Sea Glass

Throw an empty bottle into the ocean. In fifty years, it will become a jewel unlike any other.

Here’s a true confession: I have become completely addicted to the strangest sort of hobby. I’ve taken up sea-glass hunting and it’s permeated even my dreaming world.

Sea-glass hunting? I can hear your confusion from here. If you try to Google this, you might find a few insightful sites, but I’ll try to explain this as eloquently and as interestingly as possible.

Glass is not a new material for man. Some folks date glass back to the Bronze Age; some mark the use of glass to early Egyptians. Regardless, it’s been around for a long time and has increased in usage as man has moved forward through the centuries, especially the last few. Glass is just one of many materials that has found its way into open waters.

Picture this: A ship crashes off the coast of North Carolina sometime around the turn of the twentieth century and all of her cargo goes down into the Atlantic. Dishes, boxes, bottles, wood, nails, the very guts of the ship, and even humans — it’s all consumed by the sea. Over time, storms churn up the Atlantic and the landscape changes.

Insert yourself into the story here. You’re walking down the beach in South Nags Head and something in the sand catches your eye. It’s strange looking so you pick it up. In your hand, it’s smooth like a pebble, obviously worn by the water and sand. The color strikes you — it’s a wonderful dark green color. What is this?

That, my friend, is a piece of sea glass. Mother Nature has taken trash dumped into her belly and regurgitated a beautiful glass pearl.

Take any scenario, though. The sea glass in your hand could be a part of an old Coca-Cola bottle thrown over board into the Chincoteague Bay by a waterman in 1969. Or maybe a tumbled shard of champagne bottle that was broken over the bow of a new boat at an upscale Chesapeake marina. Maybe that piece is from the discarded windshield of a Chevy thrown overboard on a boat dumping trash in the open sea off the shores of Ocean City, Maryland. Or maybe that glass is from a window of a home that was washed into the sea by a hurricane down in Florida. There are a hundred possible reasons for glass to end up in the ocean and there are thousands of places to find these curiosities.

Sea glass varies in color. The most common are the white frosted ones that were once clear as well as shades of green and brown due to their popular usage for soda and beer. More rare are the reds and blues. Red was once used for Schlitz beer back in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Blue was a popular color for medicine bottles back when our grandparents and great-grandparents were young men and women. There are many colors — lavender, pink, yellow, teal, gray, and my favorite one is a gentle sea-foam green.

Sea glass is like snowflakes — no two are the same shape and size. There are ovals, rectangles, and many variations on the triangle. The texture is reminiscent of river rocks or the marble on an old grave marker. It’s just beautiful stuff.

I discovered this little hobby while vacationing last summer in Nags Head, North Carolina. My mother and I walked into a quaint little store in Duck, North Carolina, and there in a jewelry case was a strange necklace. The label said it was “sea glass.” Immediately, the nerd in me who loves antiques and old newspapers stopped dead in her tracks. It was a large piece of soft green glass wrapped in silver twine on a silver chain. The label said that the glass most likely came from a Coke or Pepsi bottle and that the unique shape and texture and size were a result of spending an unknown amount of time tumbling around in the Atlantic. I didn’t buy it because it was only my first day of vacation, but it didn’t leave my mind.

The next day, I was rifling through a bookstore in another quaint town called Manteo. I stumbled across this book called Pure Sea Glass by Richard LaMotte. The pictures in it were stunning and I recalled the beautiful necklace I had seen the day before. I bought the book and nearly read it cover to cover on the ride back to the beach house.

And you guessed it. As soon as I got back to the house, I ran to the beach like a child running to the surf. I just knew it had to be everywhere. Wrong. It’s not so easy to find sea glass. But after a good half hour of hunting with my face close to the sand dunes, I found a small shard of green sea glass. I was beyond ecstatic! This was the most amazing thing I’d ever found! It looked just like the pictures in the book only my first piece was much smaller. It didn’t matter how big or small — I was enthralled with this new hobby.

I ran back into the beach house to find my mom, to show her that sea glass did indeed exist. She marveled at the little thing in my hand and smiled, “Baby, you’re such a nerd.” (But she said it so lovingly, you know.) I kept at it over the next few days. I found a brown piece and two white pieces. After that, I was completely hooked and I even got my mom into it.

If this sounds humdrum to you, then feel free to write me off as a nerd. But let me tell you why this is not boring.

Any moment spent walking on a beach is not humdrum. Feeling the warmth of the sun on your face and smelling that salty air… listening to waves crash again and again and again… the feel of the sand between your toes… then suddenly finding a small piece of colored glass tumbled by the waters. You pick it up. The texture is so soft that you can’t believe it is glass. You wonder what it once belonged to. You wonder how the whole of it was broken. How long was it in the water? How long has it been lying on this beach? Where are the other pieces?

Then your mind creates the dramatic scene of a ship crashing, floundering in the breakers. This bottle was in the ship’s hold that broke wide open. Or maybe you just picture a drunken fisherman tossing his Heineken bottle overboard before reaching for another. You get to choose: sea glass very rarely reveals its past or its origin.

As a lover of my native Eastern Shore, this hobby speaks to the conservationist in me. I am always feeling as though what I truly love about my home is slipping away. Condos are rising up everywhere I turn; big name stores are cropping up in the strangest of places; yachts are occupying slips where old crabbing boats used to spend the evening. It’s strange and sad for me.

So while walking the beaches of Assateague Island or plundering the marshes of Somerset County, I take quiet delight in finding little reminders how we used to be. I look out over the water, holding onto a piece of tumbled sea glass, and I let my mind run wild with the possibilities.

On a recent excursion on the Chincoteague Bay, I found my first piece of blue sea glass. Because it’s so rare, I never expected to see it. When my eyes caught it, I figured it was a piece of plastic. But when I realized what it was, I nearly came out of my skin with excitement! Maybe this belonged to an old Pepsodent bottle or maybe a bottle of poison. I got goose bumps. Really.

Maybe this is just a hobby of collecting trash that’s washed ashore. I hate to think of it in those exacting terms. Sea glass hunting feels more like treasure hunting to me. You never know what you’ll find but the anticipation is always great. In my dreams, I wander beaches in search of smooth red and blue and dark green pebbles, smooth to the touch and full of mystery. Last night, as I slept, a little girl handed me a lavender glass stone.

And I’m not the only one who sees the beauty in sea glass. On my last day of vacation last summer, I went back to that store in Duck and bought that necklace. Each time I wear it, I get several compliments. One lady almost tried to buy it right off my neck. It’s just beautiful stuff.

I guess it just goes to show that one man’s trash is definitely this girl’s treasure.

Article © 2005 by Stephanie Fowler