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  • Writer's pictureBarbra Davis

From Trash to Treasure: The Story of Sea Glass

Sea Glass, also referred to as beach glass, ocean glass and mermaid tears, is glass sometimes found on beaches along oceans, bays, rivers or lakes. It has been tumbled and smoothed by the waves, water and sand into a smooth, frosted shape. It begins as bottles and other glass that was tossed on the shore, broken, and then tumbled by the tides and currents.

The sea is in constant motion, sandblasting the glass like a big rock tumbler. During this process, pounding waves saturate the surface of the glass, leaching the soda and lime components and leaving silica shards. This erosion process pits and polishes each piece differently, creating unique frosted treasures.

This naturally tumbled sea glass has no sharp edges or corners. Generally, it takes twenty years for the rounded edges to form, and up to one hundred years for a thick piece of glass to be shaped into a rounded jewel. It is a curious and unique product since it is essentially highly valuable trash!

You may have purchased a glass product called “sea glass” at some point but, unless it was fairly expensive, it was man-made frosted pieces. Authentic sea glass is becoming harder and harder to find for a variety of reasons: 1) more people are looking for it; 2) many glass containers have been replaced by plastic ones; and 3) littering in the oceans has been greatly discouraged.

Glass is no longer used for packaging as much as it was in the past. Before the mid 1960’s virtually all products were sold in glass containers. Plastic was just becoming widely used and recycling wasn’t even considered in most areas. In coastal areas, trash collection wasn’t needed because everyone burned or buried their garbage, or just dumped it into the water, thinking the sea was so vast it could handle the trash. Today we think and act differently.

The reduced availability of sea glass has created a new demand for it as a medium for jewelry and other crafts. Some crafters found that tumbling pieces of clear and stained glass in a rock tumbler for a time would create artificial sea glass, or "craft glass." While this glass is chunkier than most real sea glass, and hasn’t been shaped and formed by long-term exposure to water, it does serve the purpose of providing lovely frosted glass at a cheaper price and in a wider variety of colors than natural sea glass. However, it can’t compare with the romance and beauty of natural sea glass.

Types Of Natural Sea Glass

While most sea glass is small and irregular in shape, there are many fun and interesting types. "Rounds" are formed from the bottoms of bottles; patterned glass gives a hint about its origin because some of the original imprint remains. Campfire glass is a very unique type of sea glass as it was originally melted in a fire, probably on a beach somewhere during a party. The glass is then worn by the ocean to produce a uniquely shaped piece.

Colors of Natural Sea Glass

The color of sea glass is determined by its original source. Glass bottles account for the majority of natural sea glass found today, but it can also come from jars, plates, windows, windshields and even pottery. Since the colors blue, green and brown dominated bottle manufacturing in the 1800s, older sea glass often comes in these colors. The clear glass mostly used in the 1900's contained anti-colorizing agents. This often produces a purple or pale-yellow color when exposed to long years of sunlight.

The most commonly found colors today are green (imported beer and wine bottles), brown (Budweiser bottles) and white (soda and water bottles) because there are still new sources for them. You will probably be able to find these shades of sea glass for years to come. While the colors found in natural sea glass can range from cobalt blue, turquoise and teal to gray, the rarest are white and black, red and orange (which required gold to create that shade).

How the Value of Natural Sea Glass is Determined

Sea glass is graded much like precious gems. Basically, there are 3 values used when appraising sea glass: Color, Grade and Other Characteristics. Obviously, the rarer the color, the more value the glass will have. The common green, brown and white glasses are least valuable, followed by olives, ambers and pale greens. Seafoam Green, a unique and very lovely shade, is about in the middle of the value spectrum, followed by blues and lavenders. All reds, pinks, oranges, bright aquas, limes and chartreuse are very valuable.

Grade is generally determined by the amount of frost on the glass. The frosting is produced by the action of the water on the original glass, so the longer glass has been in the water, the older it is and the more it frosts. Therefore, heavily frosted glass is generally more valuable. Often 20th century glass will have some shiny spots on the frost, which helps determine age and value as well.

Other characteristics used to determine value include rarity, thickness, shape and individuality.

Thicker, well-frosted glass is more valuable than the newer, thinner types of glass. Glass with unique markings or embossing is valuable because it helps to establish the provenance.

Distinctive shapes were produced by bonfire glass, glass bubbles and buttons as well as specific parts of a bottle (necks, bottoms, etc.). Some unique features may set the sea glass apart from other pieces and make it more valuable. Marbles and bottle stoppers for example.

All of these characteristics and factors are included in the process of determining a final value for the sea glass. Of course, sea glass is more valuable when there are no blemishes and it appears flawless.

Sea glass is a timeless treasure. It’s journey likely began decades before it was found, and in the process was transformed from a cheap container to a beautiful gem. After all that time, the new jewel washes onto a shore and waits for you to discover it again.




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