The World of Sea Glass
How does the ocean transform ordinary bottles and plates into gemlike wonders? And why do we love sea glass so?
Photograph by Tina Lam
Excerpted from Sea Glass Hunter’s Handbook, By C.S. Lambert; Down East Books, Camden; hardcover; 96 pages; $14.95
The world of sea glass is bigger than you think. People all over the world collect it, there are dozens of Web sites dedicated to it, and international conventions are devoted entirely to finding and identifying it. There is something about these shards of glass and ceramic that have been kicked around by the tides that captures the imagination. Maybe it’s the way that nature takes something mundane, like a broken bottle, and turns it into something beautiful. Maybe it is the connection to the past. Maybe it’s the immediate associations sea glass brings of time by the ocean, the waves, the salty smell of brine. Whatever the reason, sea glass is a thriving and colorful subject to explore.
What Is Sea Glass?
Sea glass is fragments of indeterminate glass and ceramic objects that have been in oceans or rivers for incalculable amounts of time and reasons, have taken on the scars of their untold voyages, and have washed up on beaches everywhere. Some collectors consider them more precious than gemstones. Others find a trajectory into history. Sea glass may be appreciated for its singular beauty or dismissed as litter. This is why I love it so much.
Art x Nature = Sea Glass
Art is subjective. Sometimes the evolution of an idea to a finished work belongs solely to the artist. Sometimes it results from collaboration. Sometimes no one, including the artist, knows how the finished work got there in the first place. Most would have to agree that it is considered art to someone.
But sea glass is art on its own terms. It is complex and simple, fragile but sturdy at the same time. Some have color where there seems to be none. Some shine as prisms and others are opaque. Some are considered valueless, others priceless.
When these fragments emerge on a beach somewhere, each is as unique as a fingerprint.
A Beachcomber’s Lexicon
One might ask when the term “sea glass” was first used. Well, if Geoffrey Chaucer ever mentioned sea glass, the Oxford English Dictionary didn’t pick up on it.
In the meantime, definitions of sea glass and related words keep cropping up and merging with other expressions. “Sea glass” has its own following, but “beach glass” lobbyists are equally adamant. Are sea glass and beach glass actually the same thing?
The short answer is, it’s hard to say.
Here are some terms and definitions that might clarify or confuse beachcombers of any level of expertise.
combinations of colored glass.
a maker’s name or identifying mark, sometimes including approximate date of manufacture.
same as sea glass; alternative definition: glass that washed up on riverbanks; glass with little or no hydration.
most popular china pattern in the history of dinnerware; made by approximately 150 potters from thirteen countries; still manufactured today.
glass altered by campfire or dump fire, often entrapping sand or other small objects.
two colors fused together with intricate carved design.
oceanic trade route between the East and West.
a European style inspired by the East, which dominated art and design in the late seventeenth century.
stems or bowls, sometimes a whole pipe dating primarily from the 1500s to 1800s.
fragments that need to be thrown back in the ocean.
marble enclosed in a bottleneck instead of a cork, to seal in carbonation; made from the late 1800s to the early 1900s.
seaglunker, treasurer hunter, mudlark, oceanic archaeologist.
primarily sand, soda, lime.
sharp edges, shiny areas; need to be cast back into ocean for further cooking.
network of fine lines caused by a ceramic body and glaze expanding and contracting at different times.
glass decorated with facets that are cut or ground.
china or porcelain fragments of arms, legs, heads, etc. from dolls or statuettes.
flecked or swirled with another color, usually white; created by glass manufacturing workers with glass left over at the work day’s end.
rappelling, diving, searching at night with car headlights pointed at beach.
Fake or Faux
glass mechanically or chemically altered to resemble sea glass, also called fantasy glass.
art deco-inspired chinaware designed in 1936 by the Homer Laughlin China Company.
blurry design that results from cobalt oxide applied to a porous plate, and then fired.
tiny porcelain dolls, ranging from 1/2 inch to 5 1/2 inch, that were often given away as premiums.
monumental amounts of sea glass on several beaches throughout the world, all named “Glass Beach.”
colorful glass balls strung together on fishnets for buoyancy; not considered sea glass.
orange sea glass.
Homer Laughlin China Company
one of America’s largest china manufacturers; started in 1871.
process of disintegration where glass takes on a pocked, opaque surface when left in water for extended periods of time.
opaque pale green glass popular in the 1930s.
also called push-up, or dimple; solid or hollow indentation in bottle bottoms to create stability and extra strength.
mineral that introduces yellow, red, and purple to balance the naturally occurring blues and greens in clear glass; when the glass is exposed to sunlight, it turns to numerous shades of purple.
created in 1700s; bottom-of-the-line earthenware with surface design created by using tobacco juice, hops, stale wine, and urine.
scrap of fused, colored glass snapped off of blowpipe and discarded by ocean-side manufacturer.
molded designs in glass; an inexpensive version of cut glass.
Pure Sea Glass
book written by Richard LaMotte, known as the godfather of sea glass.
orange, red, turquoise, yellow, darkest green known as “black glass,” teal, gray.
Registration of Designs Act
not enforced in England until 1842; prior to that, illustrations could be used freely without acknowledging the artist; most commonly used artists included Jean-Antoine Watteau and Thomas Gainsborough.
whole or fragments of bottle bottoms; also can be square, rectangular, or oval
heraldry of reigning monarch given to endorse goods and services supplied to royal family.
fragment of rare piece of china, pottery, etc. that depicts pastoral images; the rarest includes a combination of land, sea, people, and/or animals.
aka mermaid’s tears, lucky tears, ocean glass, sand glass, and the less poetic, trash glass.
throwing glass or ceramic shards that are not cooked enough or are too new into the ocean in order to create sea glass for future generations.
ceramic fragments, aka sherds, chards, sea pottery, sea porcelain, sea china.
sometimes resemble doll fragments.
opaque glass, usually white, with a second color running through.
tiny dots applied to an engraved ceramic design to create the illusion of density or shading.
a heavy, nonporous pottery, such as crockery.
an event that usually brings an abundance of sea glass.
technique invented in mid-1700s whereby designs were engraved onto copper plates, transferred to paper, pressed onto soft-paste porcelain and pottery, and then fired to seal the surface.
Wrack Line, or Tidal Wrack
a line of jetsam parallel to the shore between the low and high tides.
philosophy for collectors. If you look for it you will not find it.