieces making it to perfect gems becoming more and more difficult.
So how is Sea Glass made?
There is an emotional irony in sea glass. Sand is transformed into glass by humans, which becomes broken and discarded into the sea. That same sand surrounds it, weathering it down and transforms it into gems of the sea, given back to humans to admire and love once again.
The ingredients needed to make glass has basically remained unchanged for over 4,000 years. Silica (the base component) is mixed with soda (used to promote melting) and lime (makes the molten glass less soluble and easier to form). The forces of nature not only shape sea glass by abrasive physical polishing, but with the exposure to salt water itself. Slowly over time Hydrogen ions in water replace the Sodium (soda) ions in glass creating Sodium Hydroxide. The Sodium Hydroxide is then leached from the surface of the glass causing a pitting to occur. This process is agitated more with the addition of PH levels, like in salt water.
When this glass washes up on the beach and dries, the surface displays a powdery crystal like formation, making it appear to sparkle. It can take decades for this condition to occur, and can sometimes be seen with the human eye, recognizable in ‘C’ shaped patterns.
The severity of the pitted glass surface can also depend on the amount of additives used in the original batch of glass. A little too much soda and lime in a batch will make the glass more prone to pitting. This becomes the natural marker for determining genuine sea glass from fake imitations.
I found a beautiful piece! So… what is its value?
The texture, color and shape is very important to the sea glass collector. Just like snowflakes, no two pieces of sea glass are identical, nor is all sea glass perfectly frosted. If you have luck on your side and you find a sea glass marble or a heart shaped piece, go buy a lottery ticket!
The majority of glass collected originated from broken bottles, which is due to the enormous bottle production in the 19th and 20th centuries. Triangle shaped pieces light blue, green and brown in color are the most common.
Different colors and shades are created by adding certain elements, such as iron oxide to create green or adding Cobalt oxide to create a deep electric blue. A small amount of real Gold was even added to create a deep ruby red color. Purple tinted glass containing Manganese was even found in Egyptian tombs! To put a value on that piece you found though depends on its quality, color, size.
- Ultra Rare: Brilliant Orange is undoubtedly the most rare sea glass you can find. 1:10,000
- Extremely Rare: True red, Turquoise, Yellow, Black, Teal and Gray stand out as the most challenging colors to find. 1:3,000-5,000
- Rare: Pink, Aqua blue, Cornflower Blue, Cobalt Blue, Opaque white, Citron (orangey-yellow), Purple & Amethyst. 1:500-3,000
- Uncommon: Soft Green, Forest Green, Lime Green, Jade, Sea foam Blue, Golden Amber & Amber 1:50-500
- Common: Kelly Green, Brown, Clear
Grading sea glass condition:
- A: extremely worn and rounded piece with no blemishes or chips.
- B: Extremely worn piece with soft edges and one or two minor blemishes or chips.
- C: Fairly worn piece with at least one hard, straight edge and blemishes.
- D: A barely worn piece with several blemishes or hard edges/corners.
How do I tell if the Sea Glass I bought is real?
If you see packages of cheap sea glass in the store or deals that seem too good to be true, what you are seeing is not really sea glass at all. The name “Sea Glass” in itself implies that it has spent some time in the sea, which fakes most certainly have not. Pieces of glass are machine tumbled, sanded and ground down with carbide wheels or chemically etched using strong hydrofluoric acid, then possibly sold by unscrupulous vendors as genuine.
I was at a jewelry show recently in which a vendor was selling “Authentic Ancient European Sea Glass” for quite a high amount of money. Just by touching and sorting through the pieces, I started to experience a tingling sensation in my fingers, followed up by a slight burning. The tale-tell appearance of genuine sea glass was also vacant. This was the last show I saw this particular vendor at.
Faux glass should not be used in jewelry, as acids can still be present and may not be easily washed off. But there is a way to determine genuine sea glass from fake.
Most imitation sea glass made today has a noticeable silky, creamy texture with very little surface pitting, it appears to have a very uniform haze. There is also the ‘C’ shaped etching in the surface, however; sometimes you need a magnifying glass to see it clearly. As of now, the process of mimicking the forces of nature cannot exactly be duplicated by mechanized process nor by chemical means.
How can you be sure you are getting genuine real deal? Buy from reputable sellers or get out there and enjoy a walk by the beach after a storm and find them yourself!
So the next time…
So the next time you are walking along the beach and spot one of Poseidon’s Gems nestled in the sand, washed up from the depths of the sea, pick it up and wonder about its tale it would tell.
~May you feel the sun on your face, the warm sand between your toes and a piece of sea-glass in your pocket.